Demarcation happens anyway

It is generally acknowledged that attempts to demarcate science from non- or pseudoscience, based on a priori standards, have failed. —Paul Newall

Newall is correct of course that a priori standards cannot demarcate science from non-science. Historians and philosophers of science have made a very persuasive case in this regard. But what’s often missing from the discussion is that despite the lack of fixed, coherent standards, scientists demarcate anyway. We fund biochemistry and particle physics while eschewing (and even castigating) ESP, intelligent design, and astrology. For all the talk about the intractability of demarcation problem, in practice it’s handled quite easily.

Now it may be true that our arguments are inconsistently applied. And that, as Larry Laudan has argued, some of the criticisms against ID also applies to other branches of science [1]. But this mild duplicity doesn’t appear to bother us as much as affording legitimacy to intelligent design. And I have to say that I kind of agree with this approach. ESP and ID should not be treated as science, however whimsically I may apply an ever-shifting standard of what constitutes science.

This dilemma is where, I feel, historians and philosophers should be expending greater effort. That is, even if we cannot really demarcate, we already do so. Are there any costs–educational, moral, intellectual–for this double standard? Can we acknowledge the subjectivity embodied in any individual instance of demarcation while maintaing credibility? Can we acknowledge that subjectivity has always necessarily been a part of science, and that does not diminish its power?And can we discuss this intelligently in the public sphere?

And so after an extended blogging break, I’ve tried to finally (and very briefly) start addressing a topic I promised to over a month ago.

[1] Laudan, Larry, Science at the Bar-Causes for Concern, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 7, No. 41 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 16-19

Also see the follow up in the Winter 1983 issue.


  1. You say that “ESP and ID should not be treated as science”, and that is NOT the same thing as saying that “ESP and ID should not be REGARDED as science”. This sure makes it look like the reason why publicly funded scientists do not want activities such as ESP and ID to be regarded as science is because the publicly funded scientists do not want such activities to be considered for public funding.

    Be that as it may, if carried to its logical conclusions (not that such a way of thinking is very often found in science – unfortunately), your remarks would likely serve an insistence that science (as a convention) be recognized as rife through and through with value judgments.

    That, I think, would be a good thing. It goes a long ways toward ridding the scene of pretentiousness, and that should be desirable within science as well as outside of science.


    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the slow response. I think I see what you’re saying w.r.t. “treated” vs. “regarded.” I agree that part of it is that publicly funded scientists do not want ESP/ID to be considered for public funding. But I think that part of it is that they genuinely believe that these things are not science. Granted, there are values infused in any demarcation (as Paul discussed). But the existence of values does not, I believe, diminish either science or any individual demarcation.

      I agree we need to rid the scene of pretentiousness!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Praj. I agree that we do demarcate anyway but this is probably uncontroversial: we do it all the time, not just in science. However, I argued in another entry that the desire to exclude ideas can become a self-fulfilling justification and is not rendered philosophically defensible by virtue of blocking what (we assume) are bad or harmful ideas. Moreover, if demarcation becomes a rhetorical tool with a philosophical basis that does not stand up to scrutiny, we can anticipate that our opponents will learn to contest demarcation on the same grounds. This, of course, is what Laudan warned would happen with respect to creationism and I think it is fair to say he was proven correct. My post on Feyerabend’s values-based approach to demarcation hopefully shows an alternative that allows us to demarcate in a useful and meaningful way.

    1. Hey Paul. As I said with Michael, thanks and sorry for the slow response! I completely agree with you, with the caveat that I am pretty sure that practicing scientists (who are the ones actually doing the demarcating anyway) aren’t generally concerned with being philosophically defensible. I suspect that scientists demarcate in an ad hoc manner for a specific purpose. That is, we choose one set of criteria for ID, another for ESP and astrology, etc. I believe that’s what the sociologist Thomas Gieryn showed in his work on boundary setting.

      I completely support the values-based approach, and wish it had greater traction in public discourse. I think part of the goal for the history and philosophy of science community is to figure out how to educate people on this.

      1. I agree with your description of what scientists do with respect to demarcation, Praj. However, what do you think is the proper response to those who have been demarcated against, so to speak, if they object that ad hoc demarcations should not restrict them from advocating their ideas as part of science?

        1. Interesting question Paul. The tough, but I think honest, answer is that not much can be done in the current environment. No one (including many scientists I bet) realize just how ad hoc scientists’ demarcation criteria are. But on a deeper level, I think there’s something to be said for allowing members of an institution to define it’s borders. Rather than trying to advocate certain ideas as a part of science, perhaps it might be more fruitful to advocate that certain ideas are important and useful even if they aren’t considered science.

  3. I hardly think it’s a secret that linguistic demarcation has taken place as long as the word “science” has existed. The demarcation problem arises because attempts to build rational foundations for it have failed. That being the case, there’s nowhere for it to go but to become another rhetorical device by which we seek to influence each other’s valuations of the things around us.
    Michael says: “publicly funded scientists do not want activities such as ESP and ID to be regarded as science … because the publicly funded scientists do not want such activities to be considered for public funding”. That is the nub of it, certainly, but “ESP” and “ID” are just words (well, acronyms anyway). The motivations those committed to these “ideals” who may put forward proposals for research funding should not really matter. The question is whether they stand reasonable chance, within the scope of what they propose, of obtaining conclusive answers to specific questions that are comprehensible and accessible to the rest of us.
    The answer to Praj’s question: “Can we acknowledge that subjectivity has always necessarily been a part of science, and that does not diminish its power?” is then clearly yes. Subjectivity lies in the enthusiasms and prejudices of individuals, but the power of science lies in its being the combined efforts of large numbers of individuals. Through the ‘culture’ of science, they relate their own experiences and observations in ways that make the relations with the experiences and observations of others manifest, making them accessible and reusable in as many ways as possible.

    1. Interesting comment Peter. The one issue I think that needs to be discussed further is whether we need a “rational” foundation for demarcation. If by rational we mean objective and empirical, then there is indeed a problem. But if we accept (as Paul’s discussion Feyeraband shows) that values can be a part of it…then what’s the problem? If values are a part of the discussion, then either we need to redefine the word “rational”, or be okay with non-rational demarcation.

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