Evolution 350.003
Fall 2003
R. T. Dillon         

Assignment - Pseudoscience in Mapping Human History

Science is the construction of testable hypotheses about the natural world.  Psychology, sociology, and anthropology are not sciences (for example), since their subject matter (humanity itself) is by definition not natural.  But the scientific method can be applied to the entire range of human inquiry, from curing human disease to predicting consumer choice of deodorant.  Any statement that is testable, verifiable, or falsifiable; any statement that is predictive or that can be rejected, is a scientific statement.

This semester we will be examining Mapping Human History by Steve Olson (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).  The book has two alternate subtitles - the one on the external cover reads, Genes, Race and Our Common Origins, and the one inside reads, Discovering the Past Through our Genes.  The purpose stated in the introduction is to “explore what our genetic history tells us about ourselves" (p. 6).  The conclusion is that “Our DNA is too tightly interconnected to use biology to justify what are essentially social distinctions" (p 237).  Regardless of which of these two objectives one takes as primary, this book is not a work of science, but rather a philosophical or sociological review.

However, Mr. Olson has incorporated (or attempted to incorporate) the scientific method into his work.  The text includes many statements that are verifiable or falsifiable.  Some fraction of these statements are clearly true, and some are clearly false.  But notice that a statement need not be true to be scientific.  It need only be testable.

Pseudoscience is the use of the scientific method to mislead.  Pseudoscience is generally encountered in works designed to promote non-scientific purposes, as for example, the sale of nonprescription drugs or dietary supplements.  Evolutionary biologists often encounter pseudoscience in the literature of “creationism,” which is designed to advance a peculiar religious dogma.

Apparently to advance a sociopolitical agenda, Mr Olson has included hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pseudoscientific statements in Mapping Human History.  Your assignment is to extract ten statements from Olson’s book and explain (in no more than a couple sentences) why each statement is pseudoscientific.  This will be due Thursday, October 16, and will be worth 50 points on your final grade.

You will receive little credit for selecting statements that were not intended by their author to be scientific.  Nor will you receive credit for selecting statements that are testable, regardless of how unlikely they are to be true.  Your assignment is to identify sentences that appear to have been offered as scientific, but are not.   I am challenging you to judge the author’s motives, which can only be discovered by thoughtful examination of the context in which each sentence resides.

See the box below for an example of the thought process involved in this exercise.
More about Steve Olson and his book can be found on the CofC Convocation Page.

Paragraph #1, Mapping Human History, by Steve Olson

“Anyone walking along the sidewalk of a large city can’t help but be struck by the incredible variety of human beings...”
 Not intended to be scientific.  The phrase “can’t help but be struck” is obviously colloquial.

“Some have skin the color of heavy cream...”
 Scientific.  There are color charts which could be used to verify this statement.

“The shapes of people’s faces are ... unique.”
Scientific.  It is possible to imagine, given unlimited time and resources, a digital survey of all the faces of all the people living on earth.  Such a study is not practical, of course, but scientific logistics are not important for our purposes here.

“Partly we’re attuned to these differences because we use them to identify people we know.”
Not intended to be scientific - an opinion regarding common human motives.

“But our diversity is not an illusion.”
 Not intended to be scientific - rhetorical device of a flamboyant sort.

“Human beings really are one of the most physically varied species on earth.”
Pseudoscience.  This statement takes the form of a testable hypothesis, but the degree or amount of physical variation is not measurable across species.  Even with unlimited time and resources, physical variation within a population of red oak (for example) is not comparable to variation within a population of humans.  This pseudoscientific statement was probably written to advance the generalizations regarding racism that follow in the next four paragraphs.

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