Parapsychology and demarcation

Fri 13 Jan 2006 06:14 PM

Writing about parapsychology [here], Paul Churchland argues that parapsychologists do nothing more than point to anecdotal results that are anomalous for materialism. Since every theory faces some anomalies, this on its own shows nothing. Borrowing material from Feyerabend, Paul says that a genuinely scientific research program requires a theory of its own which can explain the results. He concludes: "Parapsychologists have not provided the raw conceptual materials with which to construct a coherent and well-motivated research program, even if materialism is in fact false. That is why parapsychology remains a pseudoscience."

I admit that science often involves a relatively detailed theoretical framework developing in dialogue with empirical work. However, Paul overstates the case when he uses this as a demarcation criterion. I want to argue that lacking a rich explanatory framework does not make a discipline ipso facto pseudoscientific.

Imagine that parapsychologists had discovered robust correlations between (say) the thoughts of nearby bald men and the vibrations of pink quartz crystals. Suppose further that these regularities allowed the construction of reliable telepathic lie detectors. The enquiry would certainly count as scientific, even if parapsychologists had no explanation for these regularities.

As Paul notes, parapsychology has not generated any robust, reproducible results like this. That is damning for parapsychology. My point is merely that empirical success alone is enough to sustain a scientific research program at least for a while, and so the Churchand/Feyerabend criterion is not satisfactory as a demarcation criterion.

The example of gestalt psychology is instructive in this regard. The gestalt psychologists discovered interesting phenomena. Cataloging and organizing these phenomena sustained a legitimately scientific research program for many years. Eventually, the research program stopped generating new results and became degenerate. The gestalt folks were not able to give deeper explanations for the phenomena it had discovered. When they tried, they na´vely extrapolated from phenomenal structure to brain structure. The result was a bad theory. I learned from Lakatos that a degenerate research program doesn't become non-science, it just becomes bad science that ought to be abandoned.

One might still try to defend a more conservative version of the demarcation criterion: A discipline is unscientific if all it does is find anomalies for an existing research program.

I still think this says too much. I agree that you can't have a distinct scientific research program just by tabulating anomalies for an existing research program. Since any research program will face some anomalies, then tabulating anomalies might not even be interesting scientific work.

In the case of parapsychology, the damning thing is that there are no systematic anomalies for a materialist approach. Unlike gestalt psychology, parapsychology has not discovered any robust phenomenal laws. We might say that parapsychology is a non-science because of that, but we might instead say that it is just a really terrible science.