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February 8, 2002 It has been said that, “In the beginning there was Popper… and Popper saw Philosophy, and saw that it was good. And Popper said ‘Now we must go down and demarcate science from non-science…” and thus began the “Problem of Demarcation”.Though some may argue the point, others (Professor Millstein?) have wondered if it were not for Karl Popper, we wouldn’t be in the “bind” that we find ourselves in today. The “bind” that I speak of is, as Popper stated, the “Problem of Demarcation”. In lay men’s terms, the “problem” is that of attempting to separate, and categorize, areas of study as science and non-science. There are a plethora of topics that can be used as examples of this dilemma, but the most prevalent (and possibly most controversial) include, but are not limited to, astronomy and creation science.
It is a bit of a stretch to blame the problem on Popper, for were it not for philosophy, science, or a whole host of other factors, this area of scientific philosophy wouldn’t even exist. It must also be understood that many others followed after Popper and fueled the flames of the debate on how to demarcate science and non-science. Among those that brought wood to the stove of contention & confusion besides Karl Popper included Thomas S. Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Paul R. Thagard. Each of these individuals held their own position on the ways in which to demarcate science. In my opinion none are right, and none are wrong, but it is only by an examination and amalgamation of their many ideas may we effectively demarcate science and non science.
Below I will attempt a brief summary of the demarcating criteria held by the individuals mentioned above, and arguments that forbid me to subscribe to any one way of thinking. But first, let’s BRIEFLY examine what we had in the way of demarcation before Popper.
Long story short: A statement is scientific if:
1: A Sufficient number of people believe it enough.
2: The statement can be proven with certainty from facts.
3: Statements are ones that are statistically more probable than the alternatives.
Karl Popper: Synonym for Popper = FALSIFIABILITY! If there is anything to walk away with after reading articles by Mr. Popper it is the concept of falsifiability. What is falsifiability? Well, paraphrased it is the ability to imagine an observation that would show that theory is false. For example, I have a theory that when hell freezes over pigs will fly. I can imagine or visualize a situation in which hell would freeze over, yet pigs would remain earthbound. In this case my theory is falsifiable and would therefore be scientific. An example of a non falsifiable theory would be “My crystal ball tells me that your dog will be happy, or not happy this week.” In this situation I can not imagine a case where this statement would ever not be true, so this theory is not scientific. Another very important aspect of Popper’s is the importance of rejecting a theory as soon as an observation shows it is false, i.e.; hell freezes over —> pigs still on ground = rejection of theory!
Concerns about criteria: Popper is on the right track here, but as we can see in the example above, and other’s not so juvenile, this criteria doesn’t fully demarcate science. One of the biggest arguments about this criteria is that scientists aren’t always so willing to reject theories… even if there are hundreds of observations that show it to be false. It has been said that scientists tend to have “thick skins.”
Thomas S. Kuhn: Kuhn seemed a bit more ambiguous about the whole demarcation criteria issue. Kuhn’s argument was that a main theory exists, and that hypotheses are made that presuppose the main theory. In a way there is a protective belt around the main theory that allows scientists to alter their hypothesis, calculations, measurements, etc. without ever questioning the theory. Possibly somewhere down the road after great amounts of pressure a scientist may “convert” to a new theory. What does this mean in a nutshell? Science evolves paradigms and “normal science”. Non-science involves scattered ideas, and often has no one theory.
Concerns about criteria: Kuhn’s criteria are vague and ambiguous. It has been argued that his ideas show science to be irrational and like a religious conversion.
Imre Lakatos: Lakatos saw the inherent mistakes in the previous criteria to demarcate science, so he came up with his own. Lakatos believed that science predicts novel facts (things unknown ie; Newton predicting where a planet would be…. people look and it’s there). Also that it would show something you would not expect to see on the previous view. Non-science explains what is already known, often after the fact; ie; Marx examples.
Concerns about criteria: Of the ideas listed thus far I am inclined to lean more towards Lakatos’ criterion, but only if I was compelled to choose only one of these three so far. Lakatos does an excellent job at finding the flaws in the other criteria and points out what science does… predicts novel facts. If a science begins to stagnate, it begins to drift into the realm of non-science. Unfortunately there is still a bit of ambiguity and question about demarcation.
Paul R. Thagard: Thagard’s criteria can be summed up in his statement, “
Concerns about criteria: This is entirely too black and white. Yes, the demarcation of science does have very specific examples where the area of study is clearly science, or clearly non-science, but there are also plenty of examples where areas of study meander through the gray area of demarcation, and with the advent of new ideas and technology may shift into the “black and white” areas of science and non-science.
So, after all is said and done and the embers of confusion and contention from the fire that is demarcation burn bright… what are we left with? If asked, “Which of the mentioned criteria listed above do you subscribe to? I would boldly proclaim, “YES! All of them!” There are two main reasons why I take this stand:
1) Black is black, white is white, but there is most assuredly an area of gray in-between! Many of the philosophers above seem to be trapped in the belief that a statement, or area of study MUST be demarcated fully. Any of the above may state, “This thing we have before us must be either science, or non-science and therefore we must devise a criteria to differentiate and categorize it.”
2) Something that is most definitely a non-science today may become the most obvious form of science in the future, and vice versa. Many of the criteria do not allow (or if they do, not easily) for this movement and shift from science to non-science and non-science to science.
It is the reasons above that it is not by one way of thinking, or a few criteria that we can solve the problem of demarcation. I speculate that many of the individuals that are involved in the philosophy of science are in fact scientist, or of a scientific mind, and it is because of this that there is a strong yearning to have a set rule of demarcation, and always have that rule apply and work for any given situation. Similar to many other topics in philosophy, this area of demarcation is ever evolving and will ever be debated. I believe that it will always be important to exercise many philosophies pertaining to the demarcation of science, including those before and after Karl Popper… who is, of course, the one who started this whole mess in the first place! 🙂