Science: Demarcation and Democracy

May 9, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 2:31 pm   Category: Truth

At the heart of the debate surrounding the teaching of creationism in schools lies two issues that each side wants the other to focus upon.  On the anti-creationism debate lies the “problem of demarcation” as it has been called wherein we wish to determine what is and is not science.  On the pro-creationism side lies the issue of democracy wherein we wish to determine who does and does not have a say in what children are taught in schools.  This post will discuss the relationship between science, education and democracy.

Within the last couple decades the demarcation problem has lost much of its poignancy, due in no small part to the failure of all attempts to “solve” it.  There is no single scientific method, nor is there any single definition under which all and only science can be found.  The question becomes, at this point, what does it matter?  Why is demarcating science from non-science so important?  Intelligent Design Creationism is as good an answer as any to this question.  If there is no distinction between science and non-science, then what is to prevent pseudo-science like IDC from being taught in the schools?  Honestly though, what is the answer to this question?  Two answers that immediately come to mind are 1) ideological reasons having to do with the purity of truth and the pollution of superstition and 2) the struggle for and efficient use of limited resources.  These two explanations are not unrelated to each other, for each has to do with securing and maintaining a certain position of authority within our society.

With regards to (1), truth and superstition are things that must be measured by some person(s) and efforts at preventing superstition from creeping into the truth of the scientific curriculum is itself a way of preventing the students from measuring such things for themselves.  (Ironically, this “what are you afraid of?” line of reasoning is exactly that of many intellectuals who criticize churches for discouraging the teaching of evolution and other such heterodoxies within their Sunday schools.)  The attempts by philosophers of science to answer the demarcation problem is perhaps even more obnoxious, they being their own attempts to measure such things for the students and the scientists themselves.  These approaches by both the scientists and the philosophers are basically attempts by Plato’s philosopher kings to limit or do away with a democratic process in which the polluted ideas of the masses might corrupt the purity that the more enlightened legislators have to offer.   (Appeals to the separation of church and state seem pretty flimsy since the most recent forms of IDC no more establish any religion than the Declaration of Independence or the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Unlike the first reason, (2) isn’t concerned with preventing pseudo-science from polluting the minds of students so much as it is with excluding pseudo-science from siphoning time, money, personnel and other such resources from science within educational institutions.  There are only so many classroom hours and so much funding within any academic department, and we should make sure that such things are spent wisely.  The demarcation of science from pseudo-science is thus more a matter of efficiency in education, not to mention job security for the ‘real’scientists, than anything else.  Again, however, we are left to wonder why we should allow scientists, philosophers of science or any other elite minority such power over an education system that we are compelled to pay for and submit our children to?  By what right does any such minority tell us what is best or wisest for us or our children?  Once again, demarcation becomes a self-serving attempt by a small minority to limit or constrain democratic processes that might otherwise work against them.

Now for the obligatory caveats.  I am convinced that IDC is not a fruitful or productive science.  I am not, however, convinced that this is enough to prohibit it from being taught in our schools.  Similarly, I am not convinced that it necessarily *ought* to be taught in our schools either, or that the public ought to push against scientists in other ways.  Rather, my argument is that scientists or philosophers of science should not have exclusive control over such decisions and that attempts at demarcation are just such attempts.  While it might be a cliche, I am convinced that the unilateral and compulsory sovereignty of a majority, imperfect though it always, is still better than the unilateral and compulsory sovereignty of any minority.  I am not arguing for IDC or against science per se.  Rather, I am saying that inasmuch as science and democracy come apart (and IDC happens to be a case where they do), compulsory education should side with the latter at the expense of the former.



  1. This is an extremely curious addition to your repertoire.

    I’d like to hear more about what did the “convincing” of you that the majority is better than the minority.

    What values are you using in your assessment? What examples of democracy and relative minorities and majorities are you using? What size of political unit are you trusting in? School board, state, country, world?

    The logic you are using would lead to saying that a world vote on curriculum for all children is preferable to the current system, correct?

    My political biases lean the same way yours do on this question but it’s just a political bias. I think there are very strong arguments that the tyranny of the majority should be avoided, but it seems to be a matter of considerable luck whether the ruling minority does well or ill and the same goes for ruling majorities.

    By what process is the size of the democratic unit determined?

    Comment by Martin James — May 10, 2015 @ 7:37 am

  2. I’m afraid I don’t really have definite answers to most of your questions. My post was more of an attack on the following argument:

    1. We do not vote on science.
    2. Science ought to be taught in school.
    3. Therefore votes should not determine what gets taught in school.

    I actually agree, for the most part with (1). I think a lot of us want to push back against (3). Therefore, we should probably be a little suspicious about (2) wherein we equate compulsory education with science itself. In other words, I’m pushing back against the idea that science is the paradigm of truth that we ought to teach in our society. To completely surrender the education of our culture to the elitism of expertise just is to place ourselves under a false priesthood.

    Consider the methodological naturalism around which science is based. It makes perfect sense to say “if we assume this, look what we can do.” This is not at all dangerous. However, what happens with this methodological presupposition becomes morally enforced by a compulsory education system? How is the moral enforcement of any such assumption practically different from claiming its metaphysical truth? This is part of the reason why I’m trying to use democracy to carve some space between science and education.

    Within a private school that is run by the church, I would expect priesthood authorities to play the role that the voting public plays in my argument. Priesthood authority, however, should not wield the kind of compulsory power that the voting public does have in the larger society.

    Comment by Jeff G — May 11, 2015 @ 11:43 am

  3. I think we should distinguish between demarcating science from non-science or pseudo-science and the philosophical attempt in the mid-20th century to give a set of rules to do this. The latter was a failure but I’m not sure that’s a practical problem to demarcating in many cases. For instance even if we can’t clearly delineate in abstract science from non-science it’s not hard to explain why Creationism isn’t science. So we have to be careful here.

    To make an analogy I can’t specify when someone is bald. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell most bald people apart from those who aren’t bald. The problem is much more a kind of grey area in the middle which is vague or ambiguous. But this is true of most of our concepts.

    By and large the demarcation problem was part and parcel of the concerns of positivism in mid-20th century analytic philosophy of science. As the concerns of positivism became abandoned for many reasons so too did the demarcation problem.

    As for the question of power or funding, I think there are excellent reasons for deciding when teaching science to listen to scientists discuss what it is rather than people attempting to foist their own religious views. I’m surprised you see this as an “elite minority.” While parents can push what they want taught (and frankly usually win – look at all the crap taught in school that is often wrong) ideally we’d look to experts in a topic to decide what the topic is about and not people largely ignorant of the topic.

    Certainly I agree scientists shouldn’t have exclusive control. But I see no evidence they do have exclusive control and abundant evidence they don’t. If anything the problem is their not having enough influence not their oversized influence.

    Comment by Clark — May 11, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

  4. “ideally we’d look to experts in a topic to decide what the topic is about and not people largely ignorant of the topic.”

    But this just is Plato’s argument against democratic rule. How or why should it be contained to this particular case?

    “I see no evidence they do have exclusive control”

    They write the textbooks. They train the teachers. They decide what counts as a good or bad theory, a right or wrong answer. They most certainly write the standardized tests. At first they fought to get their theory into the schools, but ended up fighting to keep everybody else’s theories out, regardless of what the general population believes. While their influence might not be total and exclusive, it is wildly disproportionate.

    “it’s not hard to explain why Creationism isn’t science.”

    But this begs the question that I’m trying to raise: why should our compulsory education be so closely aligned with whatever counts as good science? Why does science deserve this kind of control over our education curriculum? I agree that creationism isn’t science…. but this isn’t in itself a good enough reason to keep it out of the schools. Other reasons must be given. (For the record, I think natural religion is bogus all around, and I think creationism is definitely a form of natural religion.)

    Comment by Jeff G — May 11, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

  5. In practical terms I wouldn’t be too concerned about the effects of compulsory education because it appears to be pretty ineffective. The average person neither knows much science nor places much belief in it.

    I think a considerably larger number of people believe in democracy than science. I wouldn’t confuse compulsory attendance with compulsory education. Its not like kids are required to confess faith in the scientific method under threat of punishment or anything.

    I have been on the board of a private school and it is a very interesting process to try and figure out what gets taught and why. For the most part it is habit more than anything else. The school is not compelled to teach anything by either the state or a religion in this case. There is considerable latitude to choose what is taught but no one knows a good use of the flexibility.

    Comment by Martin James — May 11, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

  6. Well I think there are some great arguments about absolute democracy as government – indeed most of those arguments are why the founders tended to be wary of unfiltered democracy and set up a republic.

    So just because Plato argued something isn’t exactly a reason to disavow it. Plato made lots of good arguments and even the ones I reject are usually more subtle than they first appear.

    As for the textbooks, sadly for K-12 scientists don’t write the textbooks. For college you’re more correct. By and large the textbooks are determined by the requirements of the largest markets which means California and Texas by and large decide on textbook makeup. And both are highly influenced by activists including parents.

    I wish what you fear was the case. But it simply isn’t.

    As for why our compulsory education should be aligned with what counts as good science. I’d think that for a science course that’d be self-evidence. When you teach science as science it makes sense to teach science. If we had a science class that spent the semester teaching Shakespeare we’d see that as a mistake.

    I’m not opposed to teaching other things. But for science classes the whole point is to teach science just like the whole point of math classes is to teach math.

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

  7. For an example of the actual “sausage making” of textbook requirements see this NYT article. Note how the experts are largely ignored. Also this story. Science advocates have to beat off those putting non-science in science textbooks by vote.

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

  8. Clark,

    While I’m not totally convinced, that is good push back on who writes textbooks at the lower levels.

    I am not totally convinced that well scientists say is the only thing that should be included within science class. I know that Dennett, for example, wants all creation narratives taught within schools, but only in an ironic “this is what other people believe even though it isn’t actually true” sense. When it comes to speaking truth about the world, we allow science a monopoly within the schools that allows for no alternatives or critical distant on the issue.

    I guess the disconnect I’m advocating is between “what scientists say” and “what we are taught is true in school.” You can place “science as such” any where you want between those two, but I reject the idea that those two poles ought to be one and the same.

    Comment by Jeff G — May 12, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

  9. I don’t think I’m saying only scientists should be involved. At a minimum I think experts in educational pedagogy should as well. I’d also hope historians of science and philosophers of science should.

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

  10. To add, the real issue is that some evangelicals simply want their view of theology taught against science in science class without giving other religions the same status. That’s inappropriate (their religious views, I assume even you would agree, aren’t science) and unfair (they don’t accord Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus or other faiths the same treatment).

    I’ve no trouble if schools want to require a philosophy class or comparative culture or religion class. I think that would be fantastic if taught well (i.e. actually comparing religions & cultures fairly rather than as a way to be dogmatic about a subgroup of Christianity). However teaching philosophy, history or comparative religion just isn’t science and shouldn’t be portrayed as science.

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

  11. I agree that their views aren’t science. Where I disagree is that 1) we only allow science exclusive rights to affirmatively teach a creation narrative, etc. and 2) I don’t think recent ID is any more wedded to Evangelical Christianity than the Declaration of Independence is.

    to unpack (1) a bit more, I see little practical difference between granting exclusive rights to methodological naturalism and teaching metaphysical naturalism. They teach kids that even though they can’t prove that God wasn’t involved, they ought to assume it all the same. And this makes me uncomfortable.

    Comment by Jeff G — May 13, 2015 @ 10:08 am

  12. Put differently, I think the appeal to separating religion from state is, for the most part, disingenuous and post-hoc ideology.

    I think what’s really at stake is:

    1) Protecting the methodological naturalism that is at the heart of science (I think this should be protected)
    2) The hegemony of science such that it has exclusive rights to address various questions (this I am against)

    Comment by Jeff G — May 13, 2015 @ 10:33 am

  13. I don’t think creationism or ID are *essentially* wedded to evangelicalism. However as a practical matter most of those pushing it are doing so as a way of pushing evangelicalism. A subtle but important distinction. I’d add that most of those pushing ID don’t know what formal ID is. They hear a little bit and think it justifies a much more naive creationism. So lay ID proponents are often more than a little misleading (whether by intent or simple ignorance). To me formal ID is a huge step up from creationism but when I talk to most those espousing it they simply don’t realize formal ID entails the same history of evolution that science adopts. Since for many evangelicalism the issue is maintaining a “literalistic” (hate that term) reading of Genesis that’s insufficient.

    I certainly don’t think only science should teach a creation narrative. Again though I think only science should teach scientific creation narratives. Have a different class to teach something else and I’m fine. I obviously don’t even have trouble with release time religion classes for instance even if I may as a practical matter object to the particular content. (e.g. I like release time LDS seminary – I don’t like seminary teachers teaching against evolution)

    To your other points. I’m not sure I’m even as strongly in favor of methodological naturalism as you are, depending upon what you mean by that. I certainly don’t think only science can answer questions but I think any attempted answers have to explain the evidence at hand.

    Comment by Clark — May 13, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

  14. Put differently my real concern in school pedagogy is in not teaching the science correctly. I don’t mind if other things get taught. Just teach the science right.

    Comment by Clark — May 13, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

  15. “However as a practical matter most of those pushing it are doing so as a way of pushing evangelicalism. A subtle but important distinction.”

    Is it that important? Many of those who push against ID do so as a way of pushing atheism or agnosticism. How is that any different? The whole point of the separation of church and state was to prevent an organized church from claiming a monopoly on state authority. I suggest that allowing science and its methodological naturalism exclusive rights to teach certain things about the world – such that in school we are taught to assume naturalism and nothing else – is much closer to violating the church/state separation than any evangelical sects is.

    “Since for many evangelicalism the issue is maintaining a “literalistic” (hate that term) reading of Genesis that’s insufficient.”

    I personally think all such issues stem from the rise of natural religion in the 18th century. I even see far too much of it within Mormons who are still convinced that scientific interpretations of the world and scripture lie at the very heart of divine truth. It not only produced deism, but also the argument from design that makes Darwin so relevant. If we simply saw that scientific interpretations of the world are convenient and optional, then there simply isn’t that much of a contradiction between the two. Of course, given Protestantism’s explicit appeal to experience and evidence are equally available to everybody – aka its rejection of church authorities – they have little choice but to follow the path of natural religion. Mormons, however, have little reason to follow them.

    “I think only science should teach scientific creation narratives. Have a different class to teach something else and I’m fine.”

    Here, I think, is the problem that the post was really aimed at. In our school system, we are taught that if something isn’t science, then it isn’t true. (Thus, the ironic teaching of religious studies, etc.) At no point do teachers suggest that the scientific approach to the world with its naturalistic assumptions has any kind of legitimate, non-ironic competitors or substitutes. At no point is it suggested that science itself is just an interpretation of the world. And this, I feel, is exactly what the ID debate was really about. Scientists what to block off the opportunity for people to perceive competing alternatives that might siphon resources and prestige from them.

    Comment by Jeff G — May 14, 2015 @ 11:59 am

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    Comment by Kaylee — May 14, 2015 @ 8:25 pm

  17. Jeff (15) I think it’s inappropriate if within school a particular religion is pushed. Yes. Especially if it is pushed against science so that science isn’t taught.

    That said in terms of science curriculum itself I think what counts is the content itself. But of course for anyone attempting to change something it’s worth considering their aims in order to understand what about content they seek to change.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “Mormons who are still convinced that scientific interpretations of the world and scripture lie at the very heart of divine truth.”

    Surely truth is truth. If science can discover truth then it’s true. Are you just espousing a strong skepticism as science as a methodology or are you saying something stronger closer to the old notion of a double truth?

    With regards to school teaching that only science has truth, I just don’t see that. Certainly there are people within American culture pushing naive scientism. But I just don’t see that as a big problem in scholastic pedagogy. (If anything I’d say the opposite due to the issue of literary truths)

    Comment by Clark — May 15, 2015 @ 11:36 am

  18. To add, unlike the issue of personal belief within a particular faith, a school has to deal as a practical matter with diversity and pluralism. That is not everyone in the school is Evangelical and children who are Buddhist, atheists, Hindu, Mormon or the like can’t be made to feel like second class citizens.

    Comment by Clark — May 15, 2015 @ 11:38 am

  19. “Are you just espousing a strong skepticism as science as a methodology or are you saying something stronger closer to the old notion of a double truth?”

    I totally reject the propositional conception of truth that has been built into science. Thus, scientific truth is not necessarily truth in any morally meaningful sense. I’m not embracing skepticism (I’m not even sure it’s coherent under my view) nor am I embracing double truth. Rather, I am rejecting the idea that science is aimed at truth at all. It’s aim is instrumental and predictable interpretations or models of the world. Whether any such model or interpretation is actually true or not has very little to do with the degree of fit between prediction and observation.

    “With regards to school teaching that only science has truth, I just don’t see that.”

    What, for example, is a different creation narrative that is taught non-ironically and as truth within schools?

    “That is not everyone in the school is Evangelical and children who are Buddhist, atheists, Hindu, Mormon or the like can’t be made to feel like second class citizens.”

    In what sense would some amount of ID make them feel this way but the Declaration of Independence or the Pledge of Allegiance does not?

    Comment by Jeff G — May 15, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

  20. Jeff said (quoting Clark)
    ““However as a practical matter most of those pushing it are doing so as a way of pushing evangelicalism. A subtle but important distinction.”

    Is it that important? Many of those who push against ID do so as a way of pushing atheism or agnosticism. How is that any different?”

    The difference is between the words “most” and “many.”

    Comment by DD — May 15, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

  21. I think it’s a moot point. Most kids see through BS. I’d side for democracy because attempts to gain mindshare (even if you think you’re right) by force pushes people the other way. Why create more zealots?

    This reminds me of debates about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Some people think it’s a work of fiction. Others think it’s the real deal. What does that matter if we ourselves are essentially works of fiction?

    Superstitious fads such as materialism come and go. It doesn’t pay to take them as gospel because no ideology disconnected from the heart can accurately reflect reality.

    Comment by Bradley — May 24, 2015 @ 12:48 am

  22. Jeff (19) I don’t buy instrumentalism as usually taken. But of course scientific instrumentalists can be rigorous scientists without thinking science aims at truth in a robust fashion. (Think Feynman for a non-philosophical form of it) But even if science is no longer about truth, it seems more reliable than alternative discussions purportedly about truth.

    DD (20) Certainly those who are atheists will push against ID for their own ideology. The difference is that that ID isn’t science. If there were a “creation accounts of the world” and atheists were pushing against teaching Genesis 1 then I think you’d have a point.

    Fundamentally the issue is that science is a threat to some religious views and so they attempt to stop science from being taught. (I should add that of course Evangelicalism need not be in conflict with science and there are plenty of Evangelicals with no problem with evolution)

    Bradley (21) The issue is less kids seeing through the BS – especially at the college level. Rather it’s that kids are getting a bad education. Of course science education in general is poor but this is a particularly bad situation to occur.

    Comment by Clark — May 25, 2015 @ 2:10 pm