Philosophy of Pseudoscience Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem
edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry
University of Chicago Press, 2013
Cloth: 978-0-226-05179-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-05196-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-05182-6
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.001.0001


What sets the practice of rigorously tested, sound science apart from pseudoscience? In this volume, the contributors seek to answer this question, known to philosophers of science as “the demarcation problem.” This issue has a long history in philosophy, stretching as far back as the early twentieth century and the work of Karl Popper. But by the late 1980s, scholars in the field began to treat the demarcation problem as impossible to solve and futile to ponder. However, the essays that Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry have assembled in this volume make a rousing case for the unequivocal importance of reflecting on the separation between pseudoscience and sound science.
            Moreover, the demarcation problem is not a purely theoretical dilemma of mere academic interest: it affects parents’ decisions to vaccinate children and governments’ willingness to adopt policies that prevent climate change. Pseudoscience often mimics science, using the superficial language and trappings of actual scientific research to seem more respectable. Even a well-informed public can be taken in by such questionable theories dressed up as science. Pseudoscientific beliefs compete with sound science on the health pages of newspapers for media coverage and in laboratories for research funding. Now more than ever the ability to separate genuine scientific findings from spurious ones is vital, and The Philosophy of Pseudoscience provides ground for philosophers, sociologists, historians, and laypeople to make decisions about what science is or isn’t.  


Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. He has written many books, including Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk and, most recently, Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. Maarten Boudry is a postdoctoral fellow of the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research at Ghent University and wrote a dissertation on pseudoscience, Here Be Dragons: Exploring the Hinterland of Science.  


“The problem of demarcation—distinguishing credible science from pseudoscience—is a crucial one, but one that has generally been neglected in recent philosophy of science. It is the issue that underlies such topical debates as that between evolutionists and creationists or intelligent design theorists, for example. This volume does a great service by bringing an impressive range of leading philosophers of science from a wide variety of perspectives to reconsider the issue. It is much to be hoped that its publication will spark a revival of interest in this vital issue.” 
— John Dupre, University of Exeter

Philosophy of Pseudoscience is a remarkable contribution to one of the most vexing problems in science: the ‘demarcation’ problem, or how to distinguish science from nonscience. The well-designed diversity of topics and the collective breadth of knowledge of the authors make this book the most comprehensive and authoritative treatise on a majority of the traditional and current demarcation issues. . . . You have a jewel in your hands.” 
— Francisco J. Ayala, University of California, Irvine

"A manual to overcome our natural cognitive biases."
— Corriere della Sera (Italy)

“If the philosophical problem of demarcating science from pseudoscience has a stale reputation, this book is a revitalizing gust of fresh air. Philosophers Pigliucci and Boudry assemble 23 essays that challenge Larry Laudan’s famous 1983 proclamation of the demarcation problem’s demise. Renewed attention to the philosophical questions that pseudoscience raises mirrors an uptick in interest in pseudoscience among historians, as exemplified by Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars. Complementing such work, these essays bring focused attention to the practice and historical development of science. . . . A superb introduction to foundational questions that every philosophy student should confront. . . . Accessibly written . . . intellectually adventurous. . . . Essential.”
— J. D. Martin, University of Minnesota, Choice

“In Gary Larson’s cartoon ‘Scientist Hell,’ a smirking devil ushers an apprehensive man (beard, spectacles, white lab coat) into a room of nattering enthusiasts. The sign on the door reads, ‘Psychics, Astrologists & Mediums Eternal Discussion Group.’ If a similar room awaits philosophers, the present volume might come in handy.”
— Martin Curd, Purdue University, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews


- Massimo Pigliucci, Maarten Boudry
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0001
[philosophers, scientists, sociologists, historians, skeptics, pseudoscience, demarcation problem, Larry Laudan]
This introductory chapter sets out the book's purpose, which is to offer a lively and constructive discussion about demarcationism among philosophers, sociologists, historians, and professional skeptics. By proposing something of a new philosophical subdiscipline, the Philosophy of Pseudoscience, it attempts to convince those following in Larry Laudan's footsteps that the term “pseudoscience” does single out something real that merits attention. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented. (pages 1 - 6)
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- Massimo Pigliucci
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0002
[Larry Laudan, Karl Popper, demarcation, falsification, Kuhn, Dupré, metaphilosophical interlude]
This chapter argues that Laudan's claim that the demarcation problem has been solved was premature. It first reviews Karl Popper's original arguments concerning demarcation and falsification. It then comments on Laudan's brief history of the demarcation problem and argues against Laudan's “metaphilosophical interlude,” where he sets out the demarcation problem as he understands it. Finally, it attempts to rethink the problem itself, building on an observation made by Kuhn (1974, 803) and a suggestion contributed by Dupré (1993). (pages 9 - 28)
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- Martin Mahner
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0003
[demarcationism, cluster approach, philosophy of science, pseudoscience]
This chapter explores a cluster approach to demarcation. The first step toward a feasible demarcation is choosing the most comprehensive unit of analysis: entire fields of knowledge, or epistemic fields. Choosing fields of knowledge as a starting point allows us to consider the many facets of science, namely that it is at the same time a body of knowledge and a social system of people including their collective activities. It allows us to consider not just the philosophy of science, but also the history, sociology, and psychology of science. However, one consequence of a cluster approach is that we must do with a reasonable profile of any given field rather than with a clear-cut assessment. A cluster demarcation also entails that the reasons we give for classifying a given field as a pseudoscience may vary from field to field. (pages 29 - 44)
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- James Ladyman
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0004
[Harry Frankfurt, bullshit, pseudoscience, science fraud, social organization]
This chapter first distinguishes between the concepts of pseudoscience, nonscience, bad science, and science fraud. It then considers why we need the concept of pseudoscience. Next, it deploys Harry Frankfurt's famous analysis of “bullshit” to highlight the difference between pseudoscience and straightforward scientific fraud. (pages 45 - 60)
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- Sven Ove Hansson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0005
[demarcation problem, epistemic warrant, science, pseudoscience]
This chapter recasts the demarcation problem in terms of epistemic warrant. It proposes a definition of pseudoscience that differs from most previous proposals by operating on a higher level of epistemic generality. It defends that feature of the definition and explains how it contributes to avoiding some of the problems besetting previously proposed definitions. (pages 61 - 78)
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- Maarten Boudry
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0006
[science, pseudoscience, demarcation problem, genuine demarcation, territorial demarcation]
This chapter attempts to clarify the confusion between genuine demarcation (the science/pseudoscience boundaries) and the “territorial” demarcation between science and other epistemic fields (philosophy, mathematics). It argues that only the former is pressing and worth pursuing. The territorial problem has little epistemic import, suffers from additional categorization problems, and consequently neither calls nor allows for anything more than a pragmatic and rough-and-ready solution. The normative demarcation project, by contrast is eminently worthy of philosophical attention, not only because it carries real epistemic import and practical urgency, but also because it happens to be a tractable problem. (pages 79 - 98)
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- Thomas Nickles
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0007
[demarcation problem, social problem, philosophical difficulties]
This chapter begins with a historical background of the demarcation problem. It then reviews some twentieth-century developments; considers demarcation as a social problem; and offers a summary of philosophical difficulties with demarcation. It concludes that demarcation should proceed on several fronts, not one which is intellectually decisive but which, together, provide sufficient purchase for practical purposes on neutral playing fields. (pages 101 - 120)
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- Daniel P. Thurs, Ronald L. Numbers
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0008
[pseudoscience, historical identity, late nineteenth century]
This chapter presents a historical analysis of pseudoscience, tracking down the coinage and currency of the term and explaining its shifting meaning in tandem with the emerging historical identity of science. The discussions cover the invention of pseudoscience; science and pseudoscience in the late nineteenth century; pseudoscience in the new century; and pseudoscience and its critics in the late twentieth century. (pages 121 - 144)
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- Erich Goode
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0009
[pseudoscience, paranormalism, science, paranormal beliefs, belief systems]
This chapter analyzes paranormalism as a “deviant discipline” violating the consensus of established science. It discusses the five types of pseudoscientific belief systems: beliefs that depend on a client–practitioner relationship; paranormal belief systems that begin within a religious tradition and are sustained by a religious institution; a form of pseudoscience that is kept alive by a core of researchers who practice what seems to be the form but not the content of science; paranormal belief systems that can be characterized as grassroots in nature; and paranormal beliefs originating from the mind of a social isolate, a single person with an unusual, implausible, scientifically unworkable vision of how nature works. The chapter then presents case studies on astrology and parapsychology. (pages 145 - 164)
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- Noretta Koertge
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0010
[science, pseudoscience, peer reviews, pseudoscientists, scientists]
Philosophers of science have attempted to explain what is wrong with pseudoscience, first, by contrasting the structure of its claims with that of legitimate scientific hypotheses, and second, by comparing the typical reasoning patterns of pseudoscientists with the norms of scientific reasoning. This chapter proposes an additional difference. It argues that typical science can be distinguished from typical pseudoscience by the presence of critical communities, institutions that foster communication and criticism through conferences, journals, and peer review. These well-organized critical communities supplement the efforts of individual scientists by promoting both positive and negative feedback. Pseudoscientists, on the other hand, feeling the stigma attached to their beliefs, often seek out only supportive allies. (pages 165 - 180)
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- Carol E. Cleland, Sheralee Brindell
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0011
[field sciences, nature, empirical evidence, scientific methodology]
This chapter argues that doubts about the scientific status of the field sciences often rest on mistaken preconceptions about the nature of the evaluative relation between empirical evidence and hypothesis or theory, namely, that it is some sort of formal logical relation. It argues that there is a potentially more fruitful approach to understanding the nature of the support offered by empirical evidence to scientific hypotheses. The first part of the chapter briefly reviews the traditional philosophical take on the scientific method in order to clarify its most serious problems. It shows that these problems are greatly exacerbated when science moves from the artificially controlled environment of the laboratory to the messy uncontrollable world of nature. The second part ferrets out some highly general, causal components in the methodological reasoning of nonhistorical field scientists. It argues that differences in patterns of evidential reasoning in the experimental sciences versus the field sciences, and in the historical versus nonhistorical field sciences, seem tailored to pervasive causal differences in their epistemic situations. (pages 183 - 202)
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- Michael Shermer
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0012
[demarcation problem, science, pseudoscience, scientists, pseudoscientists]
This chapter examines the demographics of pseudoscientific and the problems in finding agreement among scientists, philosophers, and historians of science on how best to demarcate science from pseudoscience. It examines how science is defined as a way of distinguishing it from pseudoscience; some examples of science, pseudoscience, and in-between claims; as well as how the legal system deals with the demarcation problem in court cases that require such a determination to adjudicate a legal dispute. (pages 203 - 224)
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- Michael Ruse
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0013
[evolutionary thinking, pseudoscience, popular science, professional science, demarcation problem]
This chapter discusses the history of evolutionary thinking when evolution was treated as pseudoscience and then popular science, before blossoming into a professional science, thus challenging a conception of demarcation in terms of timeless and purely formal principles. For the first one hundred and fifty years evolution was—and was seen to be—a pseudoscience. It was a vision of the organic world that emerged simply because living things were viewed through the lens of an ideology about the cultural and social world. The second major change in the status of evolutionary thinking came around 1930 when Darwinian selection was brought together fruitfully with the newly developed Mendelian (later molecular) genetics. (pages 225 - 244)
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- Evan Fales
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0014
[science, pseudoscience, supernatural]
This chapter examines arguments for the view that any science of the supernatural must be a pseudoscience. It shows that many of these arguments are not good arguments. It also argues that, contrary to recent philosophical discussions, the appeal to the supernatural should not be ruled out as science for methodological reasons, but rather because the notion of supernatural intervention probably suffers from fatal flaws. (pages 247 - 262)
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- Barbara Forrest
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0015
[David Hume, science, religious pseudoscience, supernaturalism, religion]
This chapter enlists David Hume to help navigate the treacherous territory between science and religious pseudoscience and to assess the epistemic credentials of supernaturalism. It argues that the boundary between the naturalism of science and the supernaturalism of religion—and, by extension, between science and religious pseudoscience—is set by the cognitive faculties that humans have and the corresponding kinds of knowledge of which we are capable. Recognizing this boundary is crucial to properly understanding science. (pages 263 - 284)
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- Jean Paul Van Bendegem
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0016
[ethics, debates, pseudoscience, ideal reasoner, human reasoner, argumentation]
This chapter discusses the ethics of argumentation about pseudoscience. It asks, if we take into account all the real-life aspects of a debate, a discussion, or an argumentation, what does it mean to defend a thesis, a position, or a claim in an efficient way? It first explains the standard view of the ideal reasoner. It then considers the five elements that characterize the ideal logician's attitude (ILA) to determine the changes needed achieve a more realistic picture. Next, it addresses the following question: what does the revised picture imply for the practice of debate, discussion, and argument? Two case studies are presented: the first investigates what the possibilities are to attack or to counter fallacies with “fallacies” of our own; the second case deals with misleading and cheating. (pages 287 - 302)
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- Jesper Jerkert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0017
[clinical trials, alternative treatments, pseudoscience, scientific investigation]
The validity of clinical trials for certain alternative treatments has been called into question by supporters of unconventional and pseudoscientific practices, who criticize the way their beliefs are investigated scientifically or the verdicts reached by science. This chapter focuses on the following basic question: what treatments can be scientifically investigated at all? It aims to provide a better understanding of what conditions medical treatments must fulfill to be eligible for scientific investigation. In particular, the discussion is a rejoinder to the claims put forward by adherents of alternative medicine that their treatments are inaccessible to scientific scrutiny. (pages 305 - 320)
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- Frank Cioffi
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0018
[Freudian psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, pseudoscientists, pseudoscience]
This chapter discusses misgivings about Freudian psychoanalysis. It argues that we should move beyond assessments of the testability and other logical properties of a theory, focusing instead on spurious claims of validation and other recurrent misdemeanors on the part of pseudoscientists. (pages 321 - 340)
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- Donald Prothero
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0019
[denials, deniers, skeptics, pseudoscience, climate change, tobacco companies, global warming]
This chapter describes the different strategies used by climate change “skeptics” and other denialists, outlining the links between new and “traditional” pseudosciences. It first discusses groups with ideologies or belief systems that they sincerely hold for religious or political reasons, ideologies that lead to denial of any reality that conflicts with their worldview. It then describes a second category of science deniers: people who recognize reality but, for political or economic reasons, do all they can to obscure that reality. The most famous such example is the case of the tobacco companies, but the same considerations apply to energy companies cynically funding right-wing global warming denialists and many other examples. The chapter concludes by asking, whom can we trust on issues of science and pseudoscience? (pages 341 - 358)
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- Stefaan Blancke, Johan De Smedt
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0020
[evolutionary perspective, cognitive perspective, irrational beliefs, pseudoscience, human mind, cognitive dispositions]
This chapter examines how an evolutionary and cognitive perspective might shed light on the pervasiveness and popularity of irrational beliefs that make up pseudosciences. It first sets up the general theoretical framework, explaining what an evolutionary and cognitive approach entails. Second, it explores how this framework adds to our understanding of why the human mind is so vulnerable to systematic reasoning errors. Third, it demonstrates how concrete pseudosciences tap into particular cognitive dispositions. Fourth, it explains why a number of irrational beliefs take on the form of pseudosciences. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the evolution of the mind relates to human (ir)rationality. (pages 361 - 380)
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- Konrad Talmont-Kaminski
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0021
[noncognitive functions, superempirical beliefs, science, pseudoscience, intuitive beliefs]
This chapter explores the noncognitive functions of superempirical beliefs and analyzes the different attitudes of science and pseudoscience toward intuitive beliefs. It addresses the following questions: Why are pseudoscientific (as well as supernatural) beliefs so hard to eliminate? What is the difference between supernatural and pseudoscientific beliefs? What is the difference between pseudoscientific and scientific beliefs? (pages 381 - 396)
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- John S. Wilkins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0022
[science, pseudoscience, deductivist mindset, inductivist mindset, cognitive styles]
This chapter distinguishes between two mindsets about science—the deductivist mindset and inductivist mindset—and explores the cognitive styles relating to authority and tradition in both science and pseudoscience. The deductivist tends to see problems as questions to be resolved by deduction from known theory or principle. The inductivist sees problems as questions to be resolved by discovery. Those leaning towards a deductivist mindset may find results that conflict with prior theoretical commitments unacceptable. The deductivist tends to be a cognitive conservative, and the inductivist a cognitive progressive. The conservative mindset more often leads to resentment about modernism and hence about certain scientific results. (pages 397 - 416)
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- Nicholas Shackel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0023
[science, pseudoscience, conviction, rational belief, pretense]
This chapter examines the relation of conviction to rational belief. It argues that the question of whether an inquiry is a pretense at science can be, in part, a question over the role of conviction in rational belief, and that the answer is to be found in the philosophical problem of the role of values in rational belief. (pages 417 - 438)
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- Filip Buekens
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0024
[pseudohermeneutics, cognitive psychology, philosophy, intentional thinking]
This chapter focuses on pseudohermeneutics and the illusion of understanding, drawing inspiration from the cognitive psychology and philosophy of intentional thinking. It concludes that the intrusion of intentional thinking and intentional concepts in scientific models may have a potentially dangerous side effect: exaggerated vigilance vis-à-vis intentional concepts can also, unintentionally, affect our natural confidence in the explanations in which agentive concepts figure correctly, thus inspiring revisionist and eliminativist proposals. (pages 439 - 458)
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