A common claim of mainstream skeptics is that people they believe are “pseudo-science advocates” regularly engage in anomaly hunting. Stephen Novella has championed this notion. The idea here is that uncritical thinkers attempt to disprove established consensus beliefs by actively looking for minor inconsistencies and unexplained behavior. The claim is that science does not do this. To these “skeptics”, instead of actively seeking out anomalies, science involves blindly stumbling into them.
I have never seen anyone explain why a scientist can’t actively look for an anomaly and why this magically makes him a pseudo-science practitioner. An anomaly is an anomaly regardless of how it is arrived at. For example, suppose a distinguished older scientist is well known for discovering a specific procedure. A younger scientist comes along claiming to have developed a superior procedure. Suppose the older scientist is driven by ego to obsessively test the new procedure and in doing so uncovers some serious anomalies. Suppose further that other scientists examine the work of both and conclude that the anomalies discovered by the older scientist are valid and therefore discredit the newer procedure. The older scientist’s behavior may be seen as negative and mean-spirited but it resulted in a new scientific understanding. This is science not pseudo-science as Novella and his followers would oddly seem to proclaim. Any pseudo-science it seems, is claiming that anomalies are scientific or not depending on how they were uncovered.
What we’re seeing here is a form of genetic fallacy, determining the veracity of something based on its origins rather than its actual validity. Science is gauged by how explanations are supported by facts, not by the process of how facts are uncovered.
Novella gives the example of the orbit of Mercury not being explainable by Newtonian physics as a true anomaly. Novella seems to be trying to argue that this was not an actual anomaly until it was thoroughly investigated. Technically that is true but it doesn’t take a lot of time and effort as Novella seems to imply. They would have checked their calculations and consulted with other scientists. They would have known that it was a true anomaly fairly quickly. They knew that this anomaly proved false the notion that Newtonian physics could explain planetary orbits.
Now anomaly hunting in pseudo-science is an actual thing. It’s just not as prevalent as some would believe. Novella gives the example of Richard Hoagland as such a case. I’m not well versed in Hoagland’s work so I’m not going to comment on how accurate Novella’s assessment is here. However, one area I have looked into is the notion of the elite reptilian alien conspiracy. I have a particular dislike for this particular conspiracy theory since it obfuscates the extremely important reality of powerful psychopathic-like elites who are in control of the world. At one time at least, a lot of the “evidence” for the elite reptilian alien conspiracy came from low resolution YouTube videos of famous people. Because of the low resolution, people in the videos show pixelation effects and other distortions. Like Hoagland’s fuzzy “evidence” getting eroded with NASA’s increasing resolution over time, the same thing is happening to the reptilian “evidence”. As Internet videos attain higher and higher resolution, “reptilian characteristics” get harder and harder to find. When you manage to look at a high resolution video, the “reptilian characteristics” are nowhere to be found.
On the flip side, mainstream “skeptics” often uncover “anomaly hunting” when it’s not really there. As someone skeptical of the official 9/11 story, I have often been accused of “anomaly hunting”. Steven Novella has himself accused me of anomaly hunting during our debate. Curiously, no explanation or evidence of this “anomaly hunting” is ever provided though. In my experience at least, accusations of anomaly hunting are always entirely unsupported pronouncements meant to be taken on faith. Like any other fallacy, they are cheap argumentative devices used when the person cannot rationally defend against an opponent’s position.
Personally, I think the notion of anomaly hunting is largely bogus. In science when an observation comes along that doesn’t fit the theory you are supposed to change the theory to accommodate the anomaly. People like Novella seem to believe discovering such anomalous observations involves specifically hunting for them, with phenomena he doesn’t want to accept at least. Whether a researcher uncovers anomalies by accident or by actively looking for them is irrelevant. What is relevant is if the anomalous observations are valid or not. What people like Novella are using this concept for is to divert attention away from the gargantuan flaws of their arguments. For “skeptics”, “Anomaly hunting” is a red herring.
Michael Fullerton is a software designer based in Vernon BC Canada. His writing explores and exposes pathological skepticism and the corporate pseudo-science it tends to serve. He also has an intense interest in organizational psychopathy, or how psychopaths rise up in organizational structures of all kinds. As a pantheist he strives to be part of the movement to unify spirituality and science.