When Philosophy of Science Matters: Pseudoscience, Public Health, and Public Policy

by Massimo Pigliucci

Before the 1960s, things seemed to be relatively simple: science was the undisputed purveyor of new knowledge about the world, the role of philosophy of science was to provide an account of the logic of scientific theories and of their epistemic warrant, and pseudoscience was pretty clearly identifiable as such (and therefore neatly demarcated from the good stuff).

Kuhn, Popper, and the Science Wars

That was the time when Karl Popper could provide a litmus test for discriminating between science, non-science, and pseudoscience: if a theory or hypothesis can potentially be falsified, then it is scientific; if there is no way in principle to do so, then it is something else. Accordingly, Popper embraced Einstein’s theory of general relativity as spectacular science, rejected Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis—as well as Marxist theories of history—as pseudoscience, and accounted for the persistence of astrology on the basis of the propensity that its supporters have to come up with ad hoc rationalizations to protect it from falsification.

Then things got more complicated. In the ’60s, Thomas Kuhn convincingly argued that one cannot do philosophy of science without taking on board the history of science, and that philosophers ought to be careful when they engage in prescriptive enterprises based on logical formalisms. Feyerabend, the enfant terrible of philosophy of science, even went so far as to reject the very notion of a scientific method. And both of them paved (arguably unwittingly) the wave for a lot of nonsense about the extreme social construction of science that eventually erupted in the so-called “science wars” of the ’90s, pitting scientists and analytic philosophers of science on one side against postmodernists and deconstructionists on the other side. Meanwhile, in 1983, Larry Laudan had told his colleagues that there was no point in attempting to demarcate science from pseudoscience, and that the great Popperian intellectual program had to be archived for good.

But that wasn’t the end of the story either, as it turns out. Some pseudosciences, like homeopathy, came back with a vengeance, establishing themselves as a type of “alternative” medicine for which people worldwide spend billions of dollars, that some doctors prescribe their patients, and that even some insurance companies subsidize. At the same time, solid scientific notions—from evolutionary theory to Big Bang cosmology and, more crucially, from vaccines to climate change—have been under sustained assault by an odd alliance of fundamentalist religionists, New-Age mysticists, and libertarian anti-regulation capitalists.

The resulting intellectual and social policy landscape is difficult to navigate, with “experts” on all sides making contradictory claims, plenty of special interest money being thrown around, policy makers stalling meaningful action, and a public increasingly confused on whom to believe.

Why Philosophy of Science Matters

This is why a modern, re-energized philosophy of science is coming back and entering the fray of not just academic, but public, discourse. My colleague Maarten Boudry and I have put together a collection of essays on science/pseudoscience demarcation that strongly argue that Laudan’s counsel to give up on the issue was both premature and possibly dangerous. But we also did not simply resurrect Popper and called it a day. A number of contributors to the volume treated the concepts of science and pseudoscience as involving family resemblance, taking a cue from Wittgenstein and attempting to map a complex territory with no sharp boundaries—a territory that, moreover, changes shape over time, precisely because “science” is a social humanity activity, historically situated, and not just an exercise in applied logic.

A number of contemporary philosophers of science, then, have not been afraid of inserting themselves into public discourse, even testifying as witnesses in legal proceedings. In 2005, Judge John E. Jones III rebuked an attempt by the Dover, PA, school district to institute the teaching of “Intelligent Design” creationism, in what has become a landmark decision in the creation-evolution controversy. Judge Jones arrived at his decision in part by listening to (and taking on board the advice of) two philosophers of science who provided expert testimony on the nature of science and its differentiation from pseudoscience: Barbara Forrest (Southeastern Louisiana University) and Robert Pennock (Michigan State).

Why Philosophers Should Be Engaged with Public Health and Policy

The science/pseudoscience debate has only gotten more messy, and more urgent, since Dover. Self-professed “skeptics” of vaccinations and climate change are having a massive effect on public health and public policy, and what is at stake is the welfare of millions of children in the first case, and potentially of the entire human race in the second case.

But, one could reasonably argue, why not leave this to the scientists, who after all are the ones directly working in the disputed areas, and who ought to know best the difference between what they are doing and what counts as pseudoscience?

For a number of reasons: First off, scientists tend to be narrowly focused on the specific kind of research they do. It simply doesn’t pay—literally, in terms of grants, and more broadly, as far as their careers are concerned—to “think big” about the nature of what they are doing. Second, my experience (and I speak here both as a philosopher and as a scientist) is that a lot of colleagues in the sciences have somewhat simplified notions (to put it mildly) of what philosophy is and why it matters. Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, these are discussions that have such broad societal consequences that a number of parties should be invited to contribute: not just scientists and philosophers of science, but also historians, sociologists, cognitive scientists, economists, political scientists, and of course policy makers.

We have learned quite a bit about the demarcation problem and the nature of science since Popper. Indeed, this is one of a number of areas where philosophy has, unquestionably in my mind, made progress—despite widespread opinion that the field keeps going in circles. It is progress to realize that a logicist approach to the study of science is insufficient (Kuhn), that scientists are pragmatic opportunists rather than followers of rigid methodologies (Feyerabend), that science is an inherently social activity, and yet that this doesn’t mean it is epistemically relativistic, or that it can be understood solely by studying its power structures (Helen Longino), and that the boundary between science and pseudoscience is both fuzzy and fluid.

This progress is important not only from a purely intellectual standpoint. It has already affected legal issues and policy making, and philosophers have both an epistemic and an ethical duty to do their part. As Laudan himself put it in his 1983 paper,

Philosophers should not shirk from the formulation of a demarcation criterion merely because it has…judgmental implications associated with it. Quite the reverse, philosophy at its best should tell us what is reasonable to believe and what is not.

Let us keep doing philosophy at its best, then.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He studies the nature of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, and—of all things—the modern revival of ancient Stoicism. He blogs at platofootnote.org and at howtobeastoic.org.


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2 thoughts on “When Philosophy of Science Matters: Pseudoscience, Public Health, and Public Policy

  1. Thanks for this Massimo, it’s a very nice articulation of the issues. Folks in the consortium of Socially Relevant Philosophy of and in Science and Engineering (SRPoiSE) that was initiated (I believe) by feminist philosophers of science Katie Plaisance and Carla Fehr, and now including the leadership of Kyle Whyte, are doing great work on just these issues, and expanding them to include questions of public trust (or the lack of it) in science and the communication of science to the public.

  2. Great summary of the current state of affairs in science and the philosophy of science. The Internet has greatly accelerated the trend towards pseudoscience, as the public gains access to information (and misinformation) like never before, yet most are not taught the skills of reasoning required to be able to discriminate and filter out the nonsense.

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