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The Problem of Demarcation Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2019

The discussion of the nature of science is important for philosophers, scientists, historians, and sociologists because science influences the society significantly. However, there are many hypotheses which cannot be discussed as scientific in their nature because they cannot be supported with any evidence. At this stage, philosophers of science speak about non-scientific knowledge.

Stating that there should be certain criteria of science, researchers introduce the crucial problem of philosophy of science which is the demarcation problem.

The demarcation problem is in the necessity to provide the clear criteria for distinguishing between science and non-science, pseudoscience in particular, and this problem is important because the society should not be manipulated in relation to principles of pseudoscience (Pigliucci & Boudry 2013, p. 12).

Although philosophers and scientists are inclined to speak much about science and non-science, including pseudoscience, the strict criteria to distinguish science from non-science are still undetermined, and proposed solutions to solve the problem of demarcation cannot be evaluated as relevant because existing criteria based on verification, falsifiability, and definition of knowledge contradict with each other.

While attempting to solve the problem of demarcation, it is necessary to answer such questions as: What is science? What is the scientific knowledge? What are criteria to distinguish between the scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge?

The fact that philosophers and scientists try to find the adequate answers to these questions during long periods of time supports the idea that the problem of demarcation is important to be solved to prevent the bad impact of pseudoscientific knowledge on the society. Thus, the problem of demarcation is traditionally correlated with the principles of empiricism.

One of the most debatable solutions to cope with the demarcation problem was proposed by the representatives of the Vienna Circle who focused on the necessity of verification (Pigliucci & Boudry 2013, p. 24). However, the criterion of verification was discussed by Karl Popper as inappropriate to solve the demarcation problem.

In his works, Karl Popper not only labels the problem of demarcation but also criticises the focus on verification principle as the criterion to speak about science and pseudoscience.

To distinguish between science and pseudoscience, Popper starts with stating what is wrong with Marxism, Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Adler’s individual psychology because these theories seem to be like myths rather than like scientific knowledge (Curd, Cover, & Pincock 2013, p. 4-5). While focusing on the theories, Popper concludes that these theories are pseudoscientific because they seek for verification.

According to Popper, “once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory” (Curd, Cover, & Pincock 2013, p. 5). Thus, verification cannot serve as the criterion because supportive facts can be found for any theory. To rely on risky predictions and a scientific theory as a kind of prohibition is more important for scientists.

As a result, a theory “which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific” (Curd, Cover, & Pincock 2013, p. 7). That is why, it is possible to note that Popper concentrates on refutability which is correlated with testability.

Being a prohibition, a testable theory can work as the scientific knowledge. Thus, it is necessary to speak about the criterion of falsifiability which is based on refutability and testability as the main solution to the significant problem of demarcation.

Popper concentrates on falsifiability as the main criterion to discuss statements and hypotheses as scientific, and this criterion opposes the verification criterion because Popper states that really scientific statements can fail empirically because there is the evidence to discuss and prove the statements as false (Jarvie, Milford, & Miller 2006, p. 51-55).

On the contrary, pseudoscience needs to be confirmed or verified with the help of evidences, and, that is why, the results can be fabricated. Thus, pseudoscience refers to “induction to generate theories, and only performs experiments to seek to verify them” (Newbold & Roberts 2007, p. 324).

According to Popper, only falsifiability can determine the theory and knowledge’s scientific status (Keuth 2005, p. 112). Pseudoscientific ideas cannot be tested to demonstrate their false character.

However, Popper’s attempt to solve the problem of demarcation cannot be discussed as successful because the other researchers support the idea that science cannot be limited to any scope because of its constant progress in combination with the non-scientific knowledge.

Furthermore, it is important to find the balance between the use of the falsifiability criterion and the verification criterion with the focus on the principle of induction (Pigliucci & Boudry 2013, p. 81). It is significant to note that in spite of absence of strict criteria, scientists and philosophers of science are inclined to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Thomas Kuhn, the critic of Popper’s ideas, states that the solution to the problem is in the paradigm of the science itself, however, his proposition is not relevant for discussing the aspects of quasi-science and bad science (Newbold & Roberts 2007, p. 326). Referring to the ideas expressed by Imre Lakatos, it is possible to conclude that the criterion cannot be determined strictly.

Imre Lakatos is the famous critic of Popper’s approach to the demarcation problem. Lakatos states that if scientists accept the fact that falsifiability can be used as the demarcation criterion, researchers do not “demarcate scientific theories from pseudoscientific ones, but rather scientific method from non-scientific method” (Curd, Cover, & Pincock 2013, p. 22).

That is why, this criterion cannot be considered as relevant and strong. Lakatos pays attention to the fact that scientists are usually not inclined to give up supporting failing hypotheses, and they often choose to propose the rescue hypotheses (Curd, Cover, & Pincock 2013, p. 23-24).

As a result, the process of working with the scientific theory is more complicated in comparison with the explanation proposed by Popper. That is why, Lakatos focuses not on determining the concrete demarcation criterion, but on discussing the idea of scientific research programmes as the criterion to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific theories.

Moreover, scientific research programmes can be progressive and degenerating ones, and progressive programmes can be discussed as really scientific ones because they are more effective than degenerating programmes (Curd, Cover, & Pincock 2013, p. 25). From this point, Lakatos rejects Popper and Kuhn’s ideas, and proposes the more complex vision of the problem and its solution.

Scientists and philosophers still discuss the variety of ways and methods to solve the problem of demarcation. The solutions proposed by Popper, Kuhn, and Lakatos are discussed as controversial because it is almost impossible today to propose the appropriate solution to the problem as the whole.

For instance, according to Miller, the problem of demarcation can be solved in “a satisfactory manner once we admit that what we call scientific knowledge cannot be knowledge in the traditional empiricist sense”, and moreover, it should be accepted that this knowledge “cannot be derived from experience by induction, or by any other method; and far from having a foundation in experience, it consists largely of unsupported conjectures or guesses” (Miller 2006 p. 86).

This provocative approach to solving the demarcation problem is correlated in a way with Resnik’s proposition because admitting the importance of core principles to distinguish between science and non-science, the researcher states that “particular judgments and decisions about something’s scientific status depend, in part, on practical goals and concerns” (Resnik 2000, p. 249).

As a result, the range of solutions to the demarcation problem is large, but there are no widely acceptable approaches because of the solutions’ obvious limits.

The problem of demarcation can be discussed as the main issue related to the philosophy of science because this problem is associated with the definition of scientific knowledge.

The importance of the problem depends on the fact that philosophers and scientists admit the idea that science and pseudoscience should be distinguished strictly to avoid the negative consequences for forming the knowledge accepted within the society.

The problem is significant, but the attempts to solve it cannot be discussed as effective and successful because the proposed solutions contradict with each other and cannot cover the whole scope of the scientific knowledge which is in the constant progress. As a result, the problem of demarcation and the necessity to find the criteria remain to be important and even urgent for the scientific world.

Reference List

Curd, M, Cover, J, & Pincock, C 2013, Philosophy of science: the central issues, Norton & Company, USA.

Jarvie, I, Milford, K, & Miller, D 2006, Karl Popper: a centenary assessment, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., UK.

Keuth, H 2005, The philosophy of Karl Popper, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Miller, D 2006, Out of error: further essays on Critical Rationalism, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., UK.

Newbold, D & Roberts, J 2007, ‘An analysis of the demarcation problem in science and its application to therapeutic touch theory’, IJNP, vol. 13. no. 6, pp. 324-330.

Pigliucci, M & Boudry, M 2013, Philosophy of pseudoscience: reconsidering the demarcation problem, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Resnik, D 2000, ‘A pragmatic approach to the demarcation problem’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 31. no. 2, pp. 249-267.

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