An edited volume on (and called) The Philosophy of Pseudoscience (TPoP) came out last year. I would be hard pressed to think of a topic better suited to get me to pony up a few bucks and then spend time reading and thinking about something not directly related to my work.
The basic idea motivating the book is that Larry Laudan was wrong (or at least premature) in announcing The Demise of the Demarcation Problem. The Demarcation Problem is, in case you don’t know, the problem of differentiating between science and non-science or between science and pseudoscience (and maybe also between non-science and pseudoscience). As it happens, I’ve blogged about this Laudan essay before, though in a way that isn’t directly addressed at this new book, so in this post, I’ll review the basics of Laudan’s argument. I’ll follow up in later posts with reviews of the first few chapters of TPoP.
Spoiler alert: I remain unconvinced by the arguments in TPoP that Laudan is wrong. In order to see why (I think) they’re wrong, it will be useful to make reference to Laudan’s original essay. I’ve got it as a hard copy of a book chapter, and I can’t find it in freely-available digital format (here it is behind a rather pricey paywall, and here is most, but not all, of it on google books), so I will cover the main points made in a highly abbreviated format (and organized using a subset of Laudan’s section headers).
The Old Demarcationist Tradition
Ancient concerns with knowledge/reality vs opinion/appearance lead to Aristotle arguing that scientific knowledge is certain, deals in causes, and follows logically from first principles, which are themselves derived directly from sensory input. Thus, Laudan writes that, according to Aristotle, “science is distinguished from opinion and superstition by the certainty of its principles; it is marked off from the crafts by its comprehension of first causes.” (p. 212)
In the 17th century, the latter criterion fell out of favor. Many of the people we think of as the founding fathers of modern science (e.g., Galileo, Newton) explicitly repudiated the idea that a science necessarily addresses causes. By the 19th century, certainty was discarded, as well: “the unambiguous implication of fallibilism is that there is no difference between knowledge and opinion: within a fallibilist framework, scientific belief turns out to be just a species of the genus opinion.” (p. 213)
With certainty and causation no longer able to demarcate science from non-science, folks turned methodology to (try to) do the job. In order for methodology to do the job, philosophers had to establish that there is a single, unified scientific method and that this method is epistemically better than other, non-scientific methods. Attempts to establish the unity and epistemic superiority of method led to disagreement about what the one, true method is and ambiguity or outright falsity with respect to whether or not practicing scientists actually employ any particular proposed method.
A Metaphilosophical Interlude
Laudan says that we should ask three questions (quoted verbatim from the essay):
- What conditions of adequacy should a proposed demarcation criterion satisfy?
- Is the criterion under consideration offering necessary or sufficient conditions, or both, for scientific status?
- What actions or judgments are implied by the claim that a certain belief or activity is ‘scientific’ or ‘nonscientific’?
With respect to #1, Laudan argues that a demarcation criterion should (a) accord with common usage of the label ‘science’ – it should capture the paradigmatic cases of science and non-science, regardless of how it deals with more difficult, borderline cases; (b) identify the epistemic and/or methodological properties that science has and that non-science does not; and (c) be precise enough so that we can, in fact, use it to demarcate science and non-science.
With respect to #2, Laudan argues that a demarcation criterion must provide both necessary and sufficient conditions. Necessary conditions alone will only allow us to say if something isn’t science, but do not allow us to say if something is, while sufficient conditions alone only allow us to say if something is science, but do not allow us to determine what is not scientific.
With respect to #3, Laudan points out that, because it will have numerous social, political, and, in general, practical implications, “any demarcation criterion we intend to take seriously should be especially compelling.”
The New Demarcationist Tradition
More recent efforts to develop demarcation criteria have focused on what Laudan calls potential epistemic scrutability rather than actual epistemic warrant. Verificationist, falsificationist, and various approaches based on testability, well-testedness, the production of surprising predictions, and so forth, all serve very poorly as demarcation criteria for various reasons, including their frequent failure to serve as both necessary and sufficient conditions for demarcation. Plenty of obviously scientific claims aren’t verifiable, and plenty of obviously non-scientific claims are; plenty of obviously scientific claims aren’t falsifiable, and plenty of obviously non-scientific claims are. And so on.
It’s worth quoting from Laudan’s conclusion at length (emphasis in the original):
Some scientific theories are well-tested; some are not. Some branches of science are presently showing high rates of growth; others are not. Some scientific theories have made a host of successful predictions of surprisingly phenomena; some have made few if any such predictions. Some scientific hypotheses are ad hoc; others are not. Some have achieved a ‘consilience of inductions’; others have not. (Similar remarks could be made about several nonscientific theories and disciplines.) The evident epistemic heterogeneity of the activities and beliefs customarily regarded as scientific should alert us to the probable futility of seeking an epistemic version of a demarcation criterion. Where, even after detailed analysis, there appear to be no epistemic invariants, one is well advised not to take their existence for granted. But to say as much is in effect to say that the problem of demarcation… is spurious, for that problem presupposes the existence of just such invariants.
Laudan ends the essay with a brief discussion of the sorts of things that philosophy of science should be focused on, given his dismissal of the demarcation problem. The last couple pages are available in google books, but I’ll quote him here again:
It remains as important as it ever was to ask questions like: When is a claim well confirmed? When can we regard a theory as well tested? What characterizes cognitive progress?
He is, at least in part, making a semantic argument that the class of things appropriately labeled ‘science’ (and its counterparts in the classes of things labeled ‘non-science’ and ‘pseudoscience’) just isn’t particularly (philosophically) interesting. One last quote, from the concluding paragraph:
…we have managed to conflate two quite distinct questions: What makes a belief well founded (or heuristically fertile)? And what makes a belief scientific? The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable; the second question is both uninteresting and, judging by its checkered past, intractable.
It’s interesting to note, given his conclusions here, that Laudan has more recently been focusing on legal epistemology, which is to say that he’s been pursuing his ‘first set of questions’ in a non-scientific area. It was also interesting to note that the essay immediately following the Demise essay in the book I have (a critique of a judicial decision about teaching creationism in Arkansas schools) kind of foreshadows this move. But I digress.
Next up: summaries and discussion of the first few essays in TPoP.