Not Quite Curriculum Theory

Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science

Gieryn, T. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48, 781–795. Retrieved from

Professor Gieryn’s paper focused on what the author saw as the “problem of demarcation” of science from non-science; specifically how he perceived that scientists had—until the published date of his paper in 1983—used what he termed “boundary work” to identify “unique and essential characteristics of science that distinguish it from other kinds of intellectual activities” (Gieryn, 1983, p. 781). This paper will show that Professor Gieryn’s work, now thirty years on, is best viewed as an illustration of the change in the communication of science by scientists, and how demarcation between science and non-science can be easily misunderstood or misrepresented.

Throughout the paper Gieryn (1983) discussed truth as if a general consensus existed upon its definition or meaning; for example…

[T]he “certain” truth of scientific knowledge is the only means to detect discrepancies between ideological distortion and the way things “really” are… (p. 781);

[T]he line between scientific truth and ideological distortion is difficult to locate… (p. 783);

[P]ositivist faith in the ability of science to separate truth from politically motivated distortion… (p. 783);

[P]referred truth… (p. 783);

[P]utatively truthful and reliable contexts… (p. 784);

… plus fourteen other instances of the word, truth, truths or truthful in the authors argument. Such a consensus is far from the case. Since before the date of this paper to the present day, philosophers and sociologists have debated the nature of truth. Various schools of thought have been epitomised by the realism theories of Russell (2009); the coherence theories of Walker (1989); the pragmatism and verificationism of Hilary Putnam (1970, 1975); the phenomenological ideas of Focault and other postmodernists (Foucault, 1980; Foucault et al., 2012; Foucault & Hochroth, 1997) and Tarski’s (1944) “semantic concept”. The notion of truth is not a universal concept, and one person’s truth is another’s “politically motivated distortion” (Gieryn, 1983, p.783). As a result, Gieryn’s frequent references to truth, truths and truthfulness can be unhelpful in discerning his argument and undermine the paper.

The use of the word truth, especially when referring to scientific endeavour can be both misrepresentative and misleading. Science does not claim to reveal truth. Science does not even claim a 100% guarantee of even the most fundamental theories (Ben-Ari, 2005; Kuhn, 1996; Popper, 1959). Scientific theories, as opposed to hypotheses, are based upon experience; analysis; consistent results of well-designed, controlled, replicable, double-blinded—where applicable—experiment; they cannot be cannot be proven absolutely, but with every positive observation, the validity of the theory increases. Scientific theory has the ability to predict further observations and is falsifiable (Popper, 1959). That is, if the theory is incorrect, just one contradictory observation will show it to be false, for example, J. B. S. Haldane’s now much over-used, but equally succinct response to the question of what could falsify the theory of evolution: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!” (Dawkins, 2009, p. 147). Meaning that the discovery of evidence of a mammal existing in an era long before evolutionary science showed that even vertebrates were present, would render the theory to be false. I would argue that Gieryn’s (1983) persistent use of the word truth, in such phrases as “the line between scientific truth and ideological distortion is difficult to locate” (p. 783) is therefore both misleading and a misrepresentation of the nature of science.

Science is therefore shown to be evidence-based, using a process of methodological naturalism—a systematic, empirically-based investigation of the natural, requiring a mixture of all of the facets described above, and by the work of such philosophers as Kuhn (1996), Popper (1959) and Russell (2009). Yet Gieryn (1983) argued that the practical demarcation of science from non-science is, in some ways, ironic. He explained his argument by stating that curricula teach “chemistry but exclude alchemy… physicists but no psychics get funded… journal editors reject some manuscripts as unscientific” (p. 781) and that the attempts by scholars to “decide what is essential and unique about science” is “apparently futile” (p. 781). These arguments are concluded with the statement, “Demarcation is not just an analytical problem: because of considerable material opportunities and professional advantages available only to ‘scientists,’ it is no mere academic matter to decide who is doing science and who is not” (p. 781). In this passage, Gieryn has inferred that science and scientists have almost arbitrarily decided what is science and what is not; that alchemy and psychics are unjustly regarded as unscientific, and that manuscripts may be rejected at the whim of journal editors.

Should any of Gieryn’s (1983) examples meet the rigorous criteria for demonstrating empirical evidence, e.g., success under controlled, double-blinded investigative protocol, replicability and falsifiability, they would be accepted as science and studied accordingly, such is the eventual, but “inherently self-correcting” nature of the scientific method (Gorski, 2008; Laudan, 1981). Gieryn declared that his paper restated “the problem of demarcation: characteristics of science are examined not as inherent or possibly unique, but as part of ideological efforts by scientists to distinguish their work and its products from non-scientific intellectual activities.” (pp. 781–782). I would argue that it is not scientists per se that distinguish between science and non-science, it is the nature of science and the scientific method—as described above—interpreted by scientists, which set such boundaries.

Gieryn (1983) uses three sources of information to analyse “both style and content of professional ideologies of scientists” (p. 782). Gieryn examined records provided by the work of John Tyndall, described by Gieryn as an “effective statesman for science in late Victorian England” (p. 782); the debate in 19th century Edinburgh, Scotland, over whether phrenology—the false assumption that mental faculties are located in “organs” on the surface of the brain, and can be detected by visible inspection of the skull—was science; and a 1982 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on scientific communication in relation to national security. Even in 1983, Gieryn’s first two sources of data were more than 100 years old. At best such data could be used to offer an historical perspective on scientific communication. The very basis of science is that it is a dynamic, rapidly-changing field of knowledge, and I would argue that comparing even the ideology behind science communication in the 19th century to either the latter half of the 20th century, or the first decade of the 21st would be an entirely invalid comparison.

In the last thirty years, since Gieryn’s third source of data and the publication of his 1983 paper, massive changes in science and the dissemination of scientific knowledge to scientists and the public have occurred (Nosek & Bar-Anan, 2012). Thirty years ago for example, no-one could have possibly foreseen the impact of the internet, and electronic documentation, on global communications. As a result, drawing conclusions about the dissemination of scientific knowledge in 2013, from Gieryn’s (1983) paper would be erroneous. We can however, observe how communications have changed since Gieryn’s work, both in terms of media and intent.

For example, Nosek and Bar-Anan (2012) have examined process of publishing in scientific journals. They state that whilst the systems for publishing in many existing journals are rooted in the “anachronistic practices of the past”, many journals have been successfully working within their recommended practices, which include fully embracing digital communication; open access to all published research; publishing details of peer review; and allowing open, continuous peer review following publication. Such openness and transparency of process is in entire opposition to the ideology of scientists described by Gieryn (1983):

Boundary-work is an effective ideological style for protecting professional autonomy: public scientists construct a boundary between the production of scientific knowledge and its consumption by non-scientists (engineers, technicians, people in business and government). The goal is immunity from blame for undesirable consequences of non-scientists’ consumption of scientific knowledge. (p. 789).

If Gieryn was justified in this statement, and I do not believe that his (1983) has adequately illustrated that he was, then a comparison with Nosek and Bar-Anan’s (2012) paper shows a marked change in ideology since Gieryn’s work.

Flying Spaghetti Monster

Flying Spaghetti Monster

Gieryn (1983) has discussed various definitions of the term ideology and how this might relate to science. He argued that the different approaches all had one thing in common, “all assume that science carries its own intellectual authority” (p. 783). This is true of any field of academic study that amasses a body of knowledge around any given topic. A professor of art history for example, would claim intellectual authority in their particular domain, over and above a professor of musical theory, or nuclear physics, and vice versa. I would argue that the weight that intellectual authority be given however, should be judged according to the empirical evidence presented for its case. For example, the weight given to the intellectual authority of adherents to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM; also known as Pastafarians— in their stated beliefs, should not be accorded the same intellectual authority as to those who can provide many years of empirical evidence for their claims—whatever the intellectual domain.

Gieryn (1983) further discussed this theme, stating, “[o]ther knowledge-producing activities, such as religion, art, politics, and folklore, are seen as complements to science rather than competitors” (p. 783). The author did not show sufficient evidence to enforce this statement, and I would contend that any intellectual domain may be considered complementary or competitive only when contextualized. For example, do cave paintings dating from almost 30,000 years ago represent solely an historical artifact? Or do they show the art of early Homo sapiens sapiens? Or perhaps both? Given context, such study may be competitive or complementary.

Gieryn (1983) has pointed out that where science may compete with another form of intellectual domain, “[s]cientists often win these professional advantages in boundary disputes that result in the loss of authority and resources by competing non-scientific intellectual activities.” (p. 784). This statement also requires context; without context we risk considering science to be just one narrative among many—just one form of knowledge no better than any other. This is not the case. As has been discussed, science is built on empirical evidence—often many years of painstaking observation, critical thought and experiment. I would argue once again that, in a given context, the intellectual authority of some fields of knowledge carries deservedly more weight than others.

The idea that evidence-based knowledge should command greater intellectual authority than that of a non-evidence-based domain, is well illustrated by Gieryn’s (1983) examination of the debate between science and phrenology in 19th century Edinburgh. Whilst invalid as an example of scientific communication, echoes modern-day debates between science and pseudoscience. Gieryn used this as an example of boundary work, where scientists declared phrenology to be non-science, arguing that scientists “accused phrenologists of relying on popular opinion to validate their theories while ignoring opinions of scientific ‘experts’… [and] only those with sufficient training and skills could evaluate technical claims about the structure and function of the brain” (p. 789). As a result of the phrenologists’ ideology of science Gieryn contended, “as expandable into religious questions, as estimative or subjective in methodology, and as capable of being evaluated by non-specialists” (p. 789), the field was excluded from science “as alternatively defined by anatomists” (p. 789).

Phrenology was rejected as non-science on the basis that it was worthless both as a diagnostic tool and a medical intervention (Gardner, 1957; Hall, 2008; Skrabanek & McCormick, 1990). Phrenology failed to clear the hurdles of empirical evidence in the 19th century, in exactly the same way as, for example, homeopathy fails the same hurdles, and is rightly categorized as non-science in the 21st century (Shang, et al., 2005). This is not an unfair system; interventions based on phrenology, homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic have all been shown to have no statistically significant effect beyond that of placebo (Ernst, 2012; Ernst & White, 1998; Hall, 2008; Homola, 2010; Shang, et al., 2005). Scientists have taken up this debate and are experts on the techniques required to evaluate the claims made for such interventions. Terms such as statistically significant are well defined and understood (Devore, 2012). Whilst phenomena such as the placebo effect—“the response of a subject to a substance, or to any procedure, known to be without any therapeutic effect for the specific condition being treated” (Koshi & Short, 2007, p. 5)—may not be as well understood, but have been studied extensively. Koshi and Short for example, reviewed a sample of literature on placebo theory, which amounted to approximately 120 papers. I would argue that scientists are therefore the best qualified to judge what can and cannot be demonstrated with properly designed, double-blinded experiment. Thus, when Gieryn stated “[p]hrenology lost: ‘science’ assumed boundaries that left no room for it within” (p. 789), he was being somewhat misleading. Phrenology lost, because when investigated, the evidence has never supported the claims made for it by its adherents.

Gieryn (1983) moved on to discuss how scientists have accumulated “abundant intellectual authority and convert[ed] it to public supported research programs” (p. 789), whilst retaining control over material resources and remaining autonomous by government and private industry. The author cites attempts by government to control scientific communication during the latter decade of the Cold War, a time of notorious paranoia for the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union (as it was then) and their allies (Whitfield, 1996).

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) argued against this being in the best interests of American science, and the Gieryn (1983) has used this to argue that the scientific community was erecting barriers to further their agenda of restricting access to, and maintaining authority over, scientific knowledge, whilst attempting to gain access to greater financial resources. Accusing scientific advisors of emphasizing “utilitarian justifications” of science for the sake of political expediency (p. 791), but refraining from “playing that song too loudly” (p.791), in order to avoid government restrictions on scientific communication. Gieryn claimed this resulted in an ambiguous but useful boundary between university science, technological consumption and application, enabling the pursuit of autonomy and public support. Gieryn also argued that scientists had placed the responsibility for leaking “militarily useful technology to the Soviet Union… on individuals or corporations outside the community of American university-based scientists” (p. 791). Thus making the argument for increased government controls on the dissemination of scientific knowledge less compelling. Gieryn stated that the “continued autonomy of scientists may depend on the effectiveness of this ideology” (p. 791).

It is interesting to note that Gieryn’s (1983) rationale for this argument has been based on the debate over scientific communication, between an independent scientific advisory body and the American government, during a period of extreme international tension and suspicion (Whitfield, 1996). Given that the mission statement of the National Academy of Sciences (2013) proudly proclaims their history of international scientific collaboration, I would argue that a clash of opinion between the NAS and the American government of 1982, would be expected:

The NAS is committed to furthering science in America, and its members are active contributors to the international scientific community. Nearly 500 members of the NAS have won Nobel Prizes, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1914, is today one of the premier international journals publishing the results of original research. (NAS, 2013).

Gieryn’s (1983) closing argument summarised his position on what he perceived as “interminable debates over the uniqueness and superiority of science among knowledge producing activities” (p. 792), and described demarcation as…

[A]n analytical problem for sociologists and philosophers. Descriptions of science as distinctively truthful, useful, objective or rational may best be analyzed as ideologies: incomplete and ambiguous images of science nevertheless useful for scientists’ pursuit of authority and material resources. (pp. 792-793).

This statement dismissed some of the central goals of science—which can never be completely attained, but are always striven for—to be accurate (rather than truthful), practical, un-biased and evidence-based, as incomplete and ambiguous; serving to pursue authority and material resources. I would argue that such a statement is not supported by the evidence presented throughout Gieryn’s (1983) paper, only by an inherently anti-science and anti-scientist interpretation of the selected data.


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