I finally made it! I was invited by Nigel Warburton as a guest on his Philosophy Bites, likely the most downloaded podcast in philosophy. The man has so far accumulated 352 interviews with some of the most interesting contemporary philosophers, including recently Jesse Prinz (on whether everything is socially constructed), David Owens (on duty), Kimberley Brownlee (on social deprivation), Shelly Kagan (on specieism), and many, many others.
And, now, yours truly. Our conversation focused on one of my main interests, the so-called “demarcation problem,” which is what Karl Popper called the issue of how to distinguish between science and non-science, and in particular between science and pseudo-science. For anyone wanting a more in-depth treatment, my friend Maarten Boudry and I have put out a collection of essays on this topic, published by Chicago Press.
Early on in the history of the demarcation problem people (including Popper) thought that it was going to be possible to come up with a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient criteria to define science, pseudoscience, and the like. Hence Popper’s famous idea of “falsification,” which essentially states that if a hypothesis or theory is (potentially) falsifiable — i.e., it can empirically be shown to be false, if it is indeed false — then it is scientific. It ain’t falsifiable, it ain’t science.
Subsequently Popper himself came to understand that so-called “naive” falsificationism doesn’t actually work, both because some obviously pseudoscientific ideas are indeed falsifiable (e.g., homeopathy) and because some good scientific ideas aren’t (immediately) falsifiable (e.g., superstring theory).
Larry Laudan, back in 1983, therefore proposed that demarcation is impossible, and that philosophers really ought to do something else with their time. But plenty disagreed, which in time led to the above mentioned collection of essays, the first several chapters of which are responses to Laudan’s skepticism.
What philosophers of science interested in demarcation seem to agree on, however, is that there are no necessary & sufficient criteria that can do the job, for the very good reason that concepts like “science,” “pseudoscience” and the like are inherently fuzzy, without sharp boundaries, and require therefore less rigid, clearcut treatment.
So, if you have to give it your best shot, what do you think distinguishes science from pseudoscience? And are psychoanalytic theories, as well as Marxist theories of history, pseudo-scientific, the way Popper thought? What about string theory: physics or metaphysics?
Categories: Philosophy of Science