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'Pseudo-science' can be distinguished from legitimate science by asking a series of questions about its goals and how it is practised, rather than whether it is a credible explanation of the natural world, according to an expert working group set up by the International Council for Science (ICSU).

Making this distinction, says the group, should also help to clarify how traditional knowledge, once it has been distinguished from 'pseudo-science', can strengthen modern science and contribute to a wide variety of sustainable development practices in areas that range from medicine to environmental management.

"There are many different ways of knowing and learning," says Jane Lubchenco, the incoming president of ICSU. "Traditional knowledge represents a different tradition from modern science. The challenge is to define it in a way that recognises its value and does justice to its tradition without giving credibility to pseudo-science such as creationism."

The working group was set up following concern over the endorsement of the contribution of traditional knowledge to modern science at the World Conference on Science, organised jointly by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and ICSU in Budapest in July 1999.

One of the two documents agreed at the end of the conference, the so-called Framework for Action, says that "governments should support cooperation between holders of traditional knowledge and scientists to explore the relationships between different knowledge systems and to foster interlinkages of mutual benefit."

When these conclusions were subsequently discussed at the general assembly of ICSU, concern was expressed that such knowledge, in the words of a resolution passed by the assembly, needed to be distinguished from "approaches that seek to promote anti-science and pseudo-science."

Such concern was prompted by, for example, the increasing popularity of so-called 'creationist' theories in the United States, whose supporters deny the legitimacy of Darwinian evolution on the grounds that it conflicts with the description of the creation of the world contained in the Bible.

In a bid to address this issue, ICSU set up a working group made up of sociologists, philosophers of science and experts in fields such as ethnobotany, and chaired by Jens Erik Fenstad, a Norwegian mathematician and former rector of the University of Oslo.

In its report, to be submitted to the next general assembly of ICSU in Rio de Janeiro at the end of September, the group points out that the interaction between science and traditional knowledge “must be kept distinct from issues of pseudo- and anti-science".

The group points out that early hopes of finding a sharp criterion that would unambiguously differentiate science and ‘pseudo-science’ have not been fulfilled, and are no longer entertained, largely because of a growing awareness of the extreme diversity of scientific practices.

As a result, it says, "the demarcation of science from pseudo-science can certainly not be achieved by a single universal criterion", as "what counts as good scientific practice in one scientific field may be outdated or even inappropriate in another scientific field".

However two main approaches present themselves, says the group. A sociological approach — which can, for example, be applied to creation science — reveals that "a pseudo-scientific field is always in more or less explicit competition with a corresponding science from its very birth, and it is typically not propounded by people with an education in the scientific field it is competing with."

But this approach alone cannot define ‘pseudo-science’, as even within the scientific community, minority views can challenge prevalent traditions without becoming unscientific. Additional evidence is therefore required.

Here it suggests using an epistemological approach — based on the intellectual content — under which science is characterised as being more systematic than comparable pieces of everyday knowledge.

This applied to six aspects of science: how it describes, how it explains, how it establishes claims about knowledge, that it has an ideal of completeness, how it expands knowledge and how it represents knowledge.

"In any area of science, the tendency to increase the systematicity of knowledge in all practically possible directions can be observed," says the panel. "In contrast, many of the pseudo-scientific fields are comparatively static." For example, it says, it is extremely rare for such fields to attempt a systematic assessment of their claims.

Demarcating ‘pseudo-science’ from traditional knowledge is fairly straight-forward, says the study group, as the latter is a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment.

"It has thus typically originated quite independently of science in a particular cultural setting, mostly also quite independently of Western culture," says the group. "Traditional knowledge is therefore neither intended to be in competition with science, nor is such a competition the necessary result of their interaction. Pseudo-science, on the other hand, tries at least partly to delegitimise existing bodies of scientific knowledge by gaining equal epistemological status."

The panel's report appears to have succeeded in avoiding a potentially damaging split with ICSU on the issue. "It is a useful report," says Sir Brian Heap, a plant physiologist and former foreign secretary of Britain's Royal Society, who was one of those who had expressed concern at an uncritical acceptance of the World Conference conclusions.

"I was particularly pleased to see that they have clarified the situation concerning traditional medicine, emphasising that we were not trying to exclude this from modern science. Indeed in some areas the report is quite scholarly."

Lubchenco emphasises the importance of integrating traditional knowledge into environmental management. "From my point of view the world needs as much good information as is available," she says.

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