The Demarcation Game

About a week and a half ago, I posted a summary of Larry Laudan’s essay The Demise of the Demarcation Problem in order to set the stage for some posts on the first few essays in a new book on The Philosophy of Pseudoscience, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry. This post addresses the first chapter, The Demarcation Problem, A (Belated) Response to Laudan, Mr. Pigliucci’s (non-editorial) contribution (the entirety of which seems to be available via the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon, for what it’s worth).

All of this will make more sense if you have read the original Laudan essay already. If you can’t find a copy of that, you could read my earlier post. And if you don’t feel like bothering with that, here’s an extremely concise summary: How and why we label things science, non-science, or pseudo-science isn’t philosophically interesting, whereas it is philosophically interesting to (try to) understand how, when, and why claims about the world are epistemically warranted and how, when, and why this or that methodology licenses such claims.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but this is the nub. The labeling problem might be semantically or sociologically interesting, but it doesn’t have much, if any, bearing on whether or not certain claims about the world are belief-worthy.

To elaborate a bit more on Laudan’s position, he outlines three metaphilosophical points that constrain any putative demarcation criterion. First, it should accurately label paradigmatic cases of science, non-science, or pseudo-science by virtue of the epistemic and/or methodological features that science has and that its complement does not, and it should be precise enough so that this labeling can actually be carried out. Second, it should supply necessary and sufficient conditions for appropriate application of such labels. Third, because it will have potentially important social and political consequences, it should be especially compelling.

Pigliucci’s essay starts with a nice discussion of Popper’s take on demarcation, noting its relation to the problem of induction as well as some of the well-known problems with it. He follows the section on Popper with a discussion of Laudan’s recounting of the history of demarcation and a discussion of Laudan’s metaphilosophical interlude. He finishes with a sketch of how a new demarcation project might proceed.

The whole essay, though, simply assumes that the labeling problem is important (and that it’s closely related to problems that are more obviously of interest in philosophy of science; more below). Because Pigliucci assumes this, he doesn’t go about making a case for it, and so he doesn’t really engage with the main thrust of Laudan’s essay.

In addition, everything kind of goes off the rails after the introductory discussion of Popper. Throughout his discussion of Laudan’s essay, Pigliucci conflates issues that should be kept distinct, presents ideas that are consistent with (or even identical to) Laudan’s position as arguments against him, and misreads Laudan in ways that are, at best, lazy, and, at worst, willfully negligent.

And as good as it is, even the section on Popper has a humdinger of specious reasoning. Pigliucci writes:

Regardless of whether one agrees with Popper’s analysis of demarcation, there is something profoundly right about the contrasts he sets up between relativity theory and psychoanalysis or Marxist history: anyone who has had even a passing acquaintance with both science and pseudoscience cannot but be compelled to recognize the same clear difference that struck Popper as obvious. I maintain in this essay that, as long as we agree that there is indeed a recognizable difference between, say, evolutionary biology on the one hand and creationism on the other, then we must also agree that there are demarcation criteria – however elusive they may be at first glance.

It seems to me that the most obvious recognizable difference between evolutionary biology and creationism is that the former has mountains of evidence supporting its claims while the latter has none (and, in fact, has mountains of evidence against it). That is, these two examples are recognizably different with respect to their epistemic warrant, whether we label them both science or not. I’ll even go one better and say that it is only by placing evolutionary biology and creationism on the same playing field that we know that one is well-supported and the other is not.

Aside from this, as noted above, the section on Popper is pretty good. On the other hand, the section on Laudan’s history of demarcation is kind of a mess. Pigliucci implies that Laudan’s conclusion that the demarcation project has failed is inconsistent with the idea that philosophy makes progress. But, of course, Laudan doesn’t have a problem with progress in philosophy; in The Demise of the Demarcation Problem, he writes that “cognitive progress is not unique to the ‘sciences.’ Many disciplines (e.g., literary criticism, military strategy, and perhaps even philosophy) can claim to know more about their respective domains than they did 50 or 100 years ago.” In fact, I would guess that Laudan considers his essay at least a small contribution to the progress of philosophy.

A few pages later, Pigliucci laments that Laudan “reads this history [of Mill and Whewell's treatment of induction] in an entirely negative fashion” and complains that these philosophers’ works “are milestones in our understanding of inductive reasoning and the workings of science, and to dismiss them as “ambiguous” and “embarrassing” is both presumptuous and a disservice to philosophy as well as to science.” Of course, Laudan’s point in this essay is that, with respect to demarcation, such negativity is justified. In other works, Laudan has quite a lot to say about the role of induction in the history and philosophy of science, but, somehow, Pigliucci forgets the scope of the essay in question and isn’t aware of Laudan’s other treatments of this history.

But misreading Laudan as being presumptuous, overly negative, and inconsistent with philosophical progress are fairly minor problems.

As mentioned above, Pigliucci conflates various issues that should be kept distinct. He conflates probability and reliability of scientific hypotheses (p. 14), quoting Laudan’s claim that “several nineteenth century philosophers of science” responded to fallibilism “by suggesting that scientific opinions were more probable or more reliable than non-scientific ones,” and then snarkily noting that “surely Laudan is not arguing that scientific “opinion” is not more probable than “mere” opinion. If he were, we should count him amongst postmodern epistemic relativists, a company that I am quite sure he would eschew.”

Of course, one can coherently and reasonably reject the philosophical position that scientific ideas are evaluated in terms of their probability without immediately becoming an epistemic relativist; see, e.g., Deborah Mayo. Or see the other option that Pigliucci himself included in his quote from Laudan, namely reliability.

Pigliucci later conflates theory comparison and demarcation (p. 15) as well as theories and the proponents of theories (p. 16).

Ultimately, the only real substance of Pigliucci’s argument against Laudan boils down to the idea that necessary and sufficient conditions for demarcation are outdated, since sciences are related by family resemblances, and science is a “cluster concept.”

Given that Laudan describes science as having substantial “epistemic heterogeneity,” I don’t imagine he would take issue with the application of family resemblances to science as a category. But whereas Laudan takes this as an indication that any (epistemic or methodological) demarcation project is futile, Pigliucci wants it to be the basis of demarcation.

This idea as applied to science is illustrated in Figures 1.1 and 1.3 in the Pigliucci essay (1.2 illustrates ‘games’ and family resemblance). Figure 1.1 is presented in relation to Laudan’s first metaphilosophical point, but Pigliucci adds a lot more structure than is implied by Laudan’s ‘paradigmatic cases’, and neither the figure nor the corresponding text do much in the way of stating any key epistemic or methodological features of science nor or providing a precise set of demarcation criteria:

Figure 1.3 provides more substance, but in so doing, it also nicely (if implicitly) illustrates the distinction between the philosophically uninteresting labeling problem and the sorts of issues that are at the heart of philosophy of science:

It seems to me that the real work of philosophy of science (and the kind of thing explicitly endorsed by Laudan in his essay) consists of carefully defining things like ‘theoretical understanding’ and ‘empirical knowledge’ and then figuring out how, and to what degree, different theories provide these. If we can define this kind of space and then precisely locate fields of inquiry in it, what does it matter if we call this field “science” but not that one?

To reiterate the point made above, it might be semantically or sociologically interesting to figure how how (people’s intuitions about) these labels work, but it’s superfluous to the substance of philosophy of science. Pigliucci assumes that the labeling problem is both interesting and closely tied to issues like theoretical understanding and empirical knowledge, but he doesn’t make any kind of case for it. If anything, his invocation of fuzzy logic and fuzzy set theory militates against the importance of the labeling problem, since if you’re arguing for the utility of gradient membership in the set science, you’ve pretty much given up on analogous discrete labels.

Pigliucci ends his essay with “reasonable answers to Laudan’s three “metaphilosophical” questions” (Pigliucci uses scare quotes around “metaphilosophical” throughout, claiming not to understand why the “meta” prefix is necessary):

(1) What conditions of adequacy should a proposed demarcation criterion satisfy?

A viable demarcation criterion should recover much (though not necessarily all) of the intuitive classification of sciences and pseudosciences generally accepted by practicing scientists and many philosophers of science, as illustrated in figure 1.1.

(2) Is the criterion under consideration offering necessary or sufficient conditions, or both, for scientific status?

Demarcation should not be attempted on the basis of a small set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions because “science” and “pseudoscience” are inherently Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts (fig. 1.2). A better approach is to understand them via a multidimensional continuous classification based on degrees of theoretical soundness and empirical support (fig. 1.3), an approach that, in principle, can be made rigorous by the use of fuzzy logic and similar instruments.

(3) What actions or judgments are implied by the claim that a certain belief or activity is “scientific” or “unscientific”?

Philosophers ought to get into the political and social fray raised by discussions about the value (or lack thereof) of both science and pseudoscience. This is what renders philosophy of science not just an (interesting) intellectual exercise, but a vital contribution to critical thinking and evaluative judgment in the broader society.

Pigliucci’s answer to (1) is just a subset of Laudan’s answer to (1).

Pigliucci’s answer to (2) conflates the labeling problem with philosophically interesting problems, as discussed above, and all but gives the demarcation game away. Recall that Laudan’s motivation for requiring necessity and sufficiency in a demarcation criterion is that necessity alone does not allow us to label something scientific and sufficiency alone does not allow us to label something non-scientific. Whatever “multidimensional continuous classification” is, if it’s not providing necessary and sufficient conditions, it’s going to make classification errors. This isn’t fatal to a classification scheme, of course (see, e.g, detection theory), but Pigliucci doesn’t seem to be thinking of demarcation as noisy classification; there’s no mention of classification error or how it might be minimized, for example. And it bears noting that, for all his talk of fuzzy boundaries and gradient set membership and the like, Pigliucci seems to be ready, able, and willing to definitively classify different fields as established scienceproto-sciencesoft science, or pseudo-science – his Figures 1.1 and 1.3 look to me to have rather sharp boundaries.

Pigliucci’s answer to (3) is pretty much exactly Laudan’s answer to (3). Bizarrely, Pigliucci writes (on p. 20) that “I also markedly disagree with Laudan in answer to his question 3,” and then he quotes Laudan saying, in part:

Philosophers should not shirk from the formulation of a demarcation criterion merely because it has these judgmental implications associated with it. Quite the reverse, philosophy at its best should tell us what is reasonable to believe and what it not. But the value-loaded character of the term “science” (and its cognates) in our culture should make us realize that the labeling of a certain activity as “scientific” or “unscientific” has social and political ramifications which go well beyond the taxonomic task of sorting beliefs into two piles.

Pigliucci seems oddly confused about (3), stating one page later that “there simply is no way, nor should there be, for the philosopher to make arguments to the rest of the world concerning what is or is not reasonable to believe without not just having, but wanting political and social consequences.” Aside from the “wanting” bit, this is pretty much what he just quoted Laudan saying.

It’s maybe also worth noting, contra both Laudan and Pigliucci, that it’s not that difficult to think of cases in which science tells use something about what we should believe with essentially no attendant social or political consequences. To mention just the most prominent recent example, the big results from the LHC in 2012 tell us we should probably believe in (some version of) the Higgs boson, but for the vast, vast majority of humanity, this work has exactly no substantive social or political consequences at all.

To sum up, Chapter 1 of TPoP does little, if anything, to establish that Laudan was wrong in declaring the demarcation problem dead. I’ll come back to some of the subsequent chapters in the near future.

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3 Responses to The Demarcation Game

  1. I think I agree with Laudan that the demarcation problem is not really interesting or relevant. I don’t have any problem with philosophers attempting it, but whatever conclusions they’re likely to reach do seem a bit like ex ante poisoning the well. That said, I take Pigliucci’s point about Creationism, Psychoanalysis and Marxist history. All of these fields are fields that cloak themselves in scientific trappings for what are essentially political reasons, and Pigliucci’s not wrong that it would help to have a standard-issue rebuttal. Pigliucci’s point as I understand it is that although it’s true that Creationism has been more or less “falsified,” it wouldn’t actually be necessary to spend any effort falsifying it if we had a good way of saying why it was never science to begin with. Likewise with Marxism and Freudianism – which when you get right down to it aren’t really theories per se so much as frameworks. They serve us best when they’re thought of as useful ways of organizing and interpreting information rather than as things that are fields of knowledge in their own right. To the extent that Pigliucci’s point is that it would be helpful to have a criterion for determining that, it would save a lot of time and confusion – because (a) there are non-trivial distinctions between what kinds of things we take away from frameworks and what kinds of things we take away from theories and (b) a lot of people (including possibly Marx and Freud themselves) mistake Psychoanalysis and Marxism for actual theories and end up confused and less productive than they otherwise could be. In other words, those are actually good examples of “fields” where the quality of what we take away from them varies in direct proportion to what we understand them to be.

    • Noah Motion says:

      Two thoughts come to mind.

      First, I think it’s worth distinguishing between people and theories (or fields, or whatever). Proponents of creationism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Marxism may (and do) cloak themselves in the trappings of science, but the ideas that constitute the theories/fields are just ideas, available for anyone to evaluate however they please. The former is the kind of thing I was getting at by invoking sociology in the post. It’s also the kind of thing that gets discussed quite a bit in later chapters in the book.

      Second, I agree that it’s useful to not have to (always) go to the trouble of evaluating ideas like creationism with the full force of whatever scientific discipline’s arsenal is relevant to a particular claim. But we can do this without worrying about the labels. We can point out, for example, that creationism (as a crappy biological theory) is inconsistent with theories in other domains (chemistry and physics come to mind) and we can point out internal inconsistencies, to mention the two possibilities that come immediately to mind.

      I take your point about frameworks vs. theories, but this is orthogonal to the issues in the Laudan and Pigliucci essays, I think. Paradigmatically scientific disciplines have distinct frameworks and theories, too, so it’s not just that creationism is more of a framework than a theory that drives the labeling and epistemic warrant issues at the heart of all this.

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