What movie theories teach us about science vs. pseudoscience

Movie theories are lots of fun. I thoroughly enjoy to contemplating and debating novel ideas like the notion that all Pixar movies are connected or that the Joker was actually the hero of Dark Knight, but in addition to being fun, I think that movie theories provide an excellent illustration of the demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Therefore, I am going to use them to try to explain one of the key differences between the two, and by so doing, I will provide you with a vital tool for identifying pseudoscience as well as simultaneously illustrating why science is such a powerful method for understanding our universe. I will conclude this post by applying the lessons from movie theories to one of the prominent pseudosciences of our day: creationism (everything that I am going to talk about also applies to ghost hunters, UFO spotters, Big Foot believers, and just about every other pseudoscience position you can think of).

jar jarThe idea for using movie theories as an illustration for pseudoscience occurred to me while reading the viral theory that Jar Jar Binks was actually the ultimate villain of Star Wars episodes I-III. Therefore, I will use it as my model throughout this post. If you don’t feel like reading the entire theory, it simply argues that Jar Jar was actually a powerful force user who was only playing the part of the fool in order to execute his master plan, and he was at the very least collaborating with Palpatine, and possibly even Palpatine’s master. For this post to make sense, you will probably need to have seen the Star Wars movies, but the vast majority of people have so that shouldn’t be a problem. If you haven’t seen them, what on earth is wrong with you? Go watch them right now, it’s more important than reading this blog post.

Note: when I say “movie theory” I am referring to the alternative explanations that are proposed after a film has been released. I am not referring to guesses about what will be in a movie that has yet to come out.

Use of the word “theory”
I want to briefly point out that movie “theories” are not theories in the scientific sense of the word. In science, a theory is an explanatory framework that has been rigorously tested and has been shown to have an extremely high predictive power (I’ll elaborate on that later). Movie “theories” by contrast are just explanations. There is no testing nor do they make predictions. Therefore, although I will continue to call them “movie theories” I want to be explicitly clear that they are not actually theories in the scientific use of the word.

Movie theories explain facts
The core distinction between science and the type of pseudoscience that is displayed in movie theories is the order in which knowledge is acquired and dealt with. Movie theories are inherently retrospective. People make them after a movie has been released and after all of the data are available. In other words, all that they do is explain the existing facts. In contrast, real science uses the existing data to make predictions about future data (more on that later).

At a quick glance, the ability to explain facts may seem like a good quality, but in isolation it is actually extremely problematic because there are often multiple ways to explain the same facts. For example, the Jar Jar theory explains Jar Jar’s jumping abilities by claiming that he is a force user, but when I watch him do a massive somersault, I explain that fact as simply being part of Gungans’ natural athletic abilities. After all, Gungans seem more closely related to amphibians than anything else, and amphibians are known for jumping abilities. Additionally, there are other non-Jedi species (like Wookies) who have extreme physical abilities.

Similarly, the Jar Jar theory proposes that Jar Jar’s seemingly clumsy moves are actually a form of martial art known as Zui Quan (aka Drunken Fist Wushu); whereas, I think that Lucas simply made a bad call and wrote an awkward, annoying character. The Jar Jar theory can support its position by trying to retroactively match Jar Jar’s moves with specific moves from Zui Quan, and I can support my position by citing numerous other movies that have had a bumbling idiot who accidentally saves the day. I can also bring up Lucas’s other recent blunders (dare I mention Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?).

So, which view is actually correct? I don’t know and neither do you, that’s the problem. Both views can retroactively bolster their position and try to make the available data fit their model. Both positions can offer an explanation for the data, but neither position can demonstrate with a high level of confidence that the other explanation is wrong.

Retroactively explaining data in this fashion also has an additional problem. Namely, in movie theories and pseudoscience, evidence and explanations often become intertwined and confused. Let’s think about the possibility of Jar Jar using Zui Quan again for a moment. Is that evidence for the overarching theory that Jar Jar was actually a force user, or is the theory that he was a force user the explanation for his clumsy behavior? There’s no clear answer to that question, and that is a huge problem, because if your evidence is also your explanation, then you are running a massive risk of a circular reasoning fallacy. In other words, the view is self-reinforcing, but for a good theory, you really want external validation rather than internal support.

There is another problem that is closely related to the last point. Whenever you are retroactively applying an explanation, it is always tempting to stitch together seemingly arbitrary or disconnected facts in order to make them fit your view (conspiracy theories are excellent at this). For example, the Jar Jar theory makes a big deal out of the fact that Palpatine and Jar Jar are both from the same planet and therefore (according to the theory) likely knew each other. That explanation, however, seems like quite a stretch given how large a planet is and the fact that Gungans and humans clearly did not get along or interact with each other. In other words, the fact that they are both from the same planet is a rather minor point which gets conflated into a major topic in order to make it fit with/support the overarching theory.

In the process of overemphasizing minor points, movie theories also have a tendency to break Occam’s razor. For example, at one point, the side of the bridge from which Jar Jar is falling switches, and the theory proposes that he force jumped. The more parsimonious explanation, however, is that it was simply an editing mistake. The Star Wars movies are full of editing mistakes. Therefore, it seems odd to latch onto this one mistake and elevate it as evidence of the Jar Jar theory, but that is exactly what happens when you rely on an overarching explanation rather than falsifiable predictions. This way of thinking causes you to view everything as evidence for your position, which is why it is so dangerous.

yodaFinally, because movie theories are inherently retroactive explanations, it is always possible to explain any evidence that anyone else cites. For example, I could argue that this theory doesn’t work because Jar Jar never would have gotten involved were in not for his chance encounter with Qui-Gon Jinn, but someone who subscribes to this theory could then propose that Jar Jar was a powerful enough force user that he could actually see into the future and not only knew that Qui-Gon would hide on a ship, but also knew which ship he would be on. You could even go as far as citing other instances where Jedi saw future events, as well as Obi-Wan’s comment that, “in my experience there is no such thing as luck.” Technically speaking, that explanation would be boarding on an ad hoc fallacy, but movie theories are by their very nature already ad hoc. In other words, because they are made after all of the data have been collected, they are deliberately designed to account for all of the data. This makes them inherently impossible to defeat because it is always possible to continue making more retrospective explanations in order to justify your original theory. To be clear, those explanations may not be logically valid, but it is still always possible to make them, which actually makes it impossible to disprove the theory (i.e., you can demonstrate that the view is logically invalid, but that doesn’t prove that it’s wrong [that would be a fallacy fallacy]).

In short, movie theories are problematic because all that they do is explain existing facts. When you read them, it is always tempting to say, “this theory is great because it explains everything,” but as I’ll elaborate on in a minute, explanatory power can actually be an extraordinary weakness, rather than a strength.

Science predicts future data
Up until now, I have only been talking about movie theories, but all of the problems that I raised exist within actual views about the real world, and these are problems which scientists and philosophers have wrestled with for a long time. This is, in fact, the very issue that Karl Popper dealt with in his seminal work Science as Falsification. While examining the various “scientific” views of his day, he realized that some of them were extremely problematic. For example, two dominant views in the field of psychology were those of Freud and Adler. Both of them were massive explanations, and both of them conflicted with each other. What Popper astutely realized, however, was that there was no real way to tell which view was correct. No matter what patient came into a psychologist’s office, both schools of thought could give a plausible explanation for the patient’s behavior.

This lead Popper to conclude that explanatory power was not enough to make something a valid scientific view, and in isolation, explanatory power was actually problematic because a view which was designed to be able to explain everything would be inherently untestable. Therefore, Popper proposed that real science should be falsifiable. In other words, real science should make predictions about future data which, if they don’t come true, will falsify the view. Thus, a scientific theory is judged based on its predictive power. In other words, a good theory should make numerous falsifiable predictions, and all of them should come true. The theory of gravity is a good example of this. It predicts that anytime that you drop an object, it should fall. This is a falsifiable prediction because, if you dropped a pen and it floated in mid air, the theory of gravity would be falsified, and we would reject it; however, the fact that objects consistently fall means that gravity’s predictions consistently come true, which means that we can be very confident that it is correct.

Falsifiability is a stark contrast to the logic of movie theories. They generally do not make predictions because they are only designed to explain facts. Further, although they do sometimes make predictions about sequels, they are generally not falsifiable predictions. This is a crucial point: the prediction has to run the risk of falsifying the view. For example, the Jar Jar theory predicts that Jar Jar will appear in Episode VII (perhaps even as Supreme Leader Snoke), but does that make the view falsifiable? No, it doesn’t, because if Jar Jar isn’t there, it could simply be that Abrams decided to go another direction, or that Jar Jar has died in the intervening years (after all, we don’t know the normal lifespan of a Gungan). In other words, you could easily explain his absence without rejecting the theory. Therefore, the prediction is not falsifiable and does not provide an adequate test of the theory.

Applying falsifiability to creationism
In the final section of this post, I want to apply everything that I have been talking about to one of the most blatant and prevalent forms of pseudoscience: creationism. If you read the creationists’ literature, they actually fully acknowledge that they are explaining rather than predicting, but they don’t see it as a problem, and they incorrectly think that real scientists are doing it as well. They seem to be stuck in a pre-Popper era in which science is judged by explanatory power rather than predicting power. They frequently insist that scientists and creationists have the same evidence, but they are just interpreting it differently. Does that sound familiar? In their flawed view, creationism is one explanation and evolution is another, and both camps “interpret” the data to fit their explanation, but neither one can really be demonstrated to be better than the other (just as it is impossible to actually determine which theory of a movie is correct). The reality is, however, quite a bit different.

Evolution is falsifiable, whereas creationism is not (with possible exceptions concerning the flood). You see, evolution does not not simply retroactively “interpret” the data; rather, it predicts the data beforehand. As I have previously explained, evolution predicted that we should find intermediate fossils, and today we have hundreds of them that are exactly like what evolution predicted decades earlier. To be clear, that was a falsifiable prediction. Darwin himself even said that if we never found any intermediates, evolution would be discredited, but we did find them, and that is why evolution is so powerful. A theory which can predict the existence of organisms that we have yet to discover is utterly incredible. Creationism, in contrast, can’t do that. It very clearly predicted that intermediates shouldn’t exist, so, every time that we find them, it simply changes its tune and claims that “those aren’t actually intermediates, God just created them to look exactly like what we would expect intermediates to look like.” Do you see the problem? Creationism isn’t falsifiable because you can always fall back on the “God did it” argument. To be clear, that response isn’t logically valid (it’s an ad hoc fallacy), but it is technically possible. Thus, creationism can’t be falsified.

Further, the predictive power of evolution goes far beyond intermediates. For example, it also predicted that the fossil record would show a clear and orderly progression, it predicted that genetics would agree with the fossil record, and it predicted that biogeographic patterns would match the patterns seen in genetics and the fossil record. All of these are falsifiable predictions, and all of them are predictions that really should only come true if evolution is actually true. If the fossil record turned out to be jumbled, and modern mammals, dinosaurs, and Precambrian invertebrates were all found in the same layers, that would completely shatter evolution. Similarly, if the fossils said that birds and mammals evolved from reptiles, reptiles from amphibians, and amphibians from fish, but the genetics said that birds were most closely related to fish, and mammals were most closely related to amphibians, that would have been devastating to the theory of evolution. The fact that evolution got all of those predictions right, however, allows us to be extraordinarily confident in it. In contrast, creationists are left shrugging their shoulders and saying, “God did it that way.”

Think about the difference between those two for a minute. Evolution made a series of extraordinary and extremely risky predictions in totally different fields, and if any one of those predictions had failed, evolution would have been falsified. In contrast, creationism either made no predictions, or got its predictions wrong, but none of those predictions were falsifiable, so it simply changed its interpretation. Which one of those sounds like a robust and reliable way to understand our universe?

Finally, just like our movie theories, creationism has a long history of latching onto minor points and exalting them as proof of their position. For example, creationists are fond of claiming that dragons were actually dinosaurs and all of the legends of dragons are actually evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together. Now, to anyone who wasn’t already convinced that creationism was true, that idea sounds laughably ridiculous. Ancient cultures are full of all sorts of legends that we don’t take literally, so why should we do so with dragons? Once again, this is the problem with applying a pre-existing explanation rather than making falsifiable predictions. If you have an explanation already in place, then you will view all of the evidence in a way that supports that explanation, even if that means making some truly imaginative leaps (technically, this argument is a question begging fallacy).

Conclusion
In summary, real science makes testable, falsifiable predictions. It does not simply retroactively apply a pre-existing explanation to the data. Rather, it predicts what the data should be before those data are collected. In contrast pseudoscience simply “interprets” data to fit its preconceived views, which often results in logical fallacies.

 

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7 Responses to What movie theories teach us about science vs. pseudoscience

  1. Aaron says:

    I’ve been a bit confused about the idea of ‘intermediate’ fossils bexasue they seem so precariously defined. What if two people imagine an ‘intermediate’ differently? Is there a more rigorous way to ensure a particular fossil is an intermediate rather than having certain ‘expected’ traits by coincidence?

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      An intermediate fossil is simply any fossil that is a transition between two groups. As such, most fossils are technically transitional fossils. Now having said that, when we say “transitional fossil” we are generally referring to something which is obviously in between two groups, such as an intermediate between a bird and a dinosaur. Now, let’s imagine two situations:

      In situation 1, we find fossils that are very clearly dinosaurs and don’t have any feathers or other bird-like features. We also find animals that are clearly modern birds. We don’t, however, find anything that has a combination of dinosaur and bird features.

      In situation 2: we find clear birds and clear dinosaurs, but we also find dinosaurs with feathers, birds with long bony tails, birds with bony beaks, etc.

      Situation 1 is what we should see if animals were specially created in unique “kinds,” whereas situation 2 is what evolution predicted, and situation 2 is exactly what we find.

      Now, maybe you had imagined the intermediate slightly differently than what we actually got, but when we have a fossil that clearly has half the features of the two groups that we expected to find intermediates between, it seems silly to call it anything else.

      Also, consider the fact that we don’t have “intermediates” between groups other than the ones that we expect to find intermediates between. We don’t for example, see anything with half the features of an amphibian and half the features of a bird, nor do we find fossils with half the traits of an amphibian and half the traits of a mammal, but we do find fossils with half the traits of an amphibian and half the traits of a fish (just as evolution predicted).

      Finally, realize that the position of these intermediate fossils matches evolution. For example, as we look at the fossil record, first we see creatures that are clearly dinosaurs, then dinosaurs with feathers show up, then we get intermediates that have half the features of a dinosaur and half the features of a bird, then finally we get creatures that are fully birds. If the intermediates had shown up after the actual birds or before the dinosaurs, they clearly wouldn’t be transitionals, but the fact that they appear exactly where they should suggests that they are in fact intermediates.

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  2. Paxo says:

    I would add some clarifications here. Firstly movie theories are not pseudoscience because they fail to fulfil one vital criteria for pseudoscience: the putative pseudoscientists have to claim to be doing science, although I appreciate you may not be claiming the movie scientists are pseudoscientists. No one of these armchair movie buffs is claiming to be a scientist nor necessarily are ghost-hunters or bigfoot fans. “Pseudoscience” by any normal definition is not a synonym for “clunky thinking”. Thus many people accused of being engaging in pseudoscience aren’t, they are just bad thinkers or frauds. Creationists do claim to be scientists (well some of them) so they are fair game.

    The Jar Jar Binks argument is abduction.
    Some skilled martial artists look like clumsy oafs. Force users are skilled martial artists
    Jar Jar Binks is a clumsy oaf
    Therefore he is a skilled martial artist and force user.

    Abduction can be flawed as there is the risk of affirming the consequent yet it is a method of reasoning well used by scholars across of lot of disciplines e.g history but also geology, palaeontology etc. Sherlock Holmes of course, never deducted but abducted (Watson of course says in “A Study in Scarlet” that Holmes knew little of philosophy and to be fair Peirce coined the term after Holmes started his career and perhaps Peirce’s view of abduction changed ). Abduction is not certain and can be flawed as the blog observes (see Flashman and the Tiger for an example of Holmes amusingly getting it wrong) but it is not necessarily bad reasoning in the absence of experiment. Peirce suggested it was a mode of reasoning used by scientist (I use it a lot of the time, as MUST the author of this blog) so it seems ill suited as a defining feature of pseudoscience. I used it this morning in abducting that it had rained last night because my clothes on the washing line were still wet. Of course it is possible that that someone sprayed water over my garden but… I might use abduction again in interpreting a graph.

    The article seems to be hinting that true science is about pure falsification which would go against the experience of most scientists and historians of science who would point out we
    a) sometimes confirm hypotheses
    b) modify hypotheses.
    Falsification is great but it does not reflect everything we do. If we rigidly followed falsification we would have rejected the inverse square rule and never discovered Neptune, for example.

    Also, and I am no young earth creationist, biologists themselves make lots of ad-hoc evolutionary arguments all the time to explain all sorts of stuff. We even have a name for it “just so stories”. My point is scientists have all the same bad habits as young earth creationists the difference is just one of (perhaps a large) degree. Indeed some surveys have even suggested that scientists are worse at disconfirmation that protestant pastors!! I am not arguing that ad-hoc explanations for things are ideal (often they are really bad) but just that occasionally we use them and they can lead us out of cul de sacs.

    Distinguishing science and non-science is actually really difficult partially because what scientists do is so wide. This is why there is a large philosophical literature on the topic that goes beyond Popper. Plus Ultra.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think I should clarify/qualify a few points.

      First, I did not mean to suggest that movie theories are pseudoscience. As you correctly stated, to be pseudoscience, you have to be claiming to do science. I was merely trying to use movie theories as an illustration of the flawed type of reasoning that is involved in pseudoscience. I apologize if that distinction wasn’t clear.

      Similarly, I agree that most big foot believers are not pretending to be scientists; however, there are many big foot hunters who do in fact claim to be scientists, and I would classify those people as pseudoscientists.

      Second, its not the abduction that I am taking issue with, its the lack of falsifiability. We certainly use abduction constantly, and it is used in science as well, but proper science should use abduction to make a hypothesis/theory that has falsifiable predictions. In other words, you can use abduction as a reasoning tool, but to be valid science, the conclusion that you reach via abduction should make falsifiable predictions.

      Third, I agree that the philosophy of science is not a simple matter, and I fully acknowledge that my post presented an overly simplistic black-and-white view, and the reality is much more complicated. I was trying to explain one very important component of science which often differentiates it from pseudoscience, but I admit that I may have done a terrible job of doing so, and I appreciate your criticisms. I will note though, that although we often use confirmation and make modifications to views, real science should always have the potential to be falsified. In other words, each individual experiment doesn’t need to be falsifiable, but the over arching explanation that you are working on should have the potential to be discredited.

      Forth, I think that is is important to note that there is a big difference between an ad hoc explanation and an ad hoc fallacy. We certainly use the theory of evolution (and all theories) to make retroactive explanations of certain pieces of data. That’s really the point of having theories: they provide an explanatory framework. However, the theory itself is based on evidence rather than ad hoc reasoning. In other words, the situation is generally not one of finding facts that conflict with a theory, then making ad hoc explanations to try to save the theory (that would be fallacious). Rather, the theory is well established, and therefore we use it as a tool, which sometimes produces ad hoc explanations of the unknown which can later be tested. In contrast, creationism is built on fallacies. There is no evidence to support it, and many pieces of evidence conflict with it, yet the evidence is manipulated to try to make it support the view because creationists started with the explination before looking at the data. That is very different from what happens in science.

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      • Paxo says:

        Good points all, But you can have perfectly good nay excellent science that does not involve falsification at all or even an hypothesis test. For example say I do an experiment to estimate the speed of light. Are you saying measurement is not part of real science? What about discovery of cells, penicillin etc. etc. ?

        Or perhaps an experiment to confirm general relativity for example by looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, that’s confirmation not falsification. Not finding background microwave radiation would not necessarily be a falsification of the idea of a big bang but finding is a confirmation and will get into Nature. I cannot really disprove bigfoot exists short of burning down all the forests in North America but proving bigfoot given a body would be simplicity itself. I cannot falsify the hypothesis T. rex was alive in the Eocene but I can confirm it. Most of the papers I have written in my career do not involve falsification of an hypothesis (except in a sense the null model of any statistical tests) but they are good science, I hope. Science is wonderfully diverse.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          I think I was unclear. I agree with you that in practice science often deals with confirmation rather than falsification, but the theory or concept itself has to be falsifiable. In other words, the specific experiment that you are doing does not have to have the potential of falsifying the hypothesis, theory, etc. that you are working on, but for that hypothesis, theory, etc. to be science, it should be possible to falsify it in some situation (just not necessarily the exact test you are currently doing).

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  3. Paxo says:

    Correction there should be quotes around “movie scientists”

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