Laudan on the Demarcation Problem

In empiricism, experiments, laudan, popper on 22/07/2011 at 1:36 am

Larry Laudan’s well-known paper “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” has been republished several times in several volumes. The most readily available copy I could find was in “Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum.” The paper is worth reading for Laudan’s historical analysis of the demarcation problem, but two points in the essay stand out as supremely lackluster, especially for Laudan.

Minimally, we expect a demarcation criterion to identify the epistemic or methodological features which mark off scientific beliefs from unscientific ones. We want to know what, if anything, is special about the knowledge claims about the modes of inquiry of the sciences. Because they are doubtless many respects in which science differs from non-science … we must insist that any philosophically interesting demarcative device must distinguish scientific and non-scientific matters in a way which exhibits a surer epistemic warrant or evidential ground for science than for non-science. If it should happen that there is no such warrant, then the demarcation between science and non-science would turn out to be of little or no philosophic significance. (bolding mine; p. 118)

This assumption seems far from warranted, but put that aside. Warrant is not at issue here–so instead I will not ask followers of Laudan to justify or provide warrant for such a claim. I will just criticize it–show that it is not necessary to claim that demarcation is intended to cleave warranted from unwarranted statements.

Take Popper’s demarcation between science and non-science: Popper never claimed that science was more warranted or justified over non-science or pseudo-science. It is possible that such a warrant is impossible to acquire. It may be the case that the demarcation between science and non-science is little more than a distinction between empirical and non-empirical explanatory statements. Explanatory statements that are defeasible speak of the empirical realm, while explanatory statements that are not defeasible do not.

A second familiar approach from the same period is Karl Popper’s “falsificationist” criterion, which fares no better. Apart from the fact that it leaves ambiguous the scientific status of virtually every singular existential statement, however well supported (e.g., the claim that there are atoms, that there is a planet closer to the sun than the Earth, that there is a missing link), it has the untoward consequence of countenancing as “scientific” every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions. Thus flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers, polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water diviners, magicians, and astrologers all turn out to be scientific on Popper’s criterion – just so long as they are prepared to indicate some observation, however improbable, which (if it came to pass) would cause them to change their minds. (p. 121)

Laudan is making three points here: (1) singular existential statements are not explanatory statements, (2) the ‘falsificationist’ solution to the demarcation problem treats false — but nutty — statements as ‘scientific’, (3) the ‘falsificationist’ solution deals also with attitudes towards confounding singular existential statements.

On 1, who would claim that singular existential statements (such as “this here is a brown puppy”) are explanatory statements? They are understood in light of the explanatory statements embedded deep within our language, our folk-physics and folk-biology, and our scientific theories. But if we see the ‘falsificationist’ solution to the demarcation problem as demarcating only empirical from non-empirical explanatory statements, singular existential statements remain part of the scientific purview.

On 2, I suffer one of those moments of confusion. Assuming Laudan is correct, these claims have been tested and not withstood even the most rudimentary tests. Then they are merely false empirical statements, no matter how ‘crank’-ish they sound to our ears. Do they get to wear the Merit Badge of being ‘scientific’? Pinning the badge on a ‘crank’ claim is a problem for Laudan and not the ‘falsificationist,’ for unlike the ‘falsifiacationist,’ Laudan thinks all scientific claims are de facto more warranted than non-scientific claims. Thus, Laudan makes a rudimentary mistake by confusing a problem for one position (reductio: the most absurd claims are now warranted!) to be a problem for all positions.

On 3, Laudan is stating the obvious: while a scientist may possess empirical theories, she may do her best to protect them from refutation come what may. The demarcation between empirical and non-empirical sentences then is not sufficient to demarcate between scientific practice from pseudo-scientific practice.


  1. On 1, singular existential statements cannot be scientific, because they are unfalsifiable; instead, they are the potential falsifiers of scientific statements. To say that a statement is not scientific does not mean it cannot play a role in scientific investigation. In this view, “scientific” is merely synonymous with “empirically testable,” which is to say, scientific statements are criticisable in a way that other statements are not.

  2. Laudan is approaching the demarcation problem like all justificationists. The label of “science” denotes “surer epistemic warrant or evidential ground[ing]” — indeed, “we must insist” on it.

    Like the logical positivists before him, Laudan has already decided which theories have “surer epistemic warrant or evidential ground[ing]”. If a proposed criterion of demarcation does not include all the “right” theories and exclude the “wrong” theories, according to Lauden, then it is not a satisfactory criterion. The problem of demarcation then devolves into an attempt to define “science” so that theories Lauden already believes now enjoy “surer epistemic warrant or evidential ground[ing].”

    I remember once reading that the logical positivists criterion of meaning led them to reject all metaphysics. Nonsense, of course. The criterion did not lead them to reject metaphysics; the criterion was designed to exclude metaphysics. They had already rejected ideas about God, the afterlife, the existence of souls, etc. their problem of demarcation was then to provide some rule which gave “surer epistemic warrant” to those things they had already decided to believe anyway, and a rationalisation to reject those things they never liked in the first place.

    All the while, this search for a criterion of demarcation that satisfies one’s particular prejudices is disguised, as though it were the search for some objective “essence” of science. Popper, meanwhile, addresses a different question altogether: how can we hope to eliminate error? Are scientific theories (or empirical explanations) criticisable in any special way? Yes, they are falsifiable.

    Okay, i haven’t read the essay, maybe I am being unfair to Laudan, but this kind thing does happen.

    • You’re close, but slightly off–Laudan thinks the demarcation problem can never be solved in a traditional way because it cannot produce any surer epistemic warrant. In short, Laudan is implicitly a pessimist justificationist, not an optimist (even though he was a follower of Lakatos): he thinks we cannot successfully demarcate in such a hard and fast way between science and pseudo-science as Popper claimed, for Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem (surprise!) does not produce any surer epistemic warrant!

  3. It’s a bit like saying that your hammer is useless because I can’t eat dinner with it.

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  5. I agree with this post. Although Popper did often attack Freud and Marx, it seems unfortunate that so many associate him with demarcating science from “bad” pseudoscience. Early in The Logic of Scientific Discovery he writes:

    The problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as ‘metaphysical’ systems on the the other, I call the problem of demarcation.

    None of that suggests the epistemic superiority reading that Laudan takes. Unfortunately, it seems that this superiority and logical-positivists-like reading is not confined to Laudan and far too prevalent among scientists and ‘science lovers’.

  6. […] and Bad with the latter. Toward this goal, I don’t think falsifiability makes much headway. In this (mis)reading, falsifiability excludes too many reasonable perspectives like mathematics or even non-mathematical […]

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