Demarcation in Philosophy of Science Essay

The demarcation problem in the philosophy of science is about how to distinguish between science and nonscience, and more specifically, between science and pseudoscience (a theory or method doubtfully or mistakenly held to be scientific). The debate continues after over a century of dialogue among philosophers of science and scientists in various fields, and despite broad agreement on the basics of scientific method.

The demarcation problem is the philosophical problem of determining what types of hypotheses should be considered scientific and what types should be considered pseudoscientific or non-scientific.

It also concerns itself with the ongoing struggle between science and religion, in particular the question about which elements of religious doctrine can and should be subjected to scientific scrutiny. This is one of the central topics of the philosophy of science, and it has never been fully resolved.

The Purpose of Demarcation

Demarcations of science from pseudoscience can be made for both theoretical and practical reasons. From a theoretical point of view, the demarcation issue is an illuminating perspective that contributes to the philosophy of science.

From a practical point of view, the distinction is important for decision guidance in both private and public life. Since science is our most reliable source of knowledge in a wide variety of areas, we need to distinguish scientific knowledge from its look-alikes. Due to the high status of science in present-day society, attempts to exaggerate the scientific status of various claims, teachings, and products are common enough to make the demarcation issue pressing in many areas. The demarcation issue is therefore important in many practical applications such as the following:

Healthcare: Medical science develops and evaluates treatments according to evidence of their efficiency. Pseudoscientific activities in this area give rise to inefficient and sometimes dangerous interventions. Healthcare providers, insurers, government authorities and – most importantly – patients need guidance on how to distinguish between medical science and medical pseudoscience. Expert testimony: It is essential for the rule of law that courts get the facts right. The reliability of different types of evidence must be correctly determined, and expert testimony must be based on the best available knowledge. Sometimes it is in the interest of litigants to present non-scientific claims as solid science. Therefore courts must be able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Environmental policies: In order to be on the safe side against potential disasters it may be legitimate to take preventive measures when there is valid but yet insufficient evidence of an environmental hazard. This must be distinguished from taking measures against an alleged hazard for which there is no valid evidence at all. Therefore, decision-makers in environmental policy must be able to distinguish between scientific and pseudoscientific claims. Science education: The promoters of some pseudosciences (notably creationism) try to introduce their teachings on school curricula. Teachers and school authorities need to have clear criteria of inclusion that protect students against unreliable and disproved teachings Ancient Greek Science

An early attempt at demarcation can be seen in the efforts of Greek natural philosophers and medical practitioners to distinguish their methods and their accounts of nature from the mythological or mystical accounts of their predecessors and contemporaries.

Medical writers in the Hippocratic tradition maintained that their discussions were based on necessary demonstrations, a theme developed by Aristotle in his “Posterior Analytics”. One element of this polemic (passionate argument) for science was an insistence on a clear and definite presentation of arguments, rejecting the imagery, analogy, and myth of the old wisdom. Aristotle described at length what was involved in having scientific knowledge of something. To be scientific, he said, one must deal with causes, one must use logical demonstration, and one must identify the universals which ‘inhere’ in the particulars of sense.

Criteria for Demarcation:

Logical Positivism also known as Verificationism

* Held that only statements about empirical observations and formal logical propositions are meaningful, and that statements which are not derived in this manner (including religious and metaphysical statements) are by nature meaningless. * The Viennese philosophers who introduced the positivist paradigm effectively laid the groundwork for the modern philosophy of science and one of its most important strands of thought. The early Positivists favored a rather strict approach to the demarcation and strongly affirmed the empirical nature of science, meaning that questions that cannot be empirically verified or falsified are irrelevant to scientific thought. * These philosophers, who called themselves logical positivists, argued that to produce a meaningful claim, one must always return to the tangible observations that result from that claim. * By the late 1970s, its ideas were so generally recognized to be seriously defective.


* Proposed by Karl Popper. In his monumental book, “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” he proposed the idea that scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable; unfalsifiable hypotheses should be considered pseudoscience. Popper’s emphasis on falsifiability changed the way scientists viewed the demarcation problem, and his impact on philosophy of science was enormous. * Popper’s demarcation criterion has been criticized both for excluding legitimate science and for giving some pseudosciences the status of being scientific.


* Thomas Kuhn, an American historian and philosopher of science, is often connected with what has been called postpositivism.

* In 1962, Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which depicted the development of the basic natural sciences in an innovative way. According to Kuhn, the sciences do not uniformly progress strictly by scientific method. Rather, there are two fundamentally different phases of scientific development in the sciences. In the first phase, scientists work within a paradigm (set of accepted beliefs). When the foundation of the paradigm weakens and new theories and scientific methods begin to replace it, the next phase of scientific discovery takes place. Kuhn believes that scientific progress—that is, progress from one paradigm to another—has no logical reasoning.

He undermines science as a whole by arguing that what is considered science changes throughout history in such a way that there is no objective way (outside of time or place) to demarcate a scientific belief from a pseudoscientific belief. Science, Kuhn argues, is like politics: institutions believe that certain ways are better than others at different points throughout history; however, it is impossible to be more or less certain of our basic assumptions about the world. Within a democracy (a specific political paradigm) there can be progress: an economy can grow, schools can be built, and people can be given healthcare. However, if a revolution occurs and the country becomes socialist, the government is not inherently better or worse than before, but simply begins to follow a different set of assumptions.

Paradigm shift

* A paradigm shift is a phenomenon described by philosopher Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. * Kuhn posited a process to explain the persistence of incorrect ideas, and the seemingly rapid and sudden abandonment of these ideas when they finally are rejected. * People tend to believe in what they know, and science is basically conservative. A current “paradigm” or theory is difficult to dislodge. It takes either a large volume of evidence, or a particularly powerful single piece of evidence to overturn major scientific theories (scientific revolution). When this occurs, it is called a “paradigm shift”.

Lakatos’ research programs

* Imre Lakatos combined elements of Popper and Kuhn’s philosophies with his concept of research programs. Programs that succeed at predicting novel facts are scientific, while ones that fail ultimately lapse into pseudoscience.

Feyerabend and Lakatos

* Kuhn’s work largely called into question Popper’s demarcation, and emphasized the human, subjective quality of scientific change. Paul Feyerabend was concerned that the very question of demarcation was insidious: science itself had no need of a demarcation criterion, but instead some philosophers were seeking to justify a special position of authority from which science could dominate public discourse.

Feyerabend argued that science does not in fact occupy a special place in terms of either its logic or method, and no claim to special authority made by scientists can be upheld. He argued that, within the history of scientific practice, no rule or method can be found that has not been violated or circumvented at some point in order to advance scientific knowledge. Both Lakatos and Feyerabend suggest that science is not an autonomous form of reasoning, but is inseparable from the larger body of human thought and inquiry.


* The concept of Non-overlapping Magisteria is a relatively recent attempt at proposing a clear demarcation between science and religion. It explicitly restricts science to its naturalistic foundations, meaning that no conclusions about supernatural phenomena like gods may be drawn from within the confines of science. “As to the supposed ‘conflict’…between science and religion, no such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap.”

Criteria based on scientific progress

Popper’s demarcation criterion concerns the logical structure of theories. Imre Lakatos described this criterion as “a rather stunning one. A theory may be scientific even if there is not a shred of evidence in its favour, and it may be pseudoscientific even if all the available evidence is in its favour. That is, the scientific or non-scientific character of a theory can be determined independently of the facts”. Instead, Lakatos proposed a modification of Popper’s criterion that he called “sophisticated (methodological) falsificationism”. On this view, the demarcation criterion should not be applied to an isolated hypothesis or theory but rather to a whole research program that is characterized by a series of theories successively replacing each other. In his view, a research program is progressive if the new theories make surprising predictions that are confirmed. In contrast, a degenerating research programme is characterized by theories being fabricated only in order to accommodate known facts.

Progress in science is only possible if a research program satisfies the minimum requirement that each new theory that is developed in the program has a larger empirical content than its predecessor. If a research program does not satisfy this requirement, then it is pseudoscientific. According to Paul Thagard, a theory or discipline is pseudoscientific if it satisfies two criteria. One of these is that the theory fails to progress, and the other that “the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations”.

A major difference between his approach and that of Lakatos is that Lakatos would classify a nonprogressive discipline as pseudoscientific even if its practitioners work hard to improve it and turn it into a progressive discipline. In a somewhat similar vein, Daniel Rothbart (1990) emphasized the distinction between the standards that should be used when testing a theory and those that should be used when determining whether a theory should at all be tested. The latter, the eligibility criteria, include that the theory should encapsulate the explanatory success of its rival, and that it should yield test implications that are inconsistent with those of the rival.

According to Rothbart, a theory is unscientific if it is not testworthy in this sense. George Reisch proposed that demarcation could be based on the requirement that a scientific discipline be adequately integrated into the other sciences. The various scientific disciplines have strong interconnections that are based on methodology, theory, similarity of models etc. Creationism, for instance, is not scientific because its basic principles and beliefs are incompatible with those that connect and unify the sciences. More generally speaking, says Reisch, an epistemic field is pseudoscientific if it cannot be incorporated into the existing network of established sciences.

Rejection of the Problem

* Some philosophers have rejected the idea of the demarcation problem, such as Larry Laudan. Others like Susan Haack, while not rejecting the problem wholesale, argue that a misleading emphasis has been placed on the problem that results in getting stuck in arguments over definitions rather than evidence.


* Larry Laudan concluded, after examining various historical attempts to establish a demarcation criterion, that “philosophy has failed to deliver the goods” in its attempts to distinguish science from non-science—to distinguish science from pseudoscience. None of the past attempts would be accepted by a majority of philosophers nor, in his view, should they be accepted by them or by anyone else. He stated that many well-founded beliefs are not scientific and, conversely, many scientific conjectures are not well-founded.

3 Major Reasons why Demarcation is sometimes difficult:

* science changes over time,
* science is heterogeneous and;
* established science itself is not free of the defects characteristic of pseudoscience

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