Philosophy of Science
Small Group Exercise: Science or Pseudo-science?
(From Ronald N. Giere, Understanding Scientific Reasoning (4th
ed.), Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997.)
"When Prophecy Fails"
As part of a study of the dynamics of
belief in groups, some social psychologists once infiltrated several small
cults. Among the groups observed was one led by a woman who was given
the fictitious name of Mrs. Marion Keech. The events described really
took place. Mrs. Keech claimed to have made contact with extraterrestrial
beings, and she regularly revealed to her followers what she claimed were
messages from her contacts. One day, she said that her contacts had
told her that they were going to destroy the world. She even gave a
specific day on which this was supposed to happen. These extraterrestrial
beings also told her, she claimed, that they would rescue her, and anyone
else who wished to be saved, if they would wait at a designated location.
On the appointed day, Mrs. Keech and her followers were at the designated
place. The day wore on, but the world did not end. Finally, Mrs.
Keech informed her followers that she had received a telepathic message from
her contacts informing her that they had decided to spare the world from
destruction because she and her followers had been so strong in their faith
that the rescue would indeed take place. The psychologist undercover
observer reported that the assembled followers returned to their homes apparently
strengthened in their belief that Mrs. Keech was indeed in contact
with powerful extraterrestrial beings.
What hypothesis have Mrs. Keech’s followers formed about her?
What evidence in this discussion supports this hypothesis?
Propose an experiment which would be a good test of this hypothesis, and
explain why it would count as a good test.
"Science or Pseudo-science?"
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