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The Demarcation Problem for Illiterates

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Posted

This is a solid introduction to the demarcation issue for laypersons. If they want to go further, and in depth, I recommend Paul's excellent blog, Demarcation's Revisited Demise:

http://thekindlyones.org/2010/12/21/demarcations-revisited-demise/

Worth several re-reads.

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Posted

Godot,

Regardess of your knowledge of the subject matter and the quality of your writing, there's a problem with your piece being 'about' science. You recast the "what is science?" question as the demarcation problem, but conclude that "the consensus in the field is that the Demarcation Problem is insoluble" which means it ends up telling us nothing about science.

One aspect that you hint at with your examples at the beginning but don't develop is that there are two types of demarcation: epistemological and sociological. Epistemological demarcation sets criteria for evaluating the quality of knowledge so we know what to call "science". Sociological demarcation considers how the word "science" is actually applied in order to discover the criteria used in evaluating knowledge. Epistemological and sociological lines of demarcation need not correspond and, in fact, hardly ever do. The insolubility of the demarcation problem stems from trying to simultaneously satisfy the demands of both types of demarcation.

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Posted

In other words: Demarcation without sociology is empty; demarcation without epistemology, blind.

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Posted

Nice work. I'll just add a comment on the falsification paragraph: the main criticisms of this criterion are that it doesn't capture how science is actually done (that is, scientists aim to confirm their theories rather than seek to falsify them) and that a theory can always be rescued from an apparent falsification by saying that one of its auxiliary hypotheses was falsified rather than the entirety of the theory.

In the subsequent class discussion, you could raise the political uses of demarcation or why people still try to demarcate even though the problem is insoluble.

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Posted

I appreciate the feedback, Peter. My apologies for going walkabout for a week.

Godot,

Regardless of your knowledge of the subject matter and the quality of your writing, there's a problem with your piece being 'about' science. You recast the "what is science?" question as the demarcation problem, but conclude that "the consensus in the field is that the Demarcation Problem is insoluble" which means it ends up telling us nothing about science.

That may just be a failure on my part to write clearly enough. My intention was provide a primer on the demarcation problem and to illustrate that demarcation is a practical and tangible issue that we cannot easily solve. Any proffered solution is, by necessity, flawed in some manner or another and will leave a critical audience wanting for something better. I had hoped to help dispel the idiotic notion that science is some monolithic entity with clearly defined boundaries and rules; I find it far more appealing rough around the edges.

One aspect that you hint at with your examples at the beginning but don't develop is that there are two types of demarcation: epistemological and sociological. Epistemological demarcation sets criteria for evaluating the quality of knowledge so we know what to call "science". Sociological demarcation considers how the word "science" is actually applied in order to discover the criteria used in evaluating knowledge. Epistemological and sociological lines of demarcation need not correspond and, in fact, hardly ever do. The insolubility of the demarcation problem stems from trying to simultaneously satisfy the demands of both types of demarcation.

On the one hand, I can handwave away your point by stipulating that I was sorely limited for space and would hardly have enough room to articulate these differences and still hit the points I was aiming for. But that would be cheap and no fun. ;)

It has also been suggested to me that the epistemological / sociological distinction you propose rides shotgun on a presumed division between the history and philosophy of science. Any such distinction would also need to be justified in those same terms.

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Posted

Nice work. I'll just add a comment on the falsification paragraph: the main criticisms of this criterion are that it doesn't capture how science is actually done (that is, scientists aim to confirm their theories rather than seek to falsify them) and that a theory can always be rescued from an apparent falsification by saying that one of its auxiliary hypotheses was falsified rather than the entirety of the theory.

Hugo, I'm surprised that you didn't point out that I neglected to provide any refutation of Lakatos or Feyerabend! I think that your point can be expanded to describe each of the criterion that I discussed: none of them adequately describe how science is actually done. PKF probably comes closest to reality, but even he is off the mark. Each area of science has its own culture and subculture(s) that describe their real and imagined histories and the methods and methodologies that have fallen in and out of favour over time and work in different fashions according to the prevailing trend (I deliberately chose not to use paradigm). What is considered to be the ultimate methodological standard in one field may be the pseudoscience of another and vice versa. No grand unified theory encompassing the disparities and discrepancies of the tendrils of science will ever or can ever eventuate. I think the only safe things we can conclude (with appropriate caveats in place, of course) is that scientists (as the practitioners of their art, however else defined) are honest and inquisitive and seek to learn more about whatever their particular field may be. The physical, intellectual and philosophical tools will differ considerably, but will be applied towards increased knowledge or understanding.

In the subsequent class discussion, you could raise the political uses of demarcation or why people still try to demarcate even though the problem is insoluble.

I tried to hint at the political impact of demarcation when alluding to Scopes & Dover. Realistically, I could spend just as much time discussing the funding criterion of granting organisations wishing to see fully fleshed out research programmes with a proven track record in exploratory proposals, or their timidity to fund anything outside of incremental steps (a la Kuhn). Equally interesting to explore would be how through the popularisation of science via Sagan et al. that the general public sees double-blinded randomised crossover studies as the only acceptable gold-standard in science (particularly in medical research).
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