Philosophy and History of Science and Technology

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Tuesday, 09-12-17: Pseudoscience II



Today we revisited Popper at some length so as to get clear on the distinction between the Naive View and the (now) Traditional View of science I began to develop last time. Note that our goal throughout is to understand what is distinctive about science so as to be able to specify what counts as a pseudoscience. Thus on the Traditional view (Popper's view), scientific inquiry proceeds by a process of developing a theory, identifying implications of the theory (also known as the theoretical hypotheses), and using experiments to test the hypotheses so as to falsify them. Failure to falsify tells us nothing about the truth of the theory, but it does lend support to the notion that we may be on the right track. Success in falsifying a hypothesis tells us, by the nature of implication, that the theory implying the hypothesis must also be false.

According to Popper, then, falsification is the key demarcation criterion distinguishing genuine science from pretend or pseudo-science.

Kuhn, however, points out that if Popper were correct, we would expect to see a very different historical record on the development of science. What we find, though, is that scientific theories are developed in fits and starts, with long periods of clinging to orthodox views in between. Kuhn thus distinguishes between normal science and extraordinary or revolutionary science.

During periods of normal science, scientists deploy the scientific theories they were taught to solve the kinds of puzzles intended to be solved by the reigning theories of the day. Eventually, though, the puzzles become more and more difficult to solve, which leads to a period of questioning primary assumptions and radical departure from tradition.

It is important to emphasize that, for Kuhn, science is primarily a social activity. That is, periods of normal science, punctuated by periods of revolutionary science, are driven by the social context in which scientists are instructed, funded, and themselves teach how science is done.

For all that, Kuhn is not without his own demarcation criteria. For what science can do pseudoscience does not is provide comprehensive resources for puzzle-solving. It is this puzzle-solving tradition which tells us we have a science and not a pseudoscience.

It is not the case, then, that scientists actively seek to falsify their theories except possibly during periods of revolutionary science. Instead, they explain away puzzles they can't solve with the received theory as technical failings, mistakes, or anomalies. Gradually those unexplained puzzles accumulate, which ultimately leads to revolutions in science.

We closed today by forming up groups for the invention project. Each group has until Thursday, 9/21 to provide me a single page on which you:

  1. Provide a team name;
  2. Briefly (one paragraph would suffice) explain the technological advance you plan to recreate (using, again, only the tools, materials, and techniques available at the time);
  3. Describe any special resources you anticipate needing--shop space, fuels, materials, etc.; and,
  4. Provide a list of group members (with contact information).

Next time we will begin with Lakatos' response to Popper and Kuhn's analyses of demarcation criteria.