Pseudo-scholarship

I have recently read a couple of excellent books, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and Paranormality by Professor Richard Wiseman. I would recommend them to anyone with an intelligent and questioning mind. It’s great to read something rational after spending so much time arguing against a liúdramán like Daniel Cassidy. Inspired by Goldacre’s work on debunking the nonsense of alternative medicine and Wiseman’s treatment of the paranormal, I took a look at the article on Pseudoscience on Wikipedia. While Cassidy’s book How The Irish Invented Slang does not pretend to be science, it does pretend to be scholarship, and many of the characteristics of pseudoscience as given in the article (and in the two excellent books by Goldacre and Wiseman) are certainly applicable to Cassidy’s nonsense. Here are just a few of them:

Failure to make reasonable use of the principle of parsimony, i.e. failing to seek an explanation that requires the fewest possible additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible. Thus, where we have a choice between English chicken meaning coward coming from English chicken meaning bird or coming from an unattested Irish phrase téigh ar cheann, a sensible person would opt for the parsimonious choice, that chicken is the English word chicken. Not Cassidy, of course!

Use of obscurantist language, and use of apparently technical jargon in an effort to give the superficial trappings of science. Cassidy uses terms like ‘back-formation’ and ‘macaronic’. He understands some of these terms but others like macaronic are not used correctly. (Cassidy thinks it means nonsense words – a macaronic song is really a song which uses two or more languages).

Lack of boundary conditions: Most well-supported scientific theories possess well-articulated limitations under which the predicted phenomena do and do not apply. This is also clearly a problem in Cassidy’s work. Where there is no satisfactory candidate in Irish, Cassidy takes words from Scots Gaelic. Where words are found in English centuries before the Mayflower, they are still included in Cassidy’s book, in spite of the fact that it claims to be an examination of Irish influence on American slang.

Lack of effective controls, such as placebo and double-blind, in experimental design. This is more applicable to hard science but it is still relevant to Cassidy’s work to some extent. As I have said before, you could make a list of Cassidy’s ‘Irish’ phrases and give them to some Irish speakers to see what they make of ‘uí bhfolaíocht án’ or ‘sách úr’ or ‘béal ónna’. If they failed to take the same meaning as Cassidy from them, or if they refused to recognise them as Irish (which they would), then Cassidy’s ‘research’ would have failed the test.

Lack of understanding of basic and established principles of physics and engineering. Cassidy was clearly completely clueless about linguistics, phonetics and Irish grammar, which are the subjects of this book.

Presentation of data that seems to support its claims while suppressing or refusing to consider data that conflict with its claims. This is an example of selection bias, a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected. It is sometimes referred to as the selection effect. In other words, cherry-picking what confirms your argument rather than looking for evidence which might falsify your argument. Cassidy was a past master of this.

Reversed burden of proof: In science, the burden of proof rests on those making a claim, not on the critic. “Pseudoscientific” arguments may neglect this principle and demand that skeptics demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a claim (e.g. an assertion regarding the efficacy of a novel therapeutic technique) is false. It is essentially impossible to prove a universal negative, so this tactic incorrectly places the burden of proof on the skeptic rather than the claimant. This is very important. Many of Cassidy’s supporters seem to think that sensible people should waste their time disproving his arguments. Of course, the burden of proof is on Cassidy and his supporters. If they think an Irish word beathuis is the origin of booze, then they should find an example in Irish of beathuis being used to mean alcohol. It is not up to critics to prove that the word beathuis DOESN’T exist (and ultimately we couldn’t do this anyway until every last manuscript in Irish has been transcribed and made available on line). 

Personalization of issues. Tight social groups and authoritarian personality, suppression of dissent, and groupthink can enhance the adoption of beliefs that have no rational basis. In attempting to confirm their beliefs, the group tends to identify their critics as enemies.  Cassidy seems to have been a charmer and had many friends and supporters (including academics who should have known better) who have boosted his work in spite of its intrinsic lack of merit. Others have taken to his work because they believe (erroneously) that it puts them in touch with their Irish roots and can’t bear to admit to themselves that the fact that their granny used the expression ‘the bee’s knees’ doesn’t automatically make them part of a bilingual Irish-American subculture.

Assertion of claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress the results. Cassidy routinely claimed that overpaid academics and the ‘dictionary dudes’ from the OED had it in for him and that the linguistic community were determined to exclude all references to the Irish language from the dictionaries. This is nonsense. While there is possibly a slight subconscious bias against Irish in documents like the OED and there is almost certainly a practical bias caused by the fact that relatively few people are competent in Irish compared to other languages like French or Dutch, the idea of an academic conspiracy against Irish and against Cassidy’s work is just a smokescreen to protect him from criticism.

Attacking the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims (see Ad hominem fallacy). Cassidy and his supporters have attacked people like Grant Barrett and anyone else who criticised this idiotic book. Strangely, I have had very little direct criticism, probably because I actually speak Irish and am not an easy target.

 

So, buy Bad Science and Paranormality and read them. And if you have a copy of How The Irish Invented Slang, do the human race a favour and put it in the recycling bin.

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