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).
The 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.
Finally, 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).
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.