On the Fringe Book Summary - On the Fringe Book explained in key points
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On the Fringe summary

Michael D. Gordin

Where Science Meets Pseudoscience

4 (113 ratings)
22 mins

Brief summary

"On the Fringe" by Michael D. Gordin traces the history and impact of the boundary concept in science, revealing how fringe ideas can sometimes shape mainstream thought.

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    On the Fringe
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    Debates about what counts as pseudoscience are inevitable, but imperfect.

    The question of what counts as science has long been debated. Writing about what we now call epilepsy, the fifth-century BCE Greek physician Hippocrates criticized faith-healers, witchdoctors, charlatans, and quacks. In practice, claiming scientific authority inherently excludes rival theories.

    The debate over scientific criteria is known as the demarcation problem, a term coined by the twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. In his 1934 text The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Popper argued that science should adopt an overall criterion dictating that theories within a field should be falsifiable if that field is to be considered "science." Popper’s demarcation criterion was enshrined in US laws as recently as 2004. But from its onset, philosophers of science knew the theory had limitations.

    The key message here is: Debates about what counts as pseudoscience are inevitable, but imperfect.

    Popper’s demarcation criterion falls short in many instances. According to this rule of falsifiability, the Bermuda Triangle theory, Bigfoot, and the flat-Earth model would all qualify as science if adherents of these doctrines conceded that they’d change their minds if solid evidence against them were observed.

    At the same time, falsifiability negates natural sciences such as geology or cosmology since practices in these fields aren’t executed in terms or claims that can be falsified. So why has Popper’s criterion continued to be so popular?

    Though an imperfect task, the question of demarcation is essential when it comes to cases such as creation science, or the scientizing of the biblical Judeo-Christian creation story. Demarcation was at the center of the twentieth-century legal battles in the United States to determine whether evolutionary science or creation science should be taught in public schools.

    In the 1980s, Popper’s demarcation criterion was held up in the US Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard to determine that scientific creationism did not meet the criterion of science and could thus not be taught in schools. As a result, Popper’s theory was enshrined as a legal doctrine and incorporated into high-school biology texts until 2005, when Judge John E. Jones III altered the demarcation criterion to a less-rigid standard.

    Even with changes, it’s inevitable that demarcation criteria will be imperfect. If we want to better our understanding of pseudosciences, we’re better off grouping them into loose categories than coming up with a single taxonomy, since pseudosciences are as diverse as science itself.

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    What is On the Fringe about?

    On the Fringe (2021) delves into what defines a pseudoscience along historical and philosophical lines. With the rise of climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers, understanding the demarcation between science and pseudoscience has a newfound urgency. By exploring pseudosciences such as astrology, the flat-Earth model, and ESP, we can learn about the nature of science in both the past and the present.

    Who should read On the Fringe?

    • Historians, scientists, and philosophers
    • Astrology enthusiasts
    • Climate-change activists

    About the Author

    Michael D. Gordin is the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and the director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University. His books include Scientific Babel, The Pseudoscience Wars, and Red Cloud at Dawn.

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