Yesterday, Jenny East and I went to a lecture entitled “Pseudoscience: Exploiting Public Trust”, sponsored by the Phronesis Lab for Engaged Ethics at OSU. The lecturer was Massimo Pigliucce, a professor of philosophy at the CUNY-City College, co-host of the Rationally Speaking Podcast, and the editor in chief for the online magazine Scientia Salon. Some of you may remember his name from when I mentioned in lab (a few times) about one of his books I was reading, Answers to Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a more Meaningful Life and how that got me to reflect on what years of science philosophy and the discoveries of scientific endeavors themselves can collaborate and culminate in new paradigms reflecting new research questions, new theories and new hypotheses.

The point of his lecture was to discuss, on historical and philosophical grounds, the conflicting ideas about what counts as real science and as pseudoscience (e.g. Astronomy as a science and Astrology as a pseudoscience), ideas of which culminated in the conceptualization of a “demarcation problem” – the problem of where and how we should draw the line differentiating the two. Sir Karl Popper, who we have learned about in our time here at Graduate School, offered a solution to this demarcation problem by introducing the idea of “falsification,” which suggests that science does not progress by confirming hypothesis but by falsifying them. In this sense he was trying to exploit the power of deductive logic to solve the problems of “induction.” However, as suggested by the Duhen-Quine thesis, it is impossible to test a hypothesis in isolation because each hypothesis is surrounded by background assumptions. Furthermore, Laudan introduced some metaphilosophical considerations to the hinge on the demarcation problem. Laudan discussed what conditions determine adequacy, the necessary and sufficient criteria and what judgments are implied.

Beyond the philosophical thought development made so far, the demarcation problem is still under scrutiny. Massimo talked about the scaled approach where some sciences are widely accepted as science already since there is enough empirical evidence, some are placed in transitory stages as quasi scientific fields in development and some are just simply termed pseudoscience for the lack of collected empirical data. Thinking broadly about disciplines that may or may not fit in the scientific category made me take on a more focused line of thinking within the science endeavor itself and the questions of methods and scientific process. Say qualitative vs. quantitative approaches. I would say there is a demarcation problem there too, which is fueled by conceptualizations of the steps involved in the scientific process and traditional understanding of what it means to do science. Qualitative approaches are answering different questions than quantitative, placing them at the center of paradigmatic shifts about the nature of science.

It is my personal belief that qualitative and quantitative methods are complementary for the advancement of science and our understanding of the world, almost an analogy to what Massimo discusses in his book about the complimentary nature of the scientific and philosophical fields to lead us to more meaningful observations about the world. The basis for how we separate science from pseudoscience is analogous to the basis of the latter discussions of methods accepted as scientific methods and worthy of trust. Both “demarcation problems” are cultural constructions materializing as concepts get defined, new ideas are born and naturally derived debate comes to surface as we try to make sense of things and establish rules. Like in any other dimension of social life and different social institutions (family, school, etc), we create rules and follow those rules until they are revised and changed, often by revolutionary paradigmatic shift, it is our way to avoid chaos and continue to just “be” in the world.

In its very beginning, wasn’t science a branch out of philosophical thinking anyway? But, throughout the years, it became so acculturated in its own development, rules and essence that it was separated from the philosophy field to gather the empirical ways in which we can be almost “certain” about things in the world, and it does indeed provide us with that data, like finding a needle in the pile of hay with a magnifying glass. While philosophy sets up the center stages of debate about the broader questions, the stages for agreements and disagreements the very process of “thinking” unravels in the collective mind of society, like looking at the entire barn that stores all that hay.

The questions of philosophy fascinate me just as much as the questions of science. For me the demarcation problem is a sign of healthy development in the individual minds and the “collective mind,” which ultimately establishes what we know about the world, the ways we seek that knowledge and, more importantly, the way we change those ways of knowing and seeking knowledge. For me, things get unhealthy when that social collective mind close up to these possible changes and new incorporations of thinking for reasons short of educated assumptions, curiosity and plain respect for the very capacity of science and philosophy as interrelated fields.

Oh boy…I just realized I have too much of an inclination to philosophical thinking, which may make it hard for me to be seen as a solid scientist. But I also love science and what it is all about, which does not leave much room (in practical terms) for a philosopher to stand in the current state of world affairs.

“Hands-On Science Museums and Their Visitors” is the topic of a two-day conference coming up September in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cyberlab will represent Hatfield Science Center/Oregon State University and will join other Science communication professionals from  Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, Mexico and the United Kingdom to engage in dialogue about visitor meaning making, basically the kind of conversation we are very enthusiastic about engaging in and promoting, especially in such a multicultural setting.

Luisa Massarani, who was a Cyberscholar this Summer and who is the Director of the RedPop, the Network for Science Communication for Latin America and the Caribbean, organized this event to discuss strategies Museums around the world employ not only to investigate learning but also how a diverse public construct meaning from their visits. Although a bit intimidated I will admit, I am supper excited to participate in this event because it strikes me as a place where paradigmatic shifts in learning research are possible and in fact welcome, as a place where we can make room to discuss strategies to capture and analyze meaning making, to look at visitors from their perspectives, to go beyond the traditional measures of learning outcomes in research, to really give our visitors a voice we can dialogue with in the academic written world.

We talk about this need for a new culture of learning in our Free-Choice Lab meetings, Luisa talked about that in her seminar presentation as a Cyberscholar and the need to understand “provocation” and build provocative exhibits. Shawn and I talked about this in an article just published in the NAI Magazine “Legacy”, which led us to an invitation to expand this thinking through a series of articles for the InterpNews Magazine next year. As these kinds of dialogues spread and increase (as it seems to be happening in my opinion), this discussion becomes highly related to current dialogues on learning research methods and applications in the world of practice. I have been recently involved with the new “Methods” Research Interest Group of NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) and the current development of a broad scope dialogue on learning research that seems to be heading in the direction of valuing these paradigmatic discussions and the need to change.

Even though we are all trying to do this kind of more inclusive, learner-based research in our work, we need to see ourselves as important voices in the larger network of discussions, and commit to speak our mind in fruitful and inclusive ways.  Meetings like this really allow us to reflect on how we are trying to do that in the context not just of our own lab and cohort here, but in the larger international context as well. It also gives us a chance to make things real, to move from discussion to actual application invigorated by the good work of others and motivated by our own growth and learning as professionals in the field.

To learn more about RedPop visit the following pages:

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what is right” – Isaac Asimov

    Rachael Carlson’s Silent Spring drew attention to a sense of an environmental crisis in the 1960s.  During the same decade, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning the world about population growth and its potential threats to planetary life.  With the rising need for a basic change of values, a new field emerged as we can see in John Muir’s advocacy for “all things natural, wild and free”.  Furthermore, Aldo Leopold advocated for a much needed land ethics in his Sandy County Almanac. However, Leopold himself could not provide a systematic ethical theory or framework in support of his ethical concerns and ideas, but nonetheless he created an opportunistic challenge for moral theorists.

   Many environmental scientists and philosophers debate the need for a revolutionary environmental ethics to regulate the business of humankind with and within nature.  Conservation, sustainable development, deep ecology, social ecology, feminism, bioregionalism are all examples of fields where ethics is, to various degrees, a concerning component and a goal. However, thinking about ethics and morality drives all dimensions of the human enterprise, not only what is concerned with environmental issues, and they do not fall short of the old relativism, which in a way gives room to prospectively built moral discourses.

   The three major schools of thought on morality are, in a way, examples of such relativism: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. The later is fundamentally different from the first two in the sense that it is not worried about asking the question of “what is the right thing to do?” either because of the rules created (deontology) or because of perceived consequences (consequentialism); instead, it is concerned with the question of “how are we to live our lives?” At the end though, to think ethically is to think about what we do and why we do it, which has been fueled through many years of philosophical thoughts on morality and human nature. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci put it quite precisely that, ultimately, it is still up to us to decide what to make of it all.

    A few blogs ago it was brought up that if we really are to promote change, the business of informal education should no longer avoid issues such as religion and spirituality, issues that address the whole person within learners. Here too it is imperative to look at the philosophical thoughts on morality while making moral decisions or weaving a morality system of our own. A wholesome environmental or land ethics has not yet solidified because society has yet to find the congruent points into moral theories in the face of practicalities and effective ways to foster an environmental ethics based on these congruent points. But finding those points and building dialogues among them is one of the only ways to avoid the relativist fallacy that seems to create a continuous meaningless relationship between human and non-human nature.

   Just as Lisa Roberts in her book From Knowledge to Narrative challenged museums to think of themselves less as stewards of culture and knowledge and more as forums for dialogues among multiple, sometimes competing narratives about events, objects, identities and ideas, it is interesting to think of environmental education in informal contexts as potential forums for moral dialogues about the relationships among human and non-human nature.  This, of course, also requires some paradigm shift in informal education from fear to engage moral and ethical questions to finding ways to put them front and center.

In his 2012 book entitled “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life”, scientist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci coin the term Sci-Phi to define a thinking practice with a crucial assumption that we must use both reason and evidence to guide and improve our lives. The book is about what philosophy and science together can inform us about the big questions of life, questions initially raised by Aristotle and other Ancient Greek philosophers.


Basically, Sci-Phi is short for “wisdom” and “practical advice” as he says. Science is not enough, and philosophy can and should be informed by the best science available, the same way that scientific knowledge should also be guided by our values. Going way back in time, the author quotes Kant who famously put that “experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play”. A practical example of that I talked about in a previous post is the question raised about the climate justice movement having the potential to blend environmentalist and social justice movements together, in a Sci-Phi way to address the scientific issue and the axiological issue we are faced with climate change.


The discourse Massimo is raising is by no means new. Kant himself started to articulate that thought is the give and take between sensibility and understanding. The world exists but so does the works of the mind. A version of academic neo-kantianism is concerned with blending new findings in science with the study of philosophy. Two aspects of such played an important role in our “old friend” Bakhtin’s early work as well: 1) The desire to relate traditional problems of philosophy to discoveries in the exact sciences. 2) The emphasis on unit and oneness as he tried to get to the world, the other side of Kant’s ideas, rather than the mind. His emphasis was in the “process”, the need to take others and otherness into account and emphasis on plurality and variety.


As I have been reading on Bakhtin’s work (Shawn correct me if I am wrong), there is this problematic notion of selfhood. We only exist in dialogue, because there is an otherness out there. Hence, there is a radical emphasis on Bakhtin’s work in regards to particularities and situatedeness. On this token, one can argue that Philosophy and Science were once united under the umbrella of “natural philosophy”, but because of changes in particularities and situations in its advancement, there is now a clear otherness between the two, perhaps an otherness that already existed in the “selfhood”of natural philosophy, but that needed to break apart in order for voices to be heard.


Going on another important tangent, the question of selfhood is a question of location.  In this sense, what voice is really talking when we talk? Utterance raises a question of authorship, so in a narrative there is always co-authorship among voices, being that everyday speech or complex literary work.  At first sight, one may say science fits within the complex text realm and philosophy fits within everyday life concerns, but I would think they truly co-exist and co-author all dimensions of life.


So I got to think, is our informal learning research the very exercise of give and take in the co-authorship? Do we try to make sense of this co-constructed dialogism among participants during an “every day “ experience that constitute a museum visit, being ourselves part of such co-construction of a narrative situated in time and space? Then, when we retell those stories through our thesis, that still consists of a co-constructed dialogism in the shape of a “complex literary work”. In publication, we are named as authors of our own thesis but we are just one of the voices speaking at the moment of writing, while other voices are not silenced only reframed within our situated words. In this sense, we are authors of nothing but the mere mechanical materialization of words in a page, words of a self AND an otherness in a situated time and space.


So, are our theses about science or are they about philosophy? Are we practicing Sci-Phi? I think we are, and I think it is about time that becomes explicit and accepted as a meaningful practice and, why not, a co-constructed way of knowing.