Is the demarcation problem a philosophical pseudo-problem?

The debate around demarcation revolves around the creation of a framework for classifying and delineating pseudo-science from scientific activity: a way for scientists and the public to be sure that the practices they are paying for, which are alluding to being scientifically tested, are in fact of sound and accurate origin. Indeed, for all practical purposes, some form of criteria is generally highly regarded as essential by the scientific and non-scientific communities. The problem arises, however, in the practical applications of criteria which may often not be a suitable methodology for distinguishing pseudo-science from scientific exploits. In this essay, I contend that American philosopher Larry Laudan’s position is strong when he suggests that, whilst there is certainly a need to establish which claims of knowledge are sound and which are not, classifying them as science or pseudo-science is an ineffective and unnecessary methodology to achieving this. In this way, I argue that the demarcation problem is indeed a philosophical pseudo-problem.

In modern society, one which sociologist Ulrich Beck termed a ‘risk society,’ (Lupton, 1999) the individual sees science as the cause of, not only a greater number of global risks but also the proliferation of risks that have far wider ranging effects than in previous times. As a result, science and its proponents are not seen in the light they once were; as the superior holders of knowledge. In fact, in modernity, there is a greater level of questioning and debating of scientific knowledge by politicians and the public alike; people who are increasingly willing to challenge, and even reject, scientific conjecture and evidence. This has had the effect of lessening the credibility of the scientific community who now communicate a diluted message to global citizens. We can see this in such areas as the climate change debate, creationism, and the anti-vaccine campaigns.

As a result, the scientific community has deemed it more vital than ever, that science regain and sustain a level of authority and credibility that is translated to the public so that science is the authority of knowledge and progression – to the exclusion of all other knowledge claims.

But how is a knowledge claim to gain access to this scientific realm? The history of science has strengthened to become one in which it sets high standards for the acceptance of empirical evidence. Such things as clarity and reliability are held in high regard and so any procedure, technique or development scrutinised by science has always been examined within this framework. However, is it conceivable that we cannot subject all things to the rigours of current scientific method? Indeed, although science’s current ‘gold standard’ of testing exists as Randomised Control Trials, this method is not appropriate for all procedures presented to it – as the case of acupuncture has shown. Furthermore, despite using scientific method and technology, scientists still cannot yet determine how such historical features as the Egyptian pyramids were constructed. And yet there they stand. Surely the existence of something which science cannot currently explain does not necessarily detract from that object’s validity as a wonder of knowledge and skill. Despite this, science perseveres in its attempt to delineate and categorise phenomenon so it can rest assure it has done its best to expose all ‘secrets.’ But perhaps there are just some things within nature and our realm that our current methodology is inadequate to test. Is this not a reflection of our current state of testing procedures rather than a reflection of that which is being tested? I argue that perhaps our methods are not quite developed enough to consider every anomaly or unexplained outcome.

Co-founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and Professor of sociology, Marcello Truzzi, complains that even when procedures and applications do submit themselves to scientific testing, the so-called ‘goal posts’ are moved upon the successful meeting of scientific criteria, or if the experiment is reputable, scientists claim it is a mere anomaly.Whilst it is true some purveyors of particular procedures and applications refuse to submit them to scientific questioning or testing, others are denied the opportunity to be scientifically explored, and are instead chastised as being wrong, irrational, or a combination of both.

The American philosopher and epistemologist Larry Laudan (1996) contends that, from an epistemic viewpoint, rather than being different, science is not that different from other fields of knowledge as essentially it looks at problems and attempts to solve them. Laudan asserts scientists adopt ‘research traditions’ that follow the successful ways used in the past and which rely on a combination of tested empirical theories and non-inferential metaphysical assumptions. These methods, though, may not be enough to cover the testing of all the sciences, as there are no epistemic features unique only to the sciences. As a result, Laudan argues that instead of trying to demarcate science from non-science, we should instead focus on determining what we can regard as theories showing good problem-solving skills in the seeking of knowledge.

Of course, some have argued Laudan’s promotion of developing better problem-solving theories and techniques, is just advocating for an indirect acceptance of a wider demarcation criteria. Indeed, whilst Laudan argues the search for a scientific demarcation criterion is probably futile, he nonetheless concurs that some form of demarcation of knowledge claims is indeed required – not least of all for practical reasons.

Others, however, are adamant that pursuing demarcation criteria between science and pseudo-scientific endeavours is a necessary and important philosophical question that needs answering. Whilst philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper, argue for a system of falsifiability (or testability) to be used as the criterion in determining whether a theory was scientific (1963), modern-day arguments for the value of the demarcation of science have grown to incorporate the consideration that science is arranged in such a way that it tracks objective patterns in the world in order to form a theory, rather than relying on intuitive appeal, as some pseudo-sciences do. In this way, some argue, science does not sacrifice intellectual integrity by not appealing to irrational belief as pseudo-scientific pursuits are accustomed to doing. (Boudry, et al., 2014). In so doing, science provides an evidenced-based, objective, and reliable view of the world.

But even if we accept this viewpoint, what practical benefits do we gain even if we classify something as a pseudo-science? Even though something may not meet scientific standards, it does not mean that a community – aware of its scientific lack of credibility and still looking to the practice in times of need – does not require and endorse it. Astrology is one such example: even though people may agree that it is not scientific by conventional testing methodologies, it nonetheless is an integral part of people’s ability to rely on and believe in something at crucial points in their lives. That astrology does not receive backing from the scientific community only serves to deem it non-scientific – not unwanted.

In practice, the demarcation issue is played out using a sociological model of boundary works. That is, procedures, applications, and techniques are continually distinguished from science using the framework of scientific ideology, which determines what we include and exclude from scientific paradigms (Gieryn, 1983). Indeed, Professor of sociology, Thomas F. Gieryn contends scientists promote certain characteristics deemed necessary to be seen as scientific, to create a social boundary between their scientific methods, knowledge, values, practitioners, and work organisations, and that of non-scientific endeavours (1983). Professor of Philosophy, Paul Feyerabend supports this position by arguing science did not in fact follow any universal methodology, but instead progressed theories in any way scientists deemed appropriate (1975).

With this in mind, when assessing the value of scientific claims, perhaps instead of employing academic or scientific scepticism, it is far better to adopt a Pyrrhonic form of scepticism in the assessment of ‘pseudo-scientific’ matters. That is, to suspend judgement until the matter in question has been tested using other criteria: ones that may not automatically be scientific in nature, but that still employ the philosophical approaches important to science in their assessment of theories and procedures. After all, is it realistic to require that all matters of truth be subjected to scientific forms of testing? Surely this is setting ourselves up within a matrix we cannot sustain given our developing but limited knowledge.

Of course, it is fair to argue that since empirical research is our most currently developed route to objective knowledge, we should rigorously employ it in the testing of all procedures laid before us claiming to be scientific. From a philosophical point of view, this would certainly seem a sound vantage point. On a practical level, however, non-scientific methodology could prove just as effective in achieving a suitable outcome whilst complementing this philosophical position.

In conclusion, there will always be a problem attempting to create demarcation criteria, as history has shown that it has, thus far, been unsuccessful. Indeed, whenever demarcation criteria have been suggested, it has usually been framed around specific political motivations. Hence, the intent and associations of the philosopher have needed to be carefully examined before their suggested criteria adopted. It would, therefore, seem clear that the demarcation issue is purely a philosophical debate that is abstract in its argument and unproductive in its implementation. As there are no constant epistemic features characteristic to all sciences, how can we expect one form of scientific methodology to cover the gamut of procedures and applications presented as scientific? Instead of attempting to get all sciences and non-sciences to either fall within or outside this realm, we should instead develop further methods and theories that allow us to adequately test whether the knowledge claims presented are sound and reputable, rather than spending energy on debating which scientific category they should inhabit.


Boudry, M., Blancke, S. & Pigliucci, M., 2014. What makes weird beliefs thrive?. Philosophical psychology, 28(8), pp. 1-22.

Feyerabend, P., 1975. “Science” The myth and its role in society. Inquiry, 18(2), pp. 167-181.

Gieryn, T. F., 1983. Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48(December), pp. 781-795.

Lakatos, I., 1977. Science and pseudoscience. Philosophical papers, Volume 1, pp. 1-7.

Lakatos, I., 1999. The demarcation problem. In: Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and against method. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 20-31.

Laudan, L., 1996. Beyond Positivism and relativism: theory, method, and evidence. New York: Westview Press.

Lupton, D., 1999. Risk and Reflexive Modernisation. In: Risk. London: Routledge, pp. 58-83.

Popper, K., 1963. Conjectures and refutations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.