Sciences and Pseudosciences: An Attempt at a New Form of Demarcation

  • Graham Solomon
Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 65)


In an article appearing in an earlier Festschrift honoring Adolf Grünbaum (Laudan 1983),2 Larry Laudan argued persuasively that the attempt to distinguish science from pseudoscience by employment of one or another of the proposed demarcation criteria is now dead. What he had specifically in mind is that demarcation criteria employing verificationist and falsificationist theories of meaning have failed to accomplish the required goal.3 However, he obviously retained confidence in what he called “our intuitive distinction between the scientific and the non-scientific” (ibid., 124) and admitted that some future successful attempt to mark the difference could not be ruled out. The intuition referred to provides a rich catalog of pseudosciences, “flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers, polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water diviners, magicians, and astrologers” (ibid., 121). Evidently, these assorted pseudosciences make “crank claim[s] which make ascertainably false assertions”(ibid.). One might reasonably add: if literally construed.4


Natural Science Explanatory Framework Empirical Adequacy Demarcation Criterion Hermeneutic Philosophy 
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  1. 2.
    Larry Laudan, “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”, in R. S. Cohen and L. Laudan (eds.), Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983), pp. 111–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The employment of theories of meaning to help in drawing the line between science and nonscience now seems a lost cause. The effort was to show that the formal and empirical sciences contain sentences that are cognitively significant, whereas the sentences of nonsciences are in some respect nonsense. However, “sense” is a notoriously ambiguous word. The attempts at demarcation along such lines (whose ancestor is the Kantian strategy to be discussed in the next section) could never answer the rejoinder of Nietzsche: It is no different with the faith with which so many materialistic scientists rest content nowadays, the faith in a world that is supposed to have its equivalent and its measure in human thought and human variations — a‘world of truth’ that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason. What? Do we really want to permit existence to be degraded for us like this — reduced to a mere exercise for a calculator and an indoor diversion forGoogle Scholar
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    Over the centuries, the list has not changed that much. Here is one from Reginald Scot, The Discovery of Witchcraft (London: n.p., 1665), “the Knavery of Juglers, Conjurers, Charmers, Soothsayers, Figure-Casters [astrologers], Dreamers, Alchymists and Philterers [sellers of erotic love potions] ...” (p. i).Google Scholar
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    Anything that can be counted as a system of symbols subject to interpretation is a text. this list will be very long, but will surely contain the following: proofs of theorems, reports of results of observation or experiment, narratives (histories, news releases, novels, travelogues, stories told in psychoanalytic clinical situations), police reports, lawyers’ arguments, judges’ decisions, poems, clinical observations, mandalas, cryptograms, messages from another world (as in seances, contact with extraterrestrials), pictograms (cave and rock paintings), works of visual art, plays, operas, musical scores, astrological charts and advice, records of divine revelations, ceremonies (Christmas, the Festival of Lights), tribal lore transmitted verbally, the writings ofphilosophers, metal coins, political speeches, sermons, academic lectures, street and highway signs.Google Scholar
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    Although again context is important. In the neighborhood of my birthplace in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania many Amish towns have charming names. The signs read “Paradise,” “Intercourse,” “Blue Ball,” “Bird-in-Hand.” Undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia are fond of stealing these signs for use as decorations in their dormitory rooms. What wereGoogle Scholar
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    I am aware that one can be deceived by some road signs, especially those marking miles or kilometers. One summer, a student of mine worked for the Department of Highways; he took delight in placing mileage markers at random, rather that at precisely determined intervals. Max Black used to say that “it isn’t a language unless you can lie in it.” It behooves all of us to face all texts with a measure of skepticism. Even mathematical texts can be misprinted. No important epistemological point turns on these admissions.Google Scholar
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    I must admit that sentences in scientific reports are more readily translatable into other natural languages partly because much of the terminology is standardized, and the mathematics employed is normally semantically transparent. Such ease in moving from one language to another in science is a stroke of good fortune not also available to the pseudosciences. Translations of texts in astrology, creationism and the like might preserve logical form, but they inevitably introduce ambiguities and nuances not present in the source language. To which version of the Bible should creationists direct us? I will return to this problem later.Google Scholar
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    A pragmatic consideration here gives weight to Rescher’s emphasis upon accurate prediction: If some experiments are not carried out with the greatest attention to all details, the experimenters are at peril. What is lost if an astrological prediction turns out to be false? Perhaps the client may murder the astrologer. That is quite different from the death of a careless experimenter.Google Scholar
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    It might be argued that stability of meaning of technical terms is assured by the community of scientists, and that similar communities of astrologers and creationists and others create their own assured stability for the meaning of their technical terms. I would not deny that fraternal conditions play some role in fixing meaning. What one needs to consider here is the nature of the conditions of entry into different fraternal groups. Rigorous education and satisfaction of high intellectual standards form part of those conditions for scientists. No such training and accomplishment are required of young astrologers; all that is needed for entry into the fundamentalist community is an unwavering faith in the literal correctness of biblical claims. Indeed, further study of such conditions of entry into intellectual and quasi-intellectual communities might highlight still more ways in which the sciences and the pseudosciences differ fundamentally.Google Scholar
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    I am emphasizing features of the discourse of experimental and observational natural science, because I am dealing only with those texts that seek to tell truths about the world. Such an emphasis, however, should not disguise the fact that within theoretical natural science, interpretations of theoretical constructs are themselves part of the internal dialectic of physical science. Thus, for example, the concept of gravity in classical Newtonian physics can be interpreted as action at a distance, or as involving electromagnetic fields. So far as the mathematics and the empirical support of the classical theory are concerned, these different interpretations are equivalent, and play only heuristic roles. Like Kant’s ideas of reason, they have no empirical truth-telling content. I am grateful to my colleague Robert DiSalle for calling these matters to my attention.Google Scholar
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    However, notice David Hume’s amazing attempt to rescue some literal sense for poetry, “Poets themselves, tho’ liars by profession, always endeavor to give an air of truth to their fictions; and where that is totally neglected, their performances, however ingenious, will never be able to afford much pleasure” (A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951, p. 121).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Graham Solomon
    • 1
  1. 1.Wilfrid Laurier UniversityWaterlooCanada

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