Insevere tests and pseudoscience

Against the PSI skeptics of this period (discussed in my last post), defenders of PSI would often erect means to take experimental results as success stories (e.g., if he failed to correctly predict the next card, maybe he was aiming at the second or third card). If the data could not be made to fit some ESP claim or other (e.g., through multiple end points) it might, as a last resort, be explained away as due to negative energy of nonbelievers (or being on the Carson show). They manage to get their ESP hypothesis H to “pass,” but the “test” had little or no capability of finding (uncovering, admitting) the falsity of H, even if H is false. (This is the basis for my term “Gellerization”.) In such cases, I would deny that the results afford any evidence for H. They are terrible evidence for H. Now any domain will have some terrible tests, but a field that routinely passes off terrible tests as success stories I would deem pseudoscientific. 

We get a kind of minimal requirement for a test result to afford any evidence of assertion H, however partial and approximate H may be:  If a hypothesis H is assured of having* “passed” a test T, even if H is false, then test T is a terrible test or no test at all.**

Far from trying to reveal flaws, it masks them or prevents them from being uncovered. No one would be impressed to learn their bank had passed a “stress test” if it turns out that the test had little or no chance of giving a failing score to any bank, regardless of its ability to survive a stressed economy. (Would they?)

There are a million different ways to flesh out the idea, and I welcome hearing others. Now you might say that no one would disagree with this. Great. Because a core requirement for an adequate account of inquiry, as I see it, is that it be able to capture this rationale for pretty terrible evidence and fairly pseudoscientific inquiry– and it should do so in such a way that affords a starting point for not-so-awful tests, and rather reliable learning.

* or very probably would have passed.

**QUESTION: I seek your input: which sounds better, or is more accurate: saying a test T passes a hypothesis H, or that a hypothesis H passes a test T? I’ve used both and want to settle on one.

Categories: Error Statistics, philosophy of science

Post navigation

5 thoughts on “Insevere tests and pseudoscience

  1. Corey

    I prefer “a hypothesis H passes a test T”.

    • Corey: Thanks, I think maybe that’s more natural, but I find myself using both and it could be confusing.

  2. john byrd

    Hypothesis H passes test T; or, if it is a severe test, survives test T.

    • Thanks John Byrd, so that settles it the h passes, not the test. Haven’t heard from you in a while, how’s forensics?

      • john byrd

        Forensics has been very busy lately. I am still following the blog very carefully. Thanks for asking.

Blog at