Two supports for “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”

At the heart of my friend’s forthcoming book review on Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact is Larry Laudan’s frequently cited article The Demise the the Demarcation Problem, where Laudan convincingly argues that there is no criteria by which we can separate science from pseudo-science. Without such criteria we cannot claim to set ourselves within “science” and label the rest of the world as either fellow travelers or quacks and seducers outside the citadel of reason. I have two supports for this idea.

1.) Some hypotheses are so valuable that, if they violated a putative criteria for “science” we would ditch the criteria of we could become convinced enough of the hypothesis. Freudianism was Popper’s paradigm for unfalsifiable pseudo-science, but if we had to wish between making either Freud or Popper true, most would choose Freud. Universal scientific criteria are valued by Epistemologists in search of clean and well-divided systems, but Freud promised a rational solution to the problems of the human psyche. The Freudian program was new enough that no one could quite tell what its contours would look like, and in this sort of situation Popper’s criticism sounded pedantic. We know this is the case because it still sounds pedantic to cosmologists and string-theorists who, while they admit they have no real hope to falsify their theories, view the possible payout of the theory as greater than the possible payout of a universal criteria for what will count as science.

2.) On the one hand, in order to get something to count as science it suffices to convince enough smart or respected persons that it is. If some threshold of faculty members at research universities treat something as science, then who are you going to believe: them or some crank who insists that they aren’t playing by the rules? On the other hand, it is axiomatic that we can’t make something true by believing it, no matter how smart or well-respected we are.

At any given time, we are thrown into a vast consensus with a relatively small set of objectors to it. Whether this is an opposition between “The sober minded consensus standing against the cranks” or of “hidebound herd-minds all corrupted by power vs. spunky underdogs who can one day energize the field” is something that is usually only solved by retrodiction – a retrodiction which will be, of course, written according to a vast consensus with a small set of objectors to it.




  1. Peter said,

    December 20, 2015 at 11:08 am

    Did you ever read Aller’s What’s Wrong with Freud? He was a student of Freud, but argued — if I remember correctly…it was a long time ago that I read it — that Freud’s theories were logically unprovable and couldn’t be taken to override other truths we know about the mind from other sources or arguments. (Which seems totally sensible to me.) Interestingly, he didn’t disavow the practical value of Freudian psychoanalysis, since it sometimes seemed to help people. Thus something can be speculatively false or flawed and yet remain practically true and useful. I suppose the opposite might also be true.

    • December 20, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      I skimmed over Aller’s book but don’t remember the main point. Jung famously disagreed with Freud too, but still took it as scientific. We find ourselves in the same situation in the face of the various critiques of String Theory (e.g. from Lee Smolin or Peter Woit).

      Distinguishing practical from theoretical value is one approach, as is distinguishing research programs where the whole point is to figure out what exactly we’re talking about (like gene research or, in ancient philosophy, research into the soul.) These all complicate the attempt to mark off what can count as science from what can’t.

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