An Example Check-Plus Post

September 12, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Posted in Week 2 | Leave a comment

Popper and Lakatos each provide defensible proposals for how we should understand the nature and process of scientific inquiry; their endeavor, however, ultimately proves insufficient for demarcating what is and isn’t a scientific theory.  Popper, perhaps, comes the closest to a consistent definition of science with his notion that theories should be “falsifiable.”  Popper regards a theory as falsifiable when it makes a substantive prediction about what will happen in some critical test and where the failure to observe the predicted outcome would provide sufficient evidence to abandon the overall theory.  Although he views such a test as negating the scientific status of so-called pseudo-sciences, such as astrology and psychoanalysis, he in fact does no such thing.  An astrologer could conceivably evaluate whether birth under a particular stellar alignment led to a predicted outcome.  Because Popper does not constrain his definition of science to active subjects of research, we cannot conclude that the absence of evidence from such a critical test invalidates the theoretical basis for astrology.  Hence, his demarcation fails for the very purpose of its intent.

Lakatos, in attempting to limit the notion of scientific inquiry to “progressive” research programs opens perhaps a bigger hole in the demarcation criterion than he had attempted to fill.  Although his notion of temporally bounded science potentially redeems Popper’s argument where it might otherwise open the door to pseudo-science, his definition suffers from a similarly devastating fault.  Because Lakatos allows research programs to alternate between progressive and regressive stages, he inadvertently undermines our ability to assess which is which.  Presumably, a research program under Lakatos’ definition could be both progressive and regressive at the same time (under different testing circumstances).  Should this happen, we would only be able to determine the status of a research program retrospectively.  This represents a serious problem in that we might only be able to use such a demarcation criterion to assess historical research programs.  As soon as we take a look at the present day, we bias our assessments on the history of a program rather than its true scientific status.  Given this bias and gap in Popper’s reasoning, it becomes unclear whether demarcation is ever a useful scientific endeavor.  Indeed, if we can only ever evaluate the past, what difference does defining science actually make?

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