Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 4: Demarcation
In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (available for purchase now), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls “scientism”: “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” (page vii). In Hutchinson’s eyes, this erroneous world-view is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today. In this series (taken from the larger book, which engages the topic in a much fuller and deeper fashion), Hutchinson will attempt to both explain and dismantle “scientism” by examining both what we mean when we say “science”, and how the scientistic worldview oversteps this definition and becomes a philosophical and metaphysical framework. In parts two and three, Hutchinson described two key characteristics of science that underlie its immense power but limit its scope: reproducibility and Clarity. Today he looks at the challenging of defining what is and isn't science.
Demarcation: What is or isn't science.
Is there a clear enough definition or understanding of what natural science is to justify distinguishing it from non-science?
In 1952, Nobel-prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek wrote about sociology's development as follows:
During the first half of the nineteenth century ... the physical and biological disciplines ... came to exercise an extraordinary fascination on those working in other fields, who rapidly began to imitate their teaching and vocabulary ... to vindicate their equal status by showing that their methods were the same as those of their brilliantly successful sisters rather than by adapting their methods more and more to their own particular problems. ... in the hundred and twenty years or so, during which this ambition to imitate Science ... has now dominated social studies, it has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena ...1
Please note that this assessment of scientism in sociology is not by me or any other scientist but by a world-leading practitioner of one of the most distinguished social disciplines. Hayek attributes the start of this fruitless trend in sociology to the "Positivists" Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. Their ambition was to show that "there were laws governing the development of the human race as definite as those determining the fall of a stone". Their aim was to turn social history into a new science modeled on the natural sciences.
Secularist advocates object to calling scientism a religion because they say scientism lacks the clerical hierarchic authority and public rituals that characterize most theistic religions. A remarkable feature of early nineteenth century scientisms, however, was the attempt to embody them in explicit new religions, complete with all the trappings of traditional faiths.The last of Henri Saint-Simon's works published in his lifetime was entitled New Christianity. His followers set out to found the organized religion of this new belief. Their efforts began with a short-lived journal, progressed to public lectures on the Doctrine de Saint-Simon, and thence to services, public confession of sins, itinerant preachers, and the founding of local centers throughout the country. It ended in a move to a monastic community complete with menial labor and vows of celibacy.
Auguste Comte quickly disassociated himself in the 1820s with the Saint-Simonian religion. But in his later teaching (1851-) he founded his own new Religion of Humanity complete with hierarchic priesthood, and a high-priest (Comte himself). Comte's obsessive detail prescribes nine personal sacraments, eighty-one annual festivals, the saints, the icons to be used in Positive churches, and that they should all face towards the source of their enlightenment: Paris. The Religion of Humanity attracted some influential figures, for example philosopher John Stuart Mill and novelist George Eliot.
For much of the twentieth century philosophers of science sought mightily for methodological descriptions or definitions of science: either to identify and explain the methods that science uses to obtain its knowledge, or more modestly to supply criteria that distinguish science from non-science. The current opinion in philosophical circles is that both of these programs have failed, and in particular that demarcation between science and non-science has no clear solution. This failure gives rise to a paradox. Despite having concluded that there is no satisfactory working definition of what science is, the History and Philosophy of Science has not collapsed and vanished as an academic field. I conclude that, despite what HPS says, there actually are some intuitive ways by which science is identified, as evidenced by the pretty clear boundaries of the topics that HPS does actually study.
These matters of demarcation have been brought very much into the American public eye in recent years by the role they play in battles about high-school biology. Although the guilty Scopes verdict in 1925 was overturned on the absurd technicality that the $100 fine exceeded the judge's authority, anti-evolution law remained on the statutes of Tennessee and several other US states. Text-books worked cautiously around these laws until in 1968 the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down its anti-evolution statute, and was followed in this action by Mississippi two years later. Thereafter, repeated attempts to introduce creationism into the curriculum have repeatedly been overturned by the courts. The strategy adopted by `Creation Science' activists increasingly, in the face of these reverses, was to portray creationism as science and to argue that, as such, it should be taught alongside evolution. A statute worded along these lines in Arkansas was struck down in 1982, after testimony from a host of expert witnesses. Louisiana's similar statute arrived by a tortuous legal route at the US Supreme Court on 10 December 1987. Its defenders argued that it was not religious but scientific. Seven of the nine justices were unconvinced. Thereafter, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement went to even further efforts to ensure that their ideas were free from religious taint. Eventually, in the celebrated case in Dover, Pennsylvania, 2005, Judge Jones' ruling identified ID as "a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory" and castigated the school board for precipitating a pointless trial.
These high-profile legal decisions hinge on the question of whether certain opinions and teachings are or are not science. That this has become the deciding question is a remarkable sign of the dominance of scientism in our culture. Scientism leads to acrimonious arguments about whether opinions are or are not science because the scientistic ethos gives special status to science that it does not give to non-scientific disciplines. The result is that the demarcation of what is or is not science becomes not merely an academic philosophical discussion, but a vital legal matter that decides practical questions of deep importance and emotional significance in the minds of most of the American public.
Since the attempt to define science by uncovering its logical methods or even to establish what is or is not science is judged to have failed, and since this question has become a high-profile legal matter I am in dangerous waters. I am asserting that there are two identifiable characteristics of science, reproducibility and Clarity. Am I therefore claiming to have solved the demarcation problem? No, what I am observing is that, despite the difficulties that undoubtedly exist in specific demarcation, there are in fact identifiable characteristics of science. These characteristics don't provide algorithms either for the practice or the identification of science, but they are nevertheless truly part of science. I am not setting out to provide a comprehensive solution of demarcation, but I am claiming to be able to identify some characteristics of what any solution must look like. Modest answers to parts of problems are sometimes what one must settle for.
Another plea in mitigation of my apparent hubris is that the difficulty of demarcation is substantially amplified by scientism. First, philosophically, demarcation between science and non-science in the context of scientism is equivalent to the demarcation between sense and nonsense, rationality and irrationality, knowledge and superstition. One should not discount the identifiable characteristics of natural science just because of failures of this wider program. Second, politically, since scientism has embroiled the problem of demarcation in high-profile legal questions that raise emotions on both sides, the difficulty of demarcation is made significantly greater. But my whole aim here is to repudiate the scientism that leads to the enhancement of these difficulties. If, as I am saying, science is not all the knowledge there is, then the weight that demarcation has to bear is reduced to a scope that is both more manageable and less sensitive.
Finally, I am content to see the characteristics of repeatability and Clarity as partial definitions of what I mean by science. Any perception of chauvinism in this position arises from the self-same scientistic viewpoint I am at pains to deny. I have no intention to discount or disparage academic disciplines that I regard as not being science. That political science, for example, is not a science in the way I mean it does not change its scholarly or practical value. I do not subscribe to scientism. I believe there is deep meaning, truth, relevance, and insight in non-scientific studies pursued with intelligence and rigor. But their merits have to be really their own, not the reflected glow of a terminological anachronism.
The discipline of History and Philosophy of Science does not have simple answers to the questions, what is or is not science? Or what methods does science use? But HPS, like science itself, nevertheless appears to have intuition about what science is. Natural science is what HPS studies. Although strict demarcation is fraught with a peril greatly enhanced in recent debates by a scientism that artificially inflates the stakes, there are identifiable characteristics of science. Attempts to turn other disciplines, especially social disciplines, into explicit positive science, after the manner of the natural sciences, have a long history - of failure.
1. F A Hayek. The counter revolution of science studies on the abuse of reason. Free press of Glencoe (Macmillan), New York, 1955.
Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.