We have began looking at the famous (or infamous, depending on who’s talking) episode of philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend’s “defense” of astrology, in response to an anti-astrology manifesto put forth by skeptic Paul Kurtz and co-signed by 186 scientists, back in 1975. This episode is the occasion for a recent paper by Ian Kidd, to which I have been invited to write a response by the journal Social Epistemology.
Kidd’s goal is to “explore the relationship between epistemic integrity, virtue, and authority by offering a virtue epistemological reading of the defences of non-scientific beliefs, practices, and traditions in the writings of Paul Feyerabend.” The author suggests that “the defences [of non-scientific practices by Feyerabend] are more fully understood as defences of the epistemic integrity of scientists that take the form of critical exposures of failures by scientists to act with integrity.”
Another way to put this is that Feyerabend was calling the scientists’ bluff: while they liked to portrayed themselves as the open minded defenders of reason, they were in fact acting as close-minded dogmatists by dismissing notions that they had failed to investigate for the simple reason that they knew, a priori, that such notions were false. In acting this way, the scientists who signed Kurtz’s anti-astrology manifesto, in Kidd’s interpretation of Feyerabend’s view, acted unvirtuously, betraying the very same high ideals they said they were defending.
My first response to Kidd begins by acknowledging that he has a point:
“Feyerabend can be credited with identifying a real problem with modern science, which he did not name, but which has only grown substantially since: scientism. The infamous episode that triggered Feyerabend’s wrath, the publication of a ‘manifesto’ against astrology back in 1975 that was high on authoritative tone and low on arguments was the prelude to what has become a barrage of scientistic claims overstepping the epistemic authority of science, pronounced by major public figures (Stephen Hawking, Stephen Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye ‘the science guy,’ to name just a few) and largely directed at delegitimizing the humanities and establishing a sort of scientific imperialism on all human knowledge and understanding.”
After pointing out (with references) that astrology is, in fact, a pseudoscience which has been seriously investigated and have been found wanting, I ask the obvious question:
“What was Feyerabend trying to achieve, exactly? ‘What he was criticising was the negative intellectual attitudes evident in the unfair derogation of astrology by the authors and signatories of the Humanist statement’ (says Kidd). That is, he had identified an early example of what is nowadays considered scientism. But it is the hallmark of a virtuous person to be wise and recognize what sort of approach works best under whatever circumstances one happens to be operating. When Kidd says ‘typically a person tries to provoke others for some principled reason, such as trying to get others to take seriously a new idea, or to rethink a deeply-held conviction’ and ‘the use of radical alternatives can afford new and otherwise unavailable forms of empirical and theoretical critique’ one simply has to ask what Feyerabend was thinking. Provocation, even (perhaps especially) for principled reasons, rarely works as a psychological technique, especially with an already highly self-important social cast such as that of professional scientists. And radical alternatives are fine if they are credible and constructive, but astrology, voodoo, homeopathy and the like [all, at some point or another, defended by Feyerabend] are light-years away from being either.”
Moreover, “Feyerabend himself incurred in the vice of epistemic recklessness, and we see the results of his attitude (and that of so many of his followers in academia) today, with rampant denial of climate change, the anti-vaccination movement, AIDS denialism, and so forth. All of which is costing us in the hard currency of actual pain, suffering, and death.”
Interestingly, Kidd contrasts Feyerabend’s approach with that of Michael Polanyi: “What seemed, to non-scientists, to be reactionary dogmatism was, in fact, a spontaneous evaluation both generated and justified by a tacit sense of plausibility. Polanyi concluded that since that sense is historically informed, collectively supported, and a product of practice and discipline, those scientists were right to trust it.” And I think Polanyi had a good point indeed.
Then again, so did Feyerabend, who Kidd interprets as maintaining that “the citizens of democratic societies ought to be able to critically appraise the authoritative institutions that influence their lives. [But] The predominant epistemic authority of those societies — namely, the scientific institution — can only be understood and appraised by those already initiated into it — namely, by scientists. If this worry holds true, then democratic control of science is impossible, a view that Feyerabend attributes to Polanyi … [he] emphasises that the general public cannot ‘participate in the intellectual milieu’ in which scientific judgements are made because, to do so, they would require initiation into the tacit dimension of science.”
The issue of trust, and of who’s watching the watchmen in a democratic society is both important and complex. By the end of my response I suggest one possibility:
“Some of the best critiques of the excesses of science in recent years have come from philosophers of science, people who know enough of the science to smell baloney when its likely to be there, and yet whose interests are not aligned with those of the scientific community. Add to that group those of historians and sociologists of science, who are also well positioned to point out science’s own limitations and tendency to overreach, and we have a more vibrant, more diverse conversation going on. That may still not satisfy radicals like Feyerabend, but as his own failure to achieve his stated objectives clearly argues for, it’s the best chance we have.”
Kidd was then offered by the editor of Social Epistemology to reply to my reply, and I in turn to reply to his reply to my reply. I will address that second round of the discussion in the next post, tomorrow.