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Science Considered Harmful
Michael Pace reviews Against Method by Paul Feyerabend.
On the evidence of Against Method, when it was written in the early seventies, Paul Feyerabend was an angry man. He was angry about the dominating position into which science had been promoted as a source of knowledge at the expense of others, such as folk traditions. He objects to the power granted to experts, particularly those in government departments, who, without consultation, make decisions that affect the lives of ordinary people. Democracy is weakened as the power of experts grows. Feyerabend believes that the authority of experts is underpinned by science. His aim in Against Method, therefore, is to undermine the claim that science has special status; to show that it is one tradition among many opposing and valid alternatives.
The status of science derives from scientific method, the progressive refinement and replacement of theories in the light of experimentation and observation. Method guarantees the reliability of scientific results in a way that other traditions cannot match. The main thrust of Feyerabend’s attack therefore is an attempt to show that science does not progress according to the dictates of method.
Feyerabend’s argument draws upon a wealth of material but can be summarised as proceeding along two main lines.
The first is the claim that for science to progress all possibilities need to be considered: science involves thinking the unthinkable. Progress is most likely to occur in a climate of intellectual anarchism in which ‘anything goes’. Feyerabend illustrates this claim with a lengthy account of the trial of Galileo for heretically supporting Copernicus’s view that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than vice versa.
Feyerabend maintains that, by the standards of his time, Galileo’s arguments in favour of the Copernican system were ‘irrational’, that Copernicanism was “unfounded, opaque, and incoherent”. It is worth pointing out here, that to obtain a sensible reading of Against Method, it is necessary to recognise the extent to which Feyerabend has applied his own senses to a number of common terms, including ‘rational’ ‘refutation’ and ‘fact’. His sense of the word ‘rational’, for example, seems to be that for a claim to be rational is for it to be in accordance with current social conventions.
Galileo is portrayed as engaging in guerrilla warfare against the establishment, forcing them to think in new ways. Feyerabend’s Galileo is a wily individual who, in the absence of hard evidence, uses guile in an attempt to bewitch his opponents into believing that they have been in agreement with him all along. In sharp contrast to the pivotal status usually granted to this event in the history of ideas, Feyerabend argues that the trial of Galileo was a routine case of the establishment dealing with an upstart. Furthermore the response of the Church was justified given the prevailing world view and the weakness of Galileo’s case.
Feyerabend devotes a large portion of the book to this discussion because he takes Galileo’s approach to be paradigmatic (in every sense!) of the way in which science proceeds: progress is achieved by wild people thinking wild thoughts, who cajole less brilliant minds into thinking the same way.
I felt that this interpretation of the case of Galileo ignores the perilous circumstances under which Galileo found himself. Proposing new ideas in an environment where that might lead to one being tortured, incarcerated or both does not seem closely analogous to the conditions under which science is normally practised. While there is much evidence from the history of science of new ideas being suppressed and ridiculed in the face of conventional wisdom, this is balanced by the many cases where later, more compelling evidence has led to their vindication. Feyerabend is probably correct in attributing to other philosophers an unduly prescriptive view of scientific method. Nevertheless the outstanding success of science must be accounted for. Part of that account will be a statement of what it is for an activity to be scientific: Galileo supported the heliocentric theory because it seemed to fit the facts better that the accepted alternative. He was not trying to convince the Cardinals that the planets follow a hexagonally shaped orbit around Mars.
The second line of Feyerabend’s argument draws on the idea of linguistic relativism especially in the form put forward by Benjamin Lee Whorf. Feyerabend attacks the belief that science is grounded in neutral observation. He attempts to show that factual statements cannot be understood independently of their cultural context. To this end he uses the example of the contrast between perspective and the representational conventions of ancient art. The claim is that the conventions adopted by ancient artists indicate that they perceived the world in a radically different way, a way that was conditioned by those conventions. For Feyerabend, what is true for art is also true for science: disputes over facts cannot be resolved by reference to observation since observation is polluted by the traditions to which the opposing groups adhere. Any common ground between modes of thought must be found through discussion and persuasion, in the ideal case through what Feyerabend calls an ‘open exchange’.
The strength of this part of the argument depends on how generally the notion of linguistic relativism can be applied. I am inclined to believe that there are observation statements, especially those expressed quantitatively, that are at too low a level to count as being culturally determined. If one is prepared to call a meter reading a fact, and if that meter reading corroborates or falsifies a theory, then whether the theory stands or falls depends on the state of the world rather than on the outcome of a debate.
By Chapter 17 Feyerabend believes that his case is made; that science has been shown to have no special authority and should not be the preferred source of knowledge. The remaining chapters explore the consequences of this result and Feyerabend’s hopes for a society that, unshackled from the regimented thinking of experts, is truly free.
This is the third edition of Against Method and, in the new preface, Feyerabend notes with approval some of the changes that have taken place since the book was written, including the rise of the environmental movement and, in medicine, the wider recognition of alternative therapies. If he is happier, it is probably because of the growing disillusionment with the side-effects of scientific knowledge and its application, be it the threat of nuclear holocaust, or of ecological disaster. However, the benefits that have been obtained from science are many and are envied by a large proportion of the world’s population to whom they have not been extended. Thus, while Feyerabend’s warning against abdicating our judgement to experts remains timely, I was somewhat relieved not to have been convinced by his arguments. While agreeing with him that one should remain open to the discoveries of other cultures, it would be a shame if our quest for greater tolerance led us to reduce the resources available to scientific research.
Against Method by Paul Feyerabend (3rd Edition) is published by Verso. It costs £12.99 in paperback. (ISBN 0-860-91646-4)
© Michael Pace 1996
Michael Pace studied philosophy at Waikato University in New Zealand and, for the past six years, has been a member of a discussion group based in Croydon.