Monday, October 29, 2012

More general Observations on Pseudoscience

What is Pseudoscience ?

As I repeatedly have indicated, I think Acharya S's thesis by and large is pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a wide term, and I think I need to explain which particular problems apply to her work that make it qualify for membership in such an infamous category.

In the natural sciences, one surefire indication that something is a pseudoscience is lack of falsifiability. This means there is no imaginable evidence, no experimental result that could show it wrong. Once you can defend your theory with explanations like "god put the fossils there to test our faith", no evidence no matter how conclusive in favor of rejecting the hypothesis can trump such a 'powerful' explanation. (So, essentially, the better a theory can withstand contrary evidence, the worse it is.) 

Likewise, a theory that ascribes disease to undetectable demons is also unfalsifiable. Today, it is known that bacteria, viruses, prions, malnutrition and any number of other biological things (errors in DNA replication, for instance) cause disease. Of course, a proponent of the theory of demonic causes of disease can always retreat forever, without ever having to give up - positing that viruses and bacteria are, for instance, things under the influence of demons.

However, in physics, at first it could have taken really trivial things to trump relativity or quantum mechanics. And this is why experiments are carried out. By means of experiments, situations are created where an unexpected outcome would show that the model we use to explain a phenomenon is wrong. Since the first experiments passed, the margins GR and QM have needed to pass in experiments have become increasingly narrow.

Einstein's General Relativity has been tested multiple times in various ways. Physicists did not just find the theory an impressive intellectual achievement and accepted it for that reason, they looked for flaws in it.
If we observed things that violated GR, we would know it to be wrong. Minor apparent violations can of course be the results of mistaken measurements, badly calibrated devices, the influence of unaccounted for masses, etc. But that only goes so far, and repeated experiments with adjusted calibrations and identification of the potential outside influence can help reduce the amount of mistakes. As long as no major flaws repeatedly appear, the theory is accepted, unless there's major contenders that are roughly equally good.

Now, with history and historical linguistics and comparative religion and so on, we cannot (generally) carry out experiments. But there are other things - Occam's razor does apply if experimentation is available, but also when it is not. If we have two theories, one which posits a lost ancient world-wide high civilization and another which does not, and they both explain the same facts, we are compelled to favor the simpler one.

Of course, I am clear about my stance on Acharya's (wider) theory: I think it lacks in all three of falsifiability, fact and parsimony. The mythical Jesus bit of the theory I can accept, although I personally think a more evemerist position is the most parsimonious alternative, but I find the difference in parsimony sufficiently small to accept mythicist hypotheses as possible.

I do not consider the person of Jesus - if such a person did exist - particularly interesting. Clearly, the idea of Jesus' sermons and so on have influenced western thought on some matters, but likewise, a lot of people have justified claims by referring to Jesus without there being any similarity whatsoever between any documented statement purportedly made by Jesus - in our culture, he has become a nebulous concept often invoked by people willy-nilly and to justify quite opposite stances.

However, if Historical Jesus has been a failure with loads of mutually exclusive such Jesuses reconstructed - an argument she seems to consider sufficient to reject the idea of a Historical Jesus - Mythical Jesus does not seem to solve that conundrum much better. Is he an evemerism of a symbolic representation of the Sun? Is he the result of some Jewish cult getting high on mushrooms and somehow moving a 200 BCE martyr into the wrong period (EllegÄrd, iirc)? Is he a Middle Platonist celestial being (Doherty)? Is he a composite character of several historical characters (early Robert Price, apparently?)?

I am not saying these scholars' work is pseudoscience either, but if HJ not having come up with a unified reconstruction of Christ is evidence of it being a useless approach, why is not this criticism applied to MJ as well? But let us get back to differentiating pseudo-science from science.

GR, QM, Newtonian physics, the theory of transmission of disease by microbes, etc do not provide a universal way out that can be reapplied to any challenge they would encounter: they do not posit that God is distorting or ruining the evidence, or throwing spanners in the works. Nor are they like a conspiracy theory that interprets lack of evidence as proof of how powerful the conspiracy is, while anything that can be interpreted as evidence is interpreted as evidence in favor of the theory. If any of these had turned out not to account for the facts, it would have been rejected.

I do think Acharya S's theory suffers from having such a way out of tight spots. Any lack of evidence can be attributed to Christian destruction of evidence. Any disagreement with the consensus in a field can be attributed to people toeing the party line or buying into the conspiracy.

Further, the lack of methodology does not help even the tiniest bit at excluding false positives - evidence that does not really support the thesis, but can be contorted until it does. Any ancient building can be found to have lined up with some constellation or some remarkable astronomical event at some point. Throw a stick on the ground and it points to some past event in the skies. If we run into a three thousand year old building - basing the dating on all archaeological methods available, and someone posits that its age is five times that based purely on astrological reasons, how can such a claim be falsified? We must simply accept the rather less romantic idea here: buildings, due to their nature, will have lines, which will point at things. Coincidences do happen. If all other evidence points at 1000BCE, using an unfalsifiable piece of evidence to adjust the dating back to 4000BCE is not justifiable.

Any word that by accident happens to look like it could be made a convincing argument gets hit by her etymologizing. Why are so many such significant etymologies only present in English? This is, I think, a rather significant proof that our brains' ability to match patterns is too powerful: we see them even where there are none. Examples of these are legio in her books. I have already provided some samples in the blog, and in the drafts folder there's a huge bunch of other ones that soon will be published here.

At multiple places throughout her oeuvre, she makes a big point out of how much evidence has been destroyed. This is of course true - wars, book-burnings and even the economics of paper in medieval times has contributed to the loss of books over time. We know books that have not been problematic for the establishment have been lost as well.

As anyone can understand, this does not, however, constitute proof that those books contained whatever we or she wants them to contain.
We can only wonder at the contents of the millions of books that have been destroyed globally. We can also attempt to theorize what they contained, in an effort to reconstruct the ancient world to as accurate a degree as is possible, instead of relying on the propaganda promulgated since.
Yes, we can theorize - to some extent - what lost books contained. When it is done unbridled, we can make any claim we want to. Acharya S does not go so far as to explicitly state that lost literature would back her up if it did exist, but that is the only justification there can be for including such a point. When their assumed content is both part of her model, as well as evidence in favor of that model, it has already become a circular argument. It seems this, to her, also has the added bonus of getting around falsifiability.

A reconstruction of such a book, or even of the main traits of a whole library needs supporting evidence. Until that is provided - and the evidence given in support doesn't rely on that which it is given as evidence for - can we really accept such a reconstruction? With ancient, lost books, by and large the only reasonable approach a lot of the time is accepting that we simply cannot know. Using lost books as evidence is misguided.

These are but minor problems with her research, though. She repeatedly misunderstands evidence. She repeatedly presents unverifiable evidence. These points are important: with these problems, her works lack credibility.

And these, in my view, are such major problems that they cannot be overlooked. If someone that claims to be a linguist fails to check whether words she claims as evidence even exist, denies the standard Indo-European migrations models without providing any real argument against it (or rather, she justifies it just by accusing it of being colonialist and racist), ... can we really assign any credibility to such a scholar? Her fans say yes, we can. It seems no matter how many flawed claims she makes, she still is right in their eyes.

What further makes the rejection of mainstream theories in Indo-European linguistics so interesting is that she accepts a stance almost entirely advocated by people with an EVEMERIST view of the Rig Veda, where the Rig Vedan accounts of very early Indian history is taken for accurate and true. Considering the amount of sneer aimed at evemerism in her oeuvre, I find this surprising.

However, this became somewhat rambling as far as posts go, and I should probably conclude it before it gets too unwieldily rambling. I do think the problems I point out here - problems any reader investing the time to actually learn about the relevant fields will realize are genuine problems for her theory - are sufficient to show that Suns of God and The Christ Conspiracy both are best considered pseudoscientific works.

This post only sets out the roadmap to demonstrating whether her works are pseudoscience or not. I do not consider this post a sample of evidence of her works being such - but rather explaining what problems I see in her work and how the things I point out in this blog add up to the conclusion that she peddles pseudoscience. I will set out to demonstrate by a thorough investigation of her books, amply quoting and providing sources from the relevant fields. This post also set out to explain why I think showcasing these problems in her work is sufficient to reject her arguments. 

No comments:

Post a Comment