The authority of science vs. the demarcation of inquiry

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The 4th Sydney-Tilburg Conference on the Philosophy of Science : The Authority of Science

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University of Sydney


The call for papers for this conference claims that 'the founders of modern philosophy of science, including Sir Karl Popper… saw it as part of their role to explain the authority of science’. It continues by declaring that 'A key motive for Popper's "demarcation criterion" distinguishing science from "pseudo-science" was to restrict the authority of science to disciplines which used the scientific method.'

However, a closer look at Popper’s writing shows that this widespread view is incorrect. In fact, Popper declares in the postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery: [I]t is all guesswork, doxa rather than epistēmē… Science has no authority… It represents… our hope of emancipating ourselves from ignorance and narrow-mindedness, from fear and superstition. And this includes… the superstitious belief in the authority of science itself. (Popper 1983, 259–260)

After briefly defending my contention, with reference to the work of Bartley (who edited the postscript) and some of Popper's statements elsewhere, I will argue that Popper is better understood as attempting to demarcate inquiry from non-inquiry. I also hope to show that this humbler goal is worthwhile, especially when it comes to resisting calls to teach so-called ‘creation science’ in schools.

Unfortunately, Popper has become associated with the relatively simplistic view that (empirical) falsifiability is a demarcation criterion. But Popper recognized, even in the first edition of Logic of Scientific Discovery, that falsifiability alone does not suffice. He was cognisant of the problem posed by Duhem's thesis, and therefore stated: A system such as classical mechanics may be ‘scientific’ to any degree you like; but those who uphold it dogmatically—believing, perhaps, that it is their business to defend such a successful system against criticism as long as it is not conclusively disproved—are adopting the very reverse of that critical attitude which in my view is the proper one for the scientist. (Popper 1959, 50)

This would appear to be why Popper (1983, 5) wrote of 'the non-existence of scientific method' above and beyond 'the one method of all rational discussion, and therefore of the natural sciences as well as of philosophy… stating one's problem clearly and examining its various proposed solutions critically' (Popper 1959, 16). In short, the critical approach is a crucial part of the demarcation puzzle.

In the remainder of the talk, I will develop this solution to the demarcation problem in response to several possible criticisms. Chief among these is that 'creation scientists' (and similar individuals) do inquire but only with narrow scope (like, perhaps, Kuhnian 'normal scientists'). To address this criticism, I will draw on some of my recent work on the roles of criticism and dogmatism in science (Rowbottom 2011a, 2011b); and in particular, I will consider if looking at matters from the group level can help.



Recommended Citation

Rowbottom, D. (2010, April). The authority of science vs. the demarcation of inquiry. Paper presented at the 4th Sydney-Tilburg Conference on the Philosophy of Science: The Authority of Science, Sydney, Australia. Abstract retrieved from http://sydney.edu.au/foundations_of_science/documents/Authority%20of%20Science%20abstracts.pdf

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