The English word “science” is primarily used about the natural sciences. We like to warrant our knowledge claims as being true by citing their scientific basis. We use the word “pseudoscience” to describe those studies whose knowledge claims are mistakenly regarded as scientific truths. We mean to say that their claims are closer to opinions. For example, many people think dowsing, or water divination, is a pseudoscience.
Discerning between scientific and pseudoscientific knowledge claims is critical to many situations. It is legitimate to take preventive measures when there is valid but yet insufficient evidence of an environmental hazard. For example, the oceanographers’ prediction that an oil spill may land on a specific part of a coastline. This must be distinguished from taking measures against an alleged hazard for which there is no valid (scientific) evidence at all.
Philosophers have long been interested in what they call the demarcation problem: the problem of how to demarcate science from non-science. But over the years they have become less and less certain about their answers. One of the earliest responses to the problem came from Aristotle who proposed two demarcation criteria. First, he said that science is distinguished from opinion and superstition by the certainty of its principles: a science produces laws that are absolutely certain.
Second, Aristotle said that science can demonstrate a reliable understanding of all the causal chains in a process. Disciplines that could not answer this question in a reliable way were not sciences in Aristotle’s definition of the term. For example premodern astronomers thought they had proved that the sun revolves around the earth. They developed many complex explanations of how the earth caused the sun and other heavenly bodies to behave the way they did. To the extent these turned out to be unreliable we now look back at premodern astronomy as a pseudoscience.
By the mid-nineteenth century, most philosophers realized that science did not offer absolute certainty. In fact, all scientific theories are subject to significant change over time and are thus fallible. Consider the law of the sun revolving around the earth. Philosophers then moved to an argument that what really marks science off from pseudoscience is something called the ‘scientific method’. But it turned out that they could not reach any shared definition of the required components and characteristics of a scientific method. There have been other proposals of what makes science but, as of today, there is no universal agreement, or absolute certainty.
Today this problem rarely concerns those in the quantitative social sciences. They dismiss the philosophers’ concerns as omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing) and they get on with the work at hand.
They generally accept that much of their social or economic research does not yield absolute certainty. They recognize that there will be changes in social or economic behaviors that are not explained by their previous claims. They continually discover new causal variables or interactions they did not previously recognize or understand so that their most general, high level laws are perverted by what they blithely call ‘noise’. This is one reason social and economic predictions are notoriously difficult to make with any but the most general level of reliability. Prediction is most reliable after the fact.
But this is not to say that research done by social scientists is not valid or useful as a warrant for knowledge claims. They do provide the basis of a demarcation between opinions and facts in economic or social debates. More on this in the next blog, Sociology and Journalism.