Sunday, July 1, 2012

On the demarcation problem: When it is OK to slam a whole discipline?

“If you want to slam a whole discipline, might I suggest the education school?”

I'm cool with that.

-- CM post from June 26, 2012


Most CMers like to think of ourselves as well-educated, sophisticated people. If anyone were to catch us discriminating on the basis of race, national origin, sex, or sexual orientation, we’d be deeply ashamed.

And yet, we sure do slam whole academic disciplines often enough. Psychology, economics, business, political science, athletics, and especially education have all taken lots of lumps in CM.

And yet, it is OK to slam phrenology. Phrenology is the study of determining a person’s character from bumps on the head. In the 19th century, it was possible to get a degree in phrenology at many American universities. It isn’t now, because the subject turned out to be based on a false premise: one can’t determine character from the bumps on a person’s head. Phrenology has no reliability or predictive power. Likewise, it’s OK to slam astrology, although at least one college awards degrees in it.

In the sciences, whether a field of study can be considered a science, or whether it claims to but isn’t (and is therefore by definition a pseudoscience), is called the demarcation problem. It’s been written about at length, by Karl Popper, Paul Thagard, and others.

I’m wondering about how to generalize the demarcation problem. No one in CM ever seems to slam English, English or comparative literature, foreign language, history, music, art, many of the other humanities (although philosophy has been slammed for the weirdness of its practitioners), mathematics and computer science (except, again, to complain about the weirdness of their practitioners), hamster fur weaving, or the natural sciences, except sometimes to be jealous about how the chemistry department is “swimming in ducats,” or a joke by a chemist about the mess they make. Why?

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