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ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Pseudoscience and Science: Who Do You Listen To?


Read Richard’s current thoughts about transhumanism and related fringe topics here.

John Bruce via his “In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood” blog often critiques transhumanism, cryonics, and the Technological Singularity, among other topics. He suggests that these are quackery and pseudoscience. He is often critical of the writing of Glenn Reynolds, law professor, author, Instapundit blogger, and occasional columnist in newspapers like the New York Times. Reynolds has written positively about the Technological Singularity and related topics.

In his entry from Monday, April 10, 2006 entitled “A Little Perspective On This Transhumanism Stuff”, Bruce wrote that “I’m going to be talking more about this, but I want to be clear that the only reason I’m doing it is because Glenn Reynolds has become a major public figure, he’s advocating these very wacky views, and everyone is giving him a bye. This shouldn’t be happening.”

Bruce states that “I got started on this whole subject simply because Glenn Reynolds describes himself as a transhumanist, and in trying to find out what that belief system involves, I’ve gotten a bunch of transhumanists on my case.” A few transhumanists, cryonicists, and life-extensionists, including me, have responded to Bruce’s criticism with our own comments, in varying degrees of professionalism. In a more recent post, Bruce explained that he had found Technological Singularity listed as a pseudoscience on the Wikipedia “pseudoscience” entry. Sometime after his post, an anonymous public editor removed Technological Singularity from the pseudoscience list.

If Richard Hoagland wrote a column for the New York Times, I might myself be upset. How, then, does the public, many members of which have trouble distinguishing between pseudoscience and science, decide what is what in a world where science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact, where hoaxes and fraud continue to be a problem, and the number of ideas that can be misused in other contexts continues to multiply?

One approach is to listen to those who decry the idea in question with name-calling. Bruce describes transhumanists and other proponents of life extension, the Technological Singularity, and cryonics with phrases like “he’s nuts”, “wacko”, “raving moonbat” and “quacks.” Some of these proponents have responded by calling Bruce names in return. In comparison, Carl Sagan was respectful of those who believed in ancient civilizations on Mars and alien abductions in his book “The Demon-Haunted World.” Instead of calling these believers names, he examined their ideas and suggested alternative explanations grounded in science. He also suggested that these believers were demonstrating the curiosity and willingness to learn valued by science, but had simply been failed by an educational system that had drifted away from critical thought and a strong foundation in science, mathematics, grammar, and other subjects.

Another approach is to listen to negativity. Bruce sees danger. He warns that “This is part of the problem: people think of Glenn Reynolds as a cute little nerd who leans in the direction of head-freezing.” Other critics of transhumanism have labeled the philosophy the world’s most dangerous idea (registration required.) In comparison, transhumanism is a celebration of difference, of freedom, of critical thinking and reason, of logic, of science and technology, and of possibility. Transhumanists demand not that everyone be forced to use science and technology for personal enhancement but that everyone have the choice. Transhumanists include, respect, and protect the rights of those who do not wish to modify their bodies or minds.

Perhaps a better approach is to not listen to anyone in particular in the first place and to take the time to study the issues and come to your own conclusions. It is true that I believe the Technological Singularity is possible, that I am a transhumanist, that I am considering signing up for a cryonics plan, and that I have a great deal of hope for scientific and technological progress. It is also true that I am more critical of myself than anyone else could every claim to be. I will never allow myself to accept those ideas I listed above on faith. Instead, I will keep reading both sides of the debate, keep asking questions, encourage scientific attempts to falsify the related theories, keep insisting on a reality check, and generally keep my mind open yet critical.

There is much more to be said about the need to distinguish between pseudoscience and real science. Bruce has provided a fantastic opportunity for debate and a much needed view into criticism of transhumanism and related ideas, ideas that I will continue to explore here.

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