August 29, 2011
To be posted on


Michael Shermer
Scientific American
415 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10017-1111

Dear Michael Shermer:
I was pleased by your recent article. (Michael Shermer What is Pseudoscience? SCIENTIFIC AMERICA vol. 305 no. 3 September, 2011 page 92) I had come to dread reading your column.  Honestly I had thought, “This is no quest for truth.  This is a cardboard cutout of a person ranting dogma.” [ed. note: I had aready posted this letter when the copy I had mailed to him was returned, so I immediatley emailed the letter. I was happy to receive a prompt and courteous reply in which Dr. Shermer mildly inquired just when he had sounded like a cardboard cutout. I looked through my records and found no such article by him. So I retract the statement and deeply apologize. The following remarks on how much I liked this recent article, however, stand. 9/14/2011] 

That I cannot say about your most recent.  It is reflection from a real person.  I have never known anybody to accomplish that change before. [ed. note: assuming any change was desirable of course.] Well done.

Having offered my admiration, I hate to quibble with your definition of true science, but I shall.  You offer a sort of a check lest.  Does the idea

  1. generate interest
  2. produce new lines of research (I presume that means among other scientists)
  3. lead to new discoveries
  4. influence existing paradigms etc.


If none of the above, then it is not science.  So here is a theory.  If you take 1,000 human beings and let their numbers rise and stay above 1,000 for 10 generations – fertility permitting – you will have a profound fertility crash.  The evidence is in an article taken from a study of Iceland genealogies.  (An Association Between Kinship And Fertility of Human Couples.  Agnar Helgason, Snaebjoern Palsson, Daniel F. Guobjartsson, Pordur Kristjansson and Karl Stefanson, SCIENCE vol. 329 8 February 2008 page 813)

The theory antedates the publication.  Indeed I had been begging people to do such a study without any effect.  When the study was completed I felt vindicated, although the study itself does not predict such a profound and abrupt drop as I have other evidence for.

Had I been heeded, then I should claim to be a scientist by your definition.  If indeed I was heeded, if I was influential in making it happen, nobody has so far let me know.  So let us assume that I had no influence.

In that case what I have done is, by your definition, pseudoscience.  But it might be science and I not know. 

Consider a person who decides to study the effect of memory suppressing drugs on woodpeckers.  So he puts a woodpecker into his Skinner box and the bird proceeds to destroy the mechanism.  It would be very expensive to build a sufficiently robust device that could stand up to the woodpecker, so he uses pigeons instead.  I would say he was doing real science even though he had no impact and made no contribution. 

The thing is that your definition comes only after the fact.  So I shall probably stick with the falsifiability definition: it is science only if it is liable to disproof but has not yet been disproved.  (Everything gets disproved eventually.  Yes, I know that’s not falsifiable.  So let’s say the half life of a scientific “fact” is thirty years.)  I pass according to that definition, even if Freud, string theory, studies of consciousness, grand economic models (Ouch.  I have one.  My economic model is that when there are no longer any people, nothing will be worth anything on the market.), and notions of intelligent extraterrestrials all fail. 

But I acknowledge your authentic attempt to come to grips with a difficult subject, and as such I found it valuable, maybe even paradigm changing. 


M. Linton Herbert MD

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