On Distinguishing Science from Non-Science

A nice essay on the demarcation problem in science here. As I’ve said before, it’s the sociologists and philosophers of science who see that science cannot be adequately defined against non-science or pseudo-science, and not just Intelligent Design proponents.


What do you mean by ‘adequate’? What sort of reliability and accuracy do you have in mind? I don’t expect perfect criteria and assume there will always be grey areas.

And yet… I think we’d agree that today at least most of the work by astrology and homeopathy advocates can be placed in the non- or pseudo-science categories. Rupert Sheldrake’s “Morphic Resonance” hypothesis fits there are well. What sort of demarcation criteria are we using to assess these cases?

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That’s one of the problems the article points out.

You use none? Science and non-science are indistinguishable?

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Article’s title:

The impossibility—and the necessity—of distinguishing science from nonscience.

All Ye Need to Know

Yes, we often talk about the demarcation problem here. There is sometimes a blurry line. Blur in the line, however, is not a valid argument against a line. Have you head of Sorites paradox?

Just because we can’t provide a firm indisputable line between a heap of sand and single grain, that does not mean “heaps” do not exist. Likewise, just because we can’t provide an ethical rule that cleanly separates all good actions from evil actions, does not prove that good and evil are myths. In the same way, difficulty in providing a line between science and non-science does not mean the distinction is not meaningful.

Also, in regards to methodological naturalism, I’ve already put forward that The Creator-Creation Distinction provides a good rule.

All the same, Scott Lilienfields advice is helpful too:

These concerns are going to come up soon with Clinton Ohler, when we explore Clinton Ohlers: Two Parables on Divine Action. This will be fun.

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I used to not believe that statement – more accurately, I didn’t want to believe it – but have come around over time. Most of us carry the apparatus and cognitive parts for this but it doesn’t often come together simply by itself. One needn’t be ‘smart’ to think scientifically (or analytically) but there are processes and techniques one needs to grok.


Two different implications here:

  • Can one tell science from non-science?
  • Can one tell triuth from falsehood?

You mention astrology, which was pretty well the first empirical science, with a track record from the Babylonians to Galileo and Tycho Brahe. And nowadays, it’s not only concluded to be non-true, but non-science.

But does that make phlogiston theory non-science? So why did I learn about Priestley in science lessons in chemistry? And what about the luminiferous aether - a hypothetical substance never detected, but an absolute assumption of science before the Michelson-Morley experiment. Science, or non-science? And why, exactly?

String theory? Psycho-analytic theory (still science, just, when I was studying psychology, but since dubbed pseudoscience - at what point did all the scientists who studied it become pseudoscientists?)?

I’m not sure that Josh’s Creator/creation distinction has traction in many cases, astrology being one - all astrologers believed the influence of the planets was natural, and compiled oceans of data in support. The mechanical philsophers rejected it as action at a distance - but their case was overturned by Newton’s discovery of gravity.

In the end, empirical science showed the thory of astology to be untrue, but we learned nothing about the borderline between science and non-science, except by arbitrarily baptizing current beliefs as science, and what they replaced as non-science.

Larry Laudan, a philosopher of science with no sympathies for creationism, intelligent design, and the like, has nonetheless campaigned for decades against the unthinking use of the term “pseudoscience” to label any idea one doesn’t like. At a deeper level, Laudan has argued that being preoccupied with the question of whether some idea is, or is not, “science” (per some definition of the latter) betrays a lack of interest in the far more important question of whether that idea is true or false – letting the question of what will count as “science” to be sorted out by history.

ID proponents have grown accustomed to being presented with definitions of science that – mirabile dictu – exclude ID hypotheses from consideration by definition, prior to any examination of the evidence. It’s a sure sign that our interlocutor doesn’t actually want to talk about the evidence, because evidence is unruly and its verdict is hard to predict. Fussing about who is being “scientific,” by contrast, and who is not, is much easier to do (just contrive a definition of “science,” making sure to exclude folks you don’t like) and thus sounds very much like stipulating the rules for membership at a country club. Somehow the people with the wrong-colored skin never quite make the list.

Here’s a classic paper by Laudan, which, while apparently focused on the question of realism vs. anti-realism, really bears more directly on the uselessness of definitions of “science” for the purposes of empirical inquiry. See, for instance, Laudan’s list of “once successful and well-confirmed theories” on page 33:


Paul, another example I thought of (but omitted) for Argon was the fact that all through my early education and self-education, the progress of human evolution was supported in all the texts by the far smaller brain-size of Neanderthals, and even more the small brians of what was then Peking Man.

This, as you know, has proved to be spurious, H. erectus cranial capacity being within the normal range of H. sapiens, and Neanderthals being larger than average moderns.

I’ve wondered whether the change in the evidence base was purely from new fossil material, or whether the original cranial capacity estimates were ideologically driven. Either way, both the data and the scientific conclusions derived therefrom were as erroneous as the “pseudoscience” of phrenology, so does that make the biology texts I grew up on pseudoscientific, or merely old science? And if old science, why is not phrenology, especially as it was the phrenologist Broca who discovered the first function-specific brain area?

Likewise Lamarckism was judged pseudoscience throughout my educational and professional life, really, and then epigenetics came along (and various people remembered that Darwin had supported it all along as part of the picture, and now it’s science again, at least potentially).

With astrology there are two components of note: astronomy; the study of planetary motions, and the connection to behavior and ‘fate’. Astronomy had a systematic, empirical approach. The ‘connection’ was less systematic. Also, astrology’s roots were from pre-scientific eras.

All these were investigated and determined to be incorrect. This is a process of science. It’s not perfect, and it’s human-based, but that doesn’t mean its not a distinguishable approach.

We have hypotheses and ideas about how some phenomenon arise. We build theoretical constructs on these. We examine how they map to other observations and previously examined constructs. This is often an iterative process.

We can go off in wrong directions for perfectly sound reasons. There are social influences as well. Some directions are dead ends or false starts and others lead to something productive. This is science. We build on what we learn, both from positive and negative experience.

Astrology today is non-science. Making elaborate theoretical astrological predictions on the basis of phenomena we now understand as having no basis is practicing pseudoscience. Similarly, the explanations presented for how homeopathy might work today is pseudoscience. It’s not positing mechanisms we don’t know about; it’s proposing mechanisms we know don’t work (i.e. ‘water memory’) and which would even operate counter to what is proposed.

String theory?

Still in the conception phase and there are no pronouncements from the work that we should accept as sound at this point. If they can anchor the work to a potentially distinguishable observation, that would be essential for progress. I think it’s akin to mathematical research at this point. Other opinions differ. It’s an edge case and we’d be unreasonable to expect perfect clarity in all areas of study.

Psycho-analytic theory (still science, just, when I was studying psychology, but since dubbed pseudoscience - at what point did all the scientists who studied it become pseudoscientists?)?

Things like psycho-analytic theory have been heavily revised over the years. It definitely had components and offshoots that could be described as pseudoscientific after investigation. I think one thing that can distinguish pseudoscience (more accurately, people who are operating in pseudoscience territory), is refusal to change in the face of mounting contrary evidence. For example, a Freudian psychoanalyst today would tread that ground.

Here’s an illustrating case: Peter Duesberg (UC Berkeley), continues to assert that the symptoms characterized as AIDS are the result of drug use, not HIV infection. He cites evidence that is easily refuted by college biology students. He makes terrible attempts to deny what we understand about the biology of HIV in humans. When the AIDS epidemic was first characterized, Duesberg’s was a reasonable proposal and it actually was investigated. But it quickly became clear that the drug use explanation didn’t hold up and that HIV infection was the critical causal factor. Today, Duesberg’s idea is non-science. His continued attempts to defend his proposal with references and evidence (that other scientists know actually don’t support his notion) make it now a pseudoscientific pursuit.

In the end, empirical science showed the theory of astrology to be untrue, but we learned nothing about the borderline between science and non-science, except by arbitrarily baptizing current beliefs as science, and what they replaced as non-science.

That argument is making category error. We don’t expect that discovering facts about the world to be true or untrue will tell us about what constitutes science or scientific practice. It’s the hows and practices leading to these determinations that illustrate what constitutes science.

I agree with this. What I don’t agree with is the notion that one can’t distinguish areas or proposals that aren’t science around the same time they are promoted. Not all cases, but certainly many. In other words, we can have very solid knowledge about whether a proposal is amenable to fruitful investigation or merely ‘word salad’.

Regarding Intelligent Design science, I wrote this eariler today.

I guess I could say that I’m not personally interested in policing what is and isn’t science, but I’m willing to enter discussions with others who propose that science cannot be distinguished.

Two books that really changed and influenced my thinking on demarcation:



I don’t think you can distinguish true from woo quite so easily as you suggest. I’ll stick with astrology, since it’s well-known and covers the issues nicely.

Astrology arose not along with astronomy, but as what astronomy was all about, once (presumably) folk astronomers had got the seasons for planting etc sorted out. The Babylonian paradigm was of a cosmos in which the heavens correlated with the earth, and so careful empirical measurement of the skies was expected to correlate with important events - and presumably did sufficiently persuasively for a vast body of observations to build up and be used predictively for 2500 years by successful rulers and their subjects. It was almost the sole reason for doing astronomy, and that remained true for the rest of its heyday - it seemed useful across the known civilisations of the world from China to Mesoamerica for maybe 4000 years all told.

The Greeks and Romans took on the system for the same purposes (Imperial Rome was governed as much by astrology as economics determines decisions now). It matched well to the developing mediaeval cosmology, especially after the Renaissance, for the universe was conceived holistically as analagous to an organism , and all science was done on that paradigm. So heavenly movements ought to have their matches on earth, just as looking at a patient’s tongue can tell you the state of his gut, or his eyes his liver, even now.

When the new, atomistic, mechanical philosophy came in with Bacon and Co, action at a distance was the main anathema, so it was only a matter of time before astrology would be held to be irrational, since the stars simply could not, on the mechanical paradigm, influence events involving non-contiguous objects on earth. So astrology was being abandoned long before any decent studies showed it was false (and that despite the slightly embarrassing matter of Newton’s gravity showing that the stars and planets could act at a distance on objects on earth).

Now, I’ve not studied in depth the papers that have ben said to disprove astrological effects, but would be fairly confident that they were performed on the basis of some variation on “mechanical philosophy” as a methodology, rather than the holistic paradigm under which astrology was developed.

In principle it’s quite unlikely that asking the universe atomistic questions will deliver holistic answers. Putting a little meat on the bones of that, treating the universe as an organism is going to use a methodology more like clinical psychology than physics. It would not expect tidy results, but trends. Even the ancient Babylonians treated their correlations as general truths needing to be interpreted by a skilled operator, which is I suppose on a par with even the most model-based meteorology today: weather channels disagree because the models need to be weighed by human skills to make actual predictions. Yet meteorology is a science: a science of chaotic systems which can be modelled to degree. Have the astrological studies treated it in that way, or set out to disprove it by ironclad correlations?

That doesn’t mean I believe astrology has a basis in reality: how would I know, since I’ve never studied it? But it does mean that the scientific paradigm one uses will profoundly affect the kinds of questions one asks nature, and so the kinds of answers one gets back. That could lead to an easy definition of science as being necessarily linked to the current metaphysical paradigm. That would easily sort the science from the non- and pseudo-. But such a stipulation would undoubtedly have made Newton’s gravity unscientific under the ruling paradigm of the time, the mechanical philosophy. But at that stage, because they hadn’t defined science exclusively as people want to now, Newton’s work gradually eroded the paradigm itself.

In our own day, we have Kuhn to point out that paradigms in science do change, and therefore cannot be used to define science itself. It’s therefore hard to know if employing whatever new global paradigm might emerge could put a different light on astrology: the questions it asked would certainly be very different.

This has a bearing on other cases you mention, like Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, too. The interesting thing is that MR is a theory proposed to explain phenomena that remain pretty well invisible under the current materialistic paradigm, so it’s maybe doomed to be considered pseudo-science.

But the phenomena themselves remain stubbornly present in the world - my most interesting personal example being when I discussed the issue of scientific paradigms with my son-in-law, who replied that he had had the experience of hearing the phone ring and knowing that it was his mother calling to tell him of the unexpected death of his grandfather. Suddenly, morphic resonance didn’t sound quite so way out, because it addressed his experience.

Now, morphic resonance is an attempt at a naturalistic explanation for events like this, and doesn’t invoke any supernatural beings, including God. It may well be wrong (and once more, I have no dog in the fight except a scattering of experiences of my own that it would address). But it exists because “non pseudo-science” has no way of explaining, rather than explaining away, certain phenomena that are, in actual fact, commonplace.

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It didn’t come close to discussing the reason why ID is obviously pseudoscience; ID proponents neither advance nor test an ID hypothesis.

Despite this, the writers of EN&V allege that they can see how all sorts of data from real scientists support ID, but that’s always in retrospect. Even if we overlook their wonderful hindsight coupled with zero foresight, if ID was real science, there would be ID lab and field work picking up on the studies touted by ID rhetoricians.

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For years I’ve been asking ID proponents to provide citations for the most important scientific discoveries brought about by “intelligent design theory”. I make that request sincerely and not defiantly. Good science has involved predictions and new discoveries. Do they think the apparent lack of such discoveries is because “ID science” is still in its infancy? Am I expecting too much too soon? Or is there confusion about the difference between ID philosophy and actual “ID science”?

Meanwhile, I get the impression that the rhetoric on the Evolution News & Views website is out-of-sync—and even sometimes at odds—with what Discovery Institute affiliate scholars are actually writing and saying.


I think you can demarcate between science and pseudoscience. Probably not between science and non-science. That’s why it’s often said there are two types of demarcation problems.

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Charging YEC/ID as pseudo science is just , within these observant circles, malicious.
ID/YEC is playing by the rules. We just do a better job and the opposition can’t tajke the opposition before the public.
Most science is speculated hypothesis and then some back it up with methodological actions. however heaps is untested hypothesis. Id/YEC do both.