The politics of demarcation

Abstract: Is it better to have demarcation criteria that allow us to demarcate in practice rather than ones that are philosophically rigorous? This entry looks again at the demarcation problem and considers the criticism that philosophical treatments of it fail to take into account political contexts. It is argued that far from being ignorant of these contexts, rigorous treatments of the demarcation problem are important on whatever understanding we take of the political role of philosophy because they show that the error lies in supposing demarcation to be the best way to deal with the problem of intelligent design in science classrooms.

Concerns about philosophical treatments of the demarcation problem tend to run something like the following: Although the problem may be philosophically interesting and there may be philosophical counterarguments to the various criteria thus far presented as viable, the question of how important the objections are has to be weighed against the political problem of preventing intelligent design from being taught in schools. Furthermore, it may perhaps be the case that the demarcation problem is insoluble but nevertheless there exist criteria that are good enough that we can use them to characterise intelligent design as pseudo-science or unscientific; indeed, this is what the demarcation project seeks, not a philosophically rigorous final answer to the problem. More importantly, offering philosophical critiques of such criteria or arguing that demarcation should not be used at all can been misunderstood as speaking in favour of intelligent design, since if we cannot characterise it as unscientific then its advocates will seek to present it as such. Given that such advocates have significant political and financial support, weakening this means of preventing its inclusion in school classrooms ultimately proves to be equivalent to aiding intelligent design. (Note that this description leaves out the fact that a flaw in arguments for demarcation does not imply an increased merit for ideas about intelligent design.) We should therefore be careful in making philosophical criticisms of demarcation criteria and the demarcation problem in general because we must remain mindful of the larger political context at issue.

I have already argued at length that a recent attempt to set out a useful demarcation criterion, one that takes account of the political context, fails on several grounds: it does not answer the philosophical objections raised against the demarcation project in general, it does not succeed on its own terms, and it does not appreciate why demarcation may be the wrong approach to take in the first place. However, it could be that these considerations should be secondary ones, pushed to this position by the political dangers of intelligent design. Given these objections to the philosophical treatment of the demarcation problem, what are the implications?

One possibility is that, although we can investigate issues like the demarcation problem, we should not publish any arguments that have this potential to undermine an important political struggle or imply that an opposing position has more merit than it has or than we would wish it to have. This seems like an absurd demand, subjecting philosophical investigation to political oversight. A lesser requirement might be to caveat such investigations, including a more political and/or practical addendum that takes account of the political context within which such arguments - like all arguments, really - exist: we might say “notwithstanding that the demarcation problem therefore seems insoluble, in practice we need to be able to demarcate and to do that we now argue for criteria that, although not to be understood as solutions to the problem, provide a basic means to differentiate between scientific and potentially scientific theories on the one hand and unscientific theories on the other” (something of a mouthful, clearly, but a sentiment along these lines). However, this seems to presuppose that the philosopher investigating the matter both recognises and agrees with the correct side of the political issue and that the political context ought to be taken account of; that is, that the investigation cannot solely be of the philosophical merits or otherwise of demarcation criteria.

There are at least two ways to respond to this. Firstly, we can dismiss it as prima facie absurd: philosophy aims at or at least takes some account of the search for truth, and if the truth does not suit the political context then so much the worse for the latter. Even if the notion of truth sits somewhat uncomfortably, the philosopher wants to learn the merits of an argument and these are what they are, regardless of the political stakes. Secondly, we can perhaps object to the separation of truth or merit from political utility: ultimately we may judge it to be more important that children are educated in a particular way than that we have complete solutions to philosophical problems; or else we may wish to audit the results of our philosophical investigations before we implement any changes they recommend or suggest. An example of this might be the standard response to criticisms of democracy, which is to accept them but say that it is still the “least bad” option. Perhaps we can insist, with some justification, that it is less bad to use philosophically flawed or refuted criteria than to follow arguments where they lead and end up with an unsatisfactory political result. It is probably fair to say that this kind of reasoning is often at work in international relations and in arguments for humanitarian intervention.

We might also consider whether rhetoric plays a larger role in politics than it does in philosophy. If so, and given the reality that arguments are not won or lost on their merits alone but also by their presentation and apparent or actual consequences, we have to take account not just of philosophical rigour but also how both we and our opponents will be able to present these merits and consequences. If not, then we still need to bear this in mind. The main lesson of considering a rhetorical dimension is that few (if any) arguments operate in a vacuum: people have political, religious, cultural, ethical and many other concerns, any of which may influence how they interpret what otherwise seems straightforward, such as that the demarcation problem being insoluble does not imply that intelligent design belongs in a science classroom.

Given this discussion, what could be done with the particular question of the demarcation problem? It is difficult to argue that this issue is one in which the political context is so important that we should not argue against demarcation criteria at all, notwithstanding that it clearly is important to many people and does have political and educational consequences. One possibility might be to reason that since supporters of intelligent design have seized upon the apparent insolubility of the demarcation problem, we could emphasise the perhaps more important argument of Laudan’s paper The demise of the demarcation problem, which is that we should focus on empirical and conceptual credentials rather than demarcation if we wish to protect ourselves from bad ideas and quackery. A more accurate interpretation of this paper is thus not that the demarcation problem is insoluble but that issues are not decided in this manner in the first place: for Laudan, we do not ask “is intelligent design scientific?” but rather “what are the empirical and conceptual credentials of intelligent design?” On finding that there are little or none, we are subsequently inclined to say “… and therefore intelligent design is unscientific” but the question has already been resolved at this point (a similar objection can be made regarding the invocation of parsimony in judging the relative merits of theories). This approach allows the intelligent design advocate to work on the idea to attempt to improve its empirical and conceptual credentials, since we already allow that science is always an unfinished project and that ideas or research programmes that have failed to develop might one day do so, but without the need for an a priori decision that is both philosophically unsound and restricts this potential development in a way that, with the benefit of hindsight, would have hampered science in the past. (This is the argument of the historical turn in the philosophy of science, of course.)

The best response to the objection “so how would we demarcate at all?” is therefore to point out that we judge ideas according to their merits rather than their status post-demarcation. This further allows us to proliferate “alternative” theories; in effect, to point out that, given that geocentrism (to take an example) has empirical and conceptual merits considerably greater than intelligent design, if we wish to enhance the science curriculum by teaching that alternatives theories exist then this (and any number of other possible examples) has more in its favour than intelligent design. (Indeed, geocentrism is a particularly nice example because it includes significant political and religious contexts - historically, that is - that permit the discussion of how and why religious ideas sometimes appear incompatible with scientific results, noting the anachronism in the use of science here.)

The obvious criticism of this approach is to argue that it still ignores the reality of debates about intelligent design: all advocates will do is adjust their ideas or even appeal to miracles in order to save them. Here we can say two things: firstly, of course they do this, which is precisely what we should expect if, as Feyerabend argued, tenacity is a value implicit in science and, by extension, for those who seek to develop scientific theories. After all, intelligent design would have little hope (if the history of science is any guide) of becoming a theory with empirical and conceptual merit if its advocates readily gave up on it, especially since it involves a political context that has been identified - by its opponents - as a threat and therefore presumably as important to those who support it. Secondly, unless we somehow prohibit arguments showing the failure of demarcation criteria (or provide better counter-arguments than have thus far been offered), it may be preferable that intelligent design advocates seek to employ any means to respond to the empirical and conceptual weakness of their ideas. If not, they are able to point to the failure of demarcation criteria or (which probably amounts to the same thing) they can portray philosophical disagreement on this matter as implying that intelligent design is not unscientific and therefore belongs in the science classroom. In both cases, at least moving away from demarcation has the advantage of forcing developmental work to be done and it is unclear why this should be any less successful in addressing intelligent design.

Ultimately what this discussion suggests is that if the adoption and use of poor arguments is to be lamented when undertaken by those advocating intelligent design, surely those opposing it must hold themselves to a higher standard? The implication is thus that if arguments for demarcation criteria continue to fail, if these failures are seized upon by intelligent design advocates and if there are better reasons to dispense with this approach altogether, it is likely that objections to intelligent design on some other basis will be more successful at least in part because they are more philosophically rigorous. Criticising an insistence on demarcation, far from demonstrating a lack of political understanding, actually returns the issue to one of science instead of philosophy and provides a service to the debate rather than acting as an irrelevance or hindrance.

This entry was posted in History and Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Philosophy of Science, Politics, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The politics of demarcation

  1. Pingback: First Response to ‘The Politics of Demarcation’ | The Kindly Ones

  2. Kevin says:

    Hear, hear! I think it is just the timidity of our intellectual culture that prefers to argue by proxy, in this case in terms of demarcation, than to argue the matter head on. The discussion should be about the scientific merit, or lack of merit, of intelligent design; and not try to appeal to what is thought to be a higher authority, a standard of demarcation that applies to all science. If a single standard of demarcation is written into law, which by some interpretations it may well already be, then it would be upsetting in hindsight to find all sciences stratified and encumbered by legal entanglements for the sake of winning on a single issue.

    Philosophically, all problems are open, so it make little sense to answer a simpler problem, whether intelligent design is a science, by sweeping it under a more difficult problem, what does it mean for anything to be a science? If anything, the more difficult problems are solved by breaking them up into simpler problems.

    Indeed, challenge ID proponents to become more scientific. Everyone intellectually honest would welcome this.

  3. Pingback: Belated response to the politics of demarcation « Praj's Blog

  4. Pingback: Hypocrisy happens « Praj's Blog

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