Saturday, November 30, 2013

Kuhn and the demarcation problem

To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kuhn and the demarcation problem
Date: 21st March 2011 12:46

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 7 March, with your first submission towards the ISFP Associate Award, entitled, 'Does Kuhn's 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions' identify characteristics of science which provide a solution to the demarcation problem?'

Right at the beginning you emphasize the point that the search for a criterion to demarcate science from non-science or pseudoscience is not just a theoretical exercise for philosophers but has a practical point, e.g. 'the delineation between efficacious medical treatments and those which haven't or cannot be subjected to scientific testing'. I will get back to this issue in a minute.

It is important to emphasize the practical dimension, in the face of serious scepticism (expressed in a recent interview by the famous physicist Stephen Hawking) concerning the worth of philosophy and in particular philosophy of science. Why should working scientists pay any attention to what philosophers of science say? Does philosophy of science have anything to contribute to the ongoing scientific effort?

The rigorous testing of new drugs and therapies demonstrates one aspect of practical science: the urgent need for criteria for adequate testing which can be readily understood and enforced, for the benefit of human life. It is interesting, though, that this same concern is not demonstrated amongst scientists generally. You don't get cosmologists, for example, arguing over the correct criteria for an adequate cosmological theory. Given the looseness of fit between available evidence and the various competing theories no-one would be so bold as to claim that they knew what requirements a cosmological theory had to satisfy, least of all that armed with this knowledge that they were able to unerringly pick the theory which best satisfies them.

On the other hand you will have editors/ editorial boards of Physics and Chemistry journals making decisions about not only the importance of a particular contribution but also the soundness of the research according to accepted criteria, loose though these criteria may be. The more remarkable the claim, the greater the scrutinization of the research -- the furore over alleged 'cold fusion' being a(n) (extreme) case in point.

Kuhn would be the first to emphasize that his primary concern is not with demarcation but simply with realistic description. That's the main thing that distinguishes his work from someone like Popper or Lakatos. This is part of a larger current in contemporary philosophy which one could call 'quietism' over foundational questions, or over questions of proof and justification. So you need to make the case that there is a worthwhile point in trying to extract a demarcation criterion from Kuhn's work, given that he doesn't really attempt this.

I suspect that Kuhn's answer, in the case of scientific vs non-scientific or pseudoscientific medical treatments would be that this is something for doctors and medical researchers to decide, not philosophers of science. End of discussion. Consider a particularly controversial example, homeopathy. The 'theory' so-called behind homeopathy is patently absurd to any biologist or chemist. Yet there seems to be an increasing trend amongst members of the medical profession to consider such 'alternative' medicine on the grounds of proven practical efficacy, just don't worry about the science. Perhaps this shows the extent to which the practice of medicine is an art as well as a science.

The meat of your essay concerns the analogy or comparison between 'progress' in art and in science.

As someone with a one-time serious practical interest in art (I took a year's break from philosophy in the mid 80's to concentrate on art and photography) I can see the point about 'problem solving' within the paradigm of a particular style of art. More than this, I would say that the 'laboratory' for serious artwork is the life class (where Richard Feynman famously discovered his artistic talents), indeed that there is an analogous process to scientific observation and theorizing in the way one formulates a 'statement' in response, say, to a particular pose, using the various techniques and media available.

How far does this analogy go? There does seem to me to be a crucial difference. We can put the 'truth' vs 'beauty' question on one side and accept, for the purposes of the argument, that a certain kind of art (the kind done in life class, say) is primarily focused on truth -- the truth of a representation, in the widest sense. Nevertheless, there is a remarkable difference in the method of 'testing'. In the case of a life drawing, the test is the judgment of an art critic, or experienced art teacher. Capturing a superficial 'likeness' or making a pretty picture are considered less important.

I don't know if this is any help to Kuhn, given that such criteria as he puts forward ignore the nitty gritty process of testing and concentrate on the general idea of 'problem solving' within a 'paradigm'. The details aren't for the philosopher to decide, that's the claim that he is in effect making.

No real criticisms of the essay. I enjoyed reading it. I am aware that you are on the maximum word limit already. Consider my comments as just something to think about when you come to make your final draft. Meanwhile, I look forward to your next submission!

All the best,

Geoffrey