On the Fringe | Courtney King Walker

Summary of: On the Fringe
By: Courtney King Walker


Delve into the world of pseudosciences in ‘On the Fringe’ by Courtney King Walker, where the author explores the evolution and impact of scientific theories that were once widely accepted but have since been debunked or marginalized. From vestigial sciences, such as astrology and alchemy, to contemporary pseudosciences, this book summary provides an insightful look into the dynamics of science and its relationship with society, culture, politics, and human psychology. As you go through this book summary, you will gain an understanding of the importance of demarcation and the persistence of pseudosciences in the scientific community.

The Demarcation Problem

The concept of scientific criteria, known as the demarcation problem, has been debated for centuries. The fifth-century BCE Greek physician Hippocrates questioned faith-healers and quacks, while the twentieth-century philosopher Karl Popper defined falsifiability as a criterion for science. However, this criterion is limited, as natural sciences like geology and cosmology cannot be falsified. The question of demarcation is crucial in determining the validity of practices like creation science. Even though Popper’s demarcation criterion was once a legal doctrine, it was altered to a less rigid standard by Judge John E. Jones III in 2005. The best way to understand pseudoscience is to group them into loose categories, as they are as diverse as science itself. The demarcation criteria are imperfect, and debates about what counts as pseudoscience are inevitable.

The Evolution of Science

Science is an ever-evolving field, with new discoveries and advancements continuously changing our understanding of the world around us. What was once considered cutting-edge science can quickly become outdated and inaccurate. These discarded doctrines are known as vestigial sciences, and many of them were once held up as legitimate science. While some, like alchemy and astrology, are now recognized as pseudosciences, they were once respected and even subsidized by wealthy patrons. The process of fringing and falling out of fashion is gradual, and those who cling to these outdated beliefs find themselves on the fringes of the scientific mainstream.

The Politics of Science

Science is not immune to political influence. Throughout history, scientific doctrines have been hyperpoliticized to serve a particular political ideology. Hitler’s Germany employed physiology, genetics, medicine, and anthropology to support Nazi racial policies, leading to the mass genocide of millions of Jewish people, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, and people with disabilities. Similarly, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, agronomist Trofim Lysenko’s “vernalization” theory, which rejected classical Mendelian genetics, became the dominant and only valid science of heredity, while classical genetics was labelled as pseudoscience. Even the United States promoted eugenics policies disguised as scientific during the 20th century, leading to twenty thousand forced sterilisations based on race and class biases. The lesson is clear: even science has the potential to be politicized. We must remain vigilant and mindful of political influence on scientific doctrines to prevent the catastrophic consequences that result from pseudosciences serving particular political agendas.

Counterestablishment Sciences

The world is full of counterestablishment sciences that position themselves against the mainstream contemporary science. Unlike vestigial sciences or hyperpolitical sciences, counterestablishment sciences, such as belief in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, are deemed pseudoscientific from their outset. However, adherents of these sciences believe they are defenders of the truth.

One such movement, known as UFOlogy, gained extensive following after two incidents in 1947 when government cover-ups were suspected. Similar to alien visitation claims, flat-Earth theories have gained widespread prominence in recent years, despite substantial disagreements within the movement. Flat-Earth advocates believe that the flat model of the world is a revival of medievalism; however, this false idea was promoted by Washington Irving in the nineteenth century. It’s important to note that the notion that Earth is spherical has been around since at least the early fourth century BCE. Embracing truth and rejecting pseudoscience should always be our priority.

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