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Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Quest to Tell Science from Pseudoscience

Michael D. Gordin
Boston Review
Originally published 23 Mar 21

Here is an excerpt:

Two incidents sparked a reevaluation. The first was the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. The success triggered an extensive discussion about whether the United States had fallen behind in science education, and reform proposals were mooted for many different areas. Then the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) prompted biologists to decry that “one hundred years without Darwinism are enough!” The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, an educational center funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, recommended an overhaul of secondary school education in the life sciences, with Darwinism (and human evolution) given a central place.

The cease-fire between the evolutionists and Christian fundamentalists had been broken. In the 1960s religious groups countered with a series of laws insisting on “equal time”: if Darwinism (or “evolution science”) was required, then it should be balanced with an equivalent theory, “creation science.” Cases from both Arkansas and Louisiana made it to the appellate courts in the early 1980s. The first, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, saw a host of expert witnesses spar over whether Darwinism was science, whether creation science also met the definition of science, and the limits of the Constitution’s establishment clause. A crucial witness for the evolutionists was Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Ruse testified to several different demarcation criteria and contended that accounts of the origins of humanity based on Genesis could not satisfy them. One of the criteria he floated was Popper’s.

Judge William Overton, in his final decision in January 1982, cited Ruse’s testimony when he argued that falsifiability was a standard for determining whether a doctrine was science—and that scientific creationism did not meet it. (Ruse walked his testimony back a decade later.) Overton’s appellate court decision was expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the Louisiana case; the result was that Popper’s falsifiability was incorporated as a demarcation criterion in a slew of high school biology texts. No matter that the standard was recognized as bad philosophy; as a matter of legal doctrine it was enshrined. (In his 2005 appellate court decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Judge John E. Jones III modified the legal demarcation standards by eschewing Popper and promoting several less sharp but more apposite criteria while deliberating over the teaching of a doctrine known as “intelligent design,” a successor of creationism crafted to evade the precedent of Edwards.)