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Is Intelligent Design Science?: The Demarcation Problem

Is there a demarcation between science and pseudoscience? This is the “demarcation problem” made famous by Karl Popper. Popper's thesis was that falsifiability differentiated science from pseudoscience. However, although Popper's views are still popular among some scientists, they are widely rejected by philosophers. In fact, most philosophers believe that it is very difficult to find a strict demarcation between science and pseudoscience. This essay explains, in layman's terms, why this is the case.

There is a famous paper called "The Demise of the Demarcation Problem" (unfortunately not available online), by Larry Laudan. Here's a summary some of Laudan's arguments (the link is a response to a recent criticism of Laudan by Robert Pennock).

Laudan argued that since philosophers have been unable to find necessary AND sufficient conditions to demarcate science from pseudoscience, the demarcation problem should be abandoned and we should no longer speak of areas as "unscientific" or "pseudoscience." Rather, we should just talk about, for example, well-founded and well-confirmed knowledge. To Laudan, creationism is not pseudoscience, it is just bad science.

But there is a practical problem here. It is not unconstitutional to teach bad science (this doesn’t violate the Establishment clause). The legal cases against creationism and intelligent design (ID) do depend on demarcation (this is why Laudan, who is definitely no friend of creationism and ID, is often quoted approvingly by defenders of creationism and ID). How did the judges in the McLean vs Arkansas creationism trial and Kitzmiller vs Dover intelligent design trial decide what science was? They largely relied on the testimony of philosophers (Michael Ruse in the Arkansas trial, Robert Pennock in the Dover trial). But some philosophers contend that the philosophical testimony given in these trials was based on questionable and outdated philosophy of science (in other words, the court was given the incorrect impression that philosophers can readily demarcate science from pseudoscience), and the resulting judicial opinions are based on bad philosophy. Larry Laudan writes:

But let us be clear about what is at stake. In setting out in the McLean Opinion to characterize the "essential" nature of science, Judge Overton was explicitly venturing into philosophical terrain. His obiter dicta are about as remote from well-founded opinion in the philosophy of science as Creationism is from respectable geology. It simply will not do for the defenders of science to invoke philosophy of science when it suits them (e.g., their much-loved principle of falsifiability comes directly from the philosopher Karl Popper) and to dismiss it as "arcane" and "remote" when it does not. However noble the motivation, bad philosophy makes for bad law.

Larry Laudan, “Science at the Bar—Causes for Concern.”

Bradley Monton, "Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision."

Now some philosophers would say that what demarcates science is METHODOLOGICAL NATURALISM (MN). Per Robert Pennock:

Ontological Naturalism should be distinguished from the more common contemporary view, which is known as methodological naturalism. The methodological naturalist does not make a commitment directly to a picture of what exists in the world, but rather to a set of methods as a reliable way to find out about the world – typically the methods of the natural sciences, and perhaps extensions that are continuous with them – and indirectly to what those methods discover. The principle of MN demands that scientists appeal exclusively to natural causes and mechanisms. MN is conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition.

Now while it may be fine to adopt MN as an operating principle because it has worked so well in past (as philosophers say, a posteriori), a posteriori MN does not commit one to always using MN. On the other hand, if one adopts MN as part of the definition of science (as philosophers say, a priori), this presents a few problems:

Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, Johan Braeckman, "How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism."

The famous philosopher Thomas Nagel addresses the issue of methodological naturalism (among other issues) in his recent controversial article suggesting that Intelligent Design might be taught in public schools.

If you don’t think ID is science, how would you respond to Nagel?

Nagel notes that if one says that ID cannot be part of science by definition, this notion is not itself scientifically grounded, and it is hard to say how different this is than holding a religious belief. And if prior religious beliefs could undermine science by leading to conclusions like ID, why does MN not undermine conclusions based upon its assumption?

Unfortunately it also seems to undermine the scientific status of the rejection of ID. Those who would not take any amount of evidence against evolutionary theory as evidence for ID, like those who would not take evidence against naturalistic explanations of spooky manifestations as evidence for the presence of a ghost, seem to be assuming that ID is not a possibility. What is the status of that assumption? Is it scientifically grounded? It may not be a matter of faith or ecclesiastical authority, but it does seem to be a basic, ungrounded assumption about how the world works, essentially a kind of naturalism. If it operates as an empirically ungrounded boundary on the range of possibilities that can be considered in seeking explanations of what we can observe, why does that not undermine the scientific status of the theories that depend on it, just as much as a somewhat different assumption about the antecedent possibilities?

It is often said that this particular set of boundaries is just part of the definition of science. I suspect that this simply reflects the confusion pointed out earlier: the assumption that there cannot be a scientific argument for the presence of a cause that is not itself governed by scientific laws.

Now of course, one could just argue that ID is bad science, but as previously noted, it is not unconstitutional to teach bad science. Nagel writes:

The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken.

There is a recent attack on Laudan’s views from Robert Pennock (the primary philosophy witness for the plaintiff in the Dover case). Pennock's paper has generated controversy, including a complaint from Laudan, for its alleged unprofessional tone. Here is the abstract:

Pennock writes:

If Laudan's view were indeed the norm in philosophy of science, then it is little wonder that some say philosophy is irrelevant to any matters of practical consequence. Is philosophy going to be so removed from the realities of the world that it has nothing of value to say even on topics that ostensibly are its core concerns? It would be a sad commentary on our profession if philosophers could not recognize the difference between real science and a sectarian religious view masquerading as science. When squinting philosophers like Laudan, Quinn and their imitators such as Monton and George purport that there is no way to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or religion they bring to mind Hume's observation that "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous." Unfortunately, in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation-science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous.

If there is time, we will also discuss the status of the "soft" sciences like psychology and sociology, as well as areas that may be on the borderline of science, such as string theory, evolutionary psychology, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This  slideshow is worthwhile to review as it presents a different view of demarcation. Here is a lecture by the slideshow author (who has 2 PhDs in both evolutionary biology and philosophy).

I've provided quite a few links for those of you with a substantial interest in the issue. If you wanted to just read up quickly on the topic, I would recommend the first "Is Astrology Science" link and the slideshow. I would also recommend the Nagel article which is fairly long (but not technical) but presents a significant challenge if you think that intelligent design has no place in public education on the basis of ID not being science.


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  • Ed

    Thanks for allowing me to join the conversation, I enjoyed reading the comments below and visiting the sites mentioned, and reading about how the meeting went over on the I.D. site. I've been commenting on I.D. on facebook and on my blog lately, though I suspect I.D. has jumped the gun, without waiting for scientific knowledge and comparisons to accumulate. I.D.ists see a designer's hand in everything from blood coagulation to malarial parasites.

    I'm afraid I won't be able to attend any meetings as I live on the other side of the U.S., but glad to know there's meetups like this!

    November 29, 2012

    • Casey L.

      Your do make an interesting substantive comment: “discrete elements of the flagellum are not absent completely from other known species of bacteria on our planet.” That’s not entirely true, and if it were, it wouldn’t provide an evolutionary explanation. See:
      Also, that’s great that Todd Wood has “an advanced degree in biology from a major secular institution”. I know many ppl with “an advanced degree in biology from a major secular institution” who support ID and disagree with Wood. I know atheists who doubt Darwinism. What’s your point?
      In closing, you’ve misrepresented ID arguments and research, and now falsely claim I claim evolution entails “progress,” when I never said that. Feel free to respond, but I don’t think it’s worth my time to continue this conversation.

      1 · December 13, 2012

    • Jason

      Both, if you do continue with the conversation, consider taking it to the discussion forum if you are going to discuss whether or not ID is science or offsite to discuss implications of or problems with ID. Posting here ends up in the inboxes of a lot of people who may not be interested.

      December 13, 2012

  • Michael U.

    This was my first meetup with this group, and I found it thoroughly stimulating. I did not catch the name of the man who found he had to dig harder to argue against ID. Can you ping me? I'd like to chat further about this, if you are interested.

    November 30, 2012

  • Brian W

    Great discussion, well-balanced, excellent questions, answers and responses.

    November 28, 2012

  • Gene L

    It looks like the Pennock article referenced above is now availalbe online.

    November 20, 2012

    • Victor M.

      I added the link to Pennock's paper in the writeup.

      November 20, 2012

  • Gene L

    This meetup is mentioned on well-known intelligent design blog. Thanks to Jonathan for posting it.

    November 19, 2012

  • Victor M.

    A fable with a hint as to how the scientific establishment ought to react when faced with something considered "pseudoscientific":

    1 · November 3, 2012

  • Gene L

    I've started a discussion thread about the material above. Also, I've noticed that the Nagel article link above is broken - unforunately I don't see another place to find the paper on the Web currently

    October 25, 2012

    • LynchGirl

      All of the links are connecting for me, Gene, including the Nagel paper.

      October 26, 2012

  • Philip B.

    October 16, 2012

    • Gene L

      As I note in the reply to the thread that isn't the debate above.

      October 16, 2012

  • Gene L

    Since the Discovery Institute (the hub of the ID movement) is actually based in Seattle, I've sent them a notice about the meeting - I hope some of their staff might attend - it will make for a more diverse discussion perhaps.

    October 12, 2012

    • Scott L.

      I suggest inviting Casey Luskin from the D.I. He's a lawyer and a pretty good debater. He's into this.

      October 12, 2012

    • Gene L

      Scott, thanks I will email him about the meetup.

      October 12, 2012

  • William T.

    Gosh, it amazes me how much nuance the event descriptions are for this group. There is an excellent book called "The Nature of Nature: The Role of Naturalism in Science" that contains essays from almost forty authors on both sides of this debate. The whole thing is almost a thousand pages long...

    I may or may not be able to make it to the meetup, but I have a feeling that many who show up will equivocate whether or not a position is true with whether or not it fits a criteria of what should be considered science.

    October 9, 2012

    • Gene L

      In addition, it is not unconstituional to teach positions considered by some to be false.

      October 10, 2012

    • William T.

      Indeed, you just summed it up for me in that first reply. Whether or not something is true is not the same thing as whether or not it qualifies as science.

      October 11, 2012

  • Gene L

    I just noticed that the slideshow link above is no longer working as a direct link but needs to be download as a PDF.

    October 10, 2012

    • Victor M.

      Gene, I corrected the link in the writeup and added the video link.

      October 10, 2012

  • Gene L

    The actual link to the slideshow is below. Below is a link to a lecture by the slideshow author (who has 2 PhDs in both evolutionary biology and philosophy).

    October 10, 2012

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