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Exploring the Limits of Science: A Brief Commentary on the Line of Demarcation between Science and Pseudoscience

For centuries philosophers, scientists, and laymen have debated the line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience to no end. From Aristotle’s conception of science as apodictically certain knowledge to the more modern notion of a scientific method for testing empirical claims, an established consensus as to the definition of science or precisely what separates it from other fields of knowledge has proven elusive. At the same time, modern society has ceded cultural authority to scientists to the extent that a majority of people strive to keep their beliefs in line with scientific developments. Philosophers, scientists, and others — despite the lack of any consensus on the epistemic credentials required for something to be considered “science” — have historically taken it upon themselves to declare what society ought to regard as “pseudoscience.” They have done so not in the interest of establishing greater empirical and conceptual criteria for science in general but rather to achieve the social and material ends of an exclusive and isolated group of scientists.

As Thomas F. Gieryn notes, an inherent problem of demarcating science and pseudoscience is that the attributes of science — when they are not regarded as intrinsic or unique — can be seen as parts of ideological aims of scientists to build social boundaries that distinguish their work from other “non-scientific” intellectual activities.1) The distinction between science and pseudoscience has for the most part been emphasized historically as an instrument with which to bolster the scientific status of particular fields (e.g. psychology, conventional medicine) over competing fields in order to maintain cultural authority and economic competitiveness, among other ends.

As such, arguments that portray science as epistemically superior to pseudoscience should be analyzed as ideologies — useful for little more than assessing the goals of ideologists. Thus, in general it is not a particularly useful exercise as a scientific historian to distinguish between science and pseudoscience because such labels speak nothing to the merits of truth claims. Attempting to make such distinctions takes necessary emphasis from the empirical and conceptual foundations of claims about the natural world and is thus not useful to empirical inquiry or science in general.

Surveying historical attempts to establish lines of demarcation on an epistemic basis serves to illustrate a clearer picture of the nature of the issue. The history of the field of psychology is indicative of scientists’ use of the demarcation question as an ideological instrument to achieve their own ends. In late nineteenth-century America, psychologists set out to investigate the paranormal because of significant public interest in the subject — in addition to internal division over the line that separated science and pseudoscience. Like other newly professionalizing scientific fields, psychology relied on its association to the methodology of laboratory science, so psychologists naturally felt their scientific reputation was threatened by spiritualism and other fields of paranormal study.

By ignoring the immense public interest in spiritualism, however, psychologists would have surely raised doubts about their cultural authority as scientists. To address spiritualism and other fields associated with paranormal phenomena, psychologists gradually increased the qualifications to be considered an expert in the field of psychology. First, psychologists excluded laymen, followed by scientists in general, and followed then by psychologists who believed in paranormal phenomena. By doing so, psychologists would maintain scientific authority over their field and thus achieve their social and economic ends of cultural influence and material gain.

The historic example of the question between pure and applied science also sheds light on the nature of epistemic lines of demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Since the nineteenth century, the ideological argument of pure science’s practical benefits — technological advances, for example — has frequently been used to legitimize public support for scientific research. However, scientists and their supporters cater to a separate and conflicting ideology when faced with governmental restrictions on scientific access and communication. To avoid such restrictions amidst national security considerations, scientists re-define science, placing distance between pure and applied science as to calm national security concerns relating to the technological aspects of scientific progress (i.e. concerns of weapons technology being sold to enemy states). Thus, scientists actively transform the definition of science depending on their professional and institutional needs, illustrating the inability of arguments that distinguish science from pseudoscience to speak to the actual empirical and conceptual value of a particular belief or discipline.

Clearly, efforts to establish epistemic criteria for lines of demarcation between science and pseudoscience reflect professional, institutional, and other social interests of self-proclaimed “scientists” and their supporters — not the empirical merits of truth claims about the world. As such, drawing distinctions between science and pseudoscience is not particularly useful as a scientific historian — except within the narrow scope of assessing ideologists’ interests in pursuing claims of the epistemic superiority of one discipline over another. To date, a consensus on the criteria which should separate science and pseudoscience has yet to be established. Therefore, in favor of reason, scientific historians should strive to emphasize the empirical merits of truth claims rather than ideologically-driven terms such as pseudoscience, which serve no useful purpose to empirical inquiry.

1) Thomas F. Gieryn, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientist,” American Sociological Review 48 (1983): 781-782.

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