Paul Feyerabend – The Worst Enemy of Science

William Storage           7  Aug 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society

PFK3This post is a selective look at Paul Feyerabend, called the worst enemy of science by a 1987 Nature essay. The topic relates directly to the preceding posts on Postmodernism and Thomas Kuhn and is aimed at a discussion of how misunderstood science and misunderstood criticism of science has impacted business and technology.

Feyerabend’s direct influence outside of the extended world of philosophy might be seen as fairly limited. But his indirect influence may exceed that of Thomas Kuhn. Unlike Feyerabend, Kuhn was never quoted by a pope.

PopeFeyerabend (1924-1994), a philosopher of science at UC Berkeley for 30 years, was famous for a theory epistemological anarchism – though he doesn’t use that term –  which entails a rejection of scientific methodological rules.  Specifically, Feyerabend claimed the consistency criterion in scientific theory selection is biased toward orthodox views, correct or not.  Further, he faulted science for dogmatic falsificationism. I.e., unlike in mathematics, in science a theory very rarely is consistent with all relevant observations. He later expanded this to a categorical rejection of Popper’s falsifiability/demarcation theories and Popper’s critical rationalism in general. Whether Feyerabend meant to imply any degree of social anarchy in his 1975 Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge is debatable. But a vast range of audiences who viewed science as a flawed method or as an institution in league with corporate, government and military demons found strong justification in it for their existing anti-science positions.

A decade before Against Method (in which he disputed Popper), Feyerabend was more or less a Popperian and therefore strongly critical of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. However, he approved of Kuhn’s message that science needed more irrationality. Kuhn intended no such message. While defending himself against the charge of relativism  in the 1965 Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, Kuhn called Feyerabend’s irrationality-based support of Structure, “not only absurd but vaguely obscene.”

In his 1987 Farewell to Reason Feyerabend commented on his two previous books:

“In Against Method I argued that the customary accounts of scientific knowledge and scientific method are faulty and that scientists do not proceed ‘rationally’ in the sense of rationalist philosophers. In Science in a Free Society I argued that the sciences are particular ways of gaining information and of interfering with the world, that there are other such ways and that these ‘other’ ways are satisfactory in the sense that they meet the material and spiritual needs of those who use them. I added that, like all institutions in a free society, the sciences should be subjected to a democratic control.”

As with Kuhn, Feyerabend chose provocative language that sounded much more radical outside of philosophy of science than within it. Even for that narrow audience, the language of Against Method was radical enough, and became more so later.

The fine print – or rather, less cited print – of Against Method included explicit limits on scope:

“My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic.”

As with Kuhn, the most common criticisms of Feyerabend’s thesis of Against Method (as opposed to the provocative prose he embedded it in) fail to grasp its limited scope, misunderstand it, and refute a caricature of it. Unlike Kuhn, Feyerabend seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the corresponding fame and infamy, and to have run with it. Feyerabend’s theories expanded in scope, becoming more sociological, and more political. He frequently reversed positions, reversal ultimately becoming core to his philosophy.

PKF2At times, Feyerabend is hard to argue with. He’s got good points regarding falsificationism and modern scientific theories enduring some inconsistent observations. Elsewhere his case seems weak. He opportunistically redefines science between method and institution to suit his needs. He builds a straw man from claims that science believes it creates facts as opposed to models. Whether he was right or wrong or even cared about such distinctions isn’t terribly important to his impact on popular conceptions of science and popular understanding of criticism of science, which was enormous.

I’ll leave you with a handful of other Feyerabend quotes from the ’70s and ’80s, some conciliatory, some shocking when removed from their context, some fiendishly provocative regardless of original context. Many of the sentiments – or the exact words – will sound familiar today, now core to religious, pseudoscientific, new age, motivational, and occasionally business management strategies. For that Paul Feyerabend deserves praise or blame.

“The similarities between science and myth are indeed astonishing.”

“The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

“All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’.”

“Revolutions have transformed not only the practices their initiators wanted to change buy the very principles by means of which… they carried out the change.”

“Kuhn used a different approach to a similar (not an identical) situation. His approach was historical, mine was abstract.”

“Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash.”

“First-world science is one science among many.”

“Progress has always been achieved by probing well-entrenched and well-founded forms of life with unpopular and unfounded values. This is how man gradually freed himself from fear and from the tyranny of unexamined systems.”

“The sciences of today are business enterprises run on business principles. Research in large institutes is not guided by Truth and Reason but by the most rewarding fashion, and the great minds of today increasingly turn to where the money is — which means military matters.”

“The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.”

“Without a constant misuse of language, there cannot be any discovery, any progress.”


Photos of Paul Feyerabend courtesy of Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend. Used by permission.

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  1. #1 by Anonymous on August 7, 2012 - 3:15 pm

    Feyerabend (1924-1994), a philosopher of science at UC Berkeley for 30 years, this comment sentence I already find myself forming an opinion. LOL Philosopher and Berkeley! Mmmmh.

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