In this video, Massimo Pigliucci, the philosopher and biologist who runs the Scientia Salon site, discusses the demarcation problem, the dividing line between what is and is not science. The distinction is easy for things like astrology and astronomy, but gets more difficult for many other areas.
I’d forgotten about Massimo’s latest book on pseudoscience. It’s now queued up in my Kindle account.
I found this talk interesting and enlightening. But one thing I found puzzling was Massimo’s apparent dismissal of falsifiability as a useful criteria for distinguishing science from non-science. I may change my mind once I’ve read the book, but for now, I think I disagree, for a couple of reasons.
The first reason involves the distinction between using falsifiability in scientific work versus using it as a criteria for what is science. Massimo discusses two historical scenarios I’ve discussed myself in the past.
The first scenario was when the orbit of Uranus didn’t match the predictions of Newtonian mechanics. Rather than assume that Newtonian mechanics had been falsified, astronomers predicted the existence of a new planet which turned out to exist: Neptune.
But in the second scenario, faced with anomalies in the orbit of Mercury, astronomers predicted the existence of a planet closer to the sun, which they prematurely named Vulcan, but which turned out not to exist. Ultimately, the problems with the orbit of Mercury were in fact a falsification of Newtonian mechanics. (Mercury’s orbit was eventually explained by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.)
The point Massimo and other philosophers make is that there is no way to know at the beginning of these scenarios whether the contradictory observations are from the scientific theory being wrong or the existence of unknown factors, like the existence of a new planet. And that is true. Discovering that a scientific theory has been falsified takes expert judgment, and often a lot of time.
But judging whether or not a theory has been falsified is different than judging whether or not it is a scientific theory. And by that standard, falsifiability makes it very clear that Newtonian mechanics was science, and falsifiable. If it hadn’t been, there might still be schools of physics dedicated to Newtonian mechanics today.
My second reason for disagreeing with Massimo goes somewhat to my general attitude toward philosophical guidelines, which is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. I fully admit that falsifiability is not a perfect criteria. For example, slavish adherence to it might prematurely exclude speculative but legitimate concepts that may eventually lead to falsifiable theories. But it works well in the vast majority of cases, and is often a good guiding principle for separating a scientific idea from a philosophical one.
I will agree though that falsifiability is not as good for the specific demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Many purveyors of pseudoscience make falsifiable claims, but they often overlook or ignore the fact that their claims have already been falsified. I think the real divide between these two areas is whether or not the practitioners are honestly pursuing knowable truths, and whether or not they are doing it competently. Shysters and con artists are dishonest, and crackpots are incompetent, and often the purveyors of pseudoscience are both.