Let’s continue this mini-series (part I, part II) focused on a fruitful exchange I’ve had recently with Ian Kidd over at Social Epistemology, which began with his publication of a paper on Paul Feyerabend’s (in)famous defense of astrology. As you might recall, Feyerabend (and, for that matter, astronomer Carl Sagan) was upset at an anti-astrology manifesto published in 1975 by arch-skeptic Paul Kurtz and co-signed by 186 scientists. Feyerabend’s charge was that the scientists had done less homework, before signing onto the public document, than the Catholic Church when it wrote its witchcraft textbook, the Malleus Maleficarum, back in 1484. Kidd, in turn, defends Feyerabend arguing that he was criticizing the scientists in question for lacking the virtue of epistemic humility and engaging in the vice of dogmatism.
As we have seen, in my first response I turned the tables on Feyerabend, accusing him of epistemic recklessness because of his use of provocative and outsized rhetoric of the type that was later claimed by supporters of pseudoscience themselves, as well as by misguided postmodernist philosophers. Instead, I suggested, the issue is one of whose authority we trust and why, and of who we think should be watching the watchmen. My thinking is that we cannot aim, as Feyerabend seemed to suggest, at a completely democratic science, meaning one whose pronouncements are accessible to the general public; but that we also don’t want to go to the other extreme, as Michael Planyi seemed to do, and just bite the bullet and anoint scientists as the new priesthood. Instead, we should increase the number of chairs at the discussion table, so to speak, by inviting people who know enough science to understand it, and yet are more detached from its agenda and objectives, people like philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science, for instance.
As I mentioned last time, Kidd was asked by the editor of Social Epistemology to write a response to my commentary, to which I was then allowed a further follow-up. (I think we are done now, but I’ll keep you posted.)
In his graceful reply to me, Kidd accepts a number of the points I raised the first time around, and goes on to make new ones, as well as to refine his own thinking on the matter. He particularly agrees with me that I) Feyerabend did identify a problem with scientific dogmatism, what nowadays is referred to as scientism; and II) that Feyerabend himself failed from a virtue epistemological perspective, given his recklessly provocative behavior.
Kidd also concedes that astrology, homeopathy, and a number of the other original examples used by Feyerabend are, in fact, pseudosciences, adding that later on Feyerabend himself got more sophisticated on this point, apparently under the influence of his soon to be wife, Grazia Borrini.
He adds: “Feyerabend would also agree with Pigliucci that astrology is indeed within the area of competence of science — for that was a key part of his frustration with the Humanist signatories: his claim is not that there is no good scientific basis for a critical refutation of astrology, but quite the opposite: there are many good objections to astrology, it’s just that the signatories did not make use of them. When Feyerabend complains that those signatories ‘neither know the subject they attack, astrology, nor those parts of their own science that undermine their attack,’ his point is that, had those signatories done the work, they could have given perfectly good scientific objections.”
And I think Feyerabend was right about this.
On the issue of the different approaches to the question of science’s authority in a democratic society, represented by Feyerabend and Michael Polanyi, Kidd writes:
“These are interesting rival conceptions of the desired grounds for the authority of science in modern democratic societies that inevitably invoke a wider constellation of issues of a social, political, and educational character — a set of rivals we can dramatize by talking of the pragmatism of Polanyi and the idealism of Feyerabend. Ought we to aspire for a society in which the authority of science is secured by the active promotion of a trust and faith in its institutions or through the critically reflective decisions of properly educated citizens? The matter is not ‘all or nothing,’ of course, since the criteria and practices of trust, criticism, and decision are complexly related. But Feyerabend definitely agreed with Pigliucci that a crucial role should be played in these debates by science studies scholars who can initiate and sustain ‘a more vibrant, more diverse conversation.'”
Notice the key phrase “science studies scholars,” different from the one I used (philosophers of science, plus historians and sociologists of science). I’ll get back to this later.
Regarding my turning the virtue epistemological table on Feyerabend, Kidd largely agrees:
“I am very sympathetic to both of [Pigliucci’s] worries: my paper begins by recording the fact that the defences of astrology and the like contributed to the charges that Feyerabend was guilty of unprofessional conduct — a wilful damaging of both his reputation and that of the philosophy of science. But Pigliucci adds to this the insight that my subsequent appeal to a normative responsibilist virtue epistemology amplifies the objection — for here we now see Feyerabend failing to practice what he preaches: how could a self-styled epistemic anarchist have seriously thought that the best way to defend the authority of science was to mount a defence of astrology and an attack on distinguished scientists, even if there was an epistemic rationale for his doing so.”
And he concludes: “the fact that Feyerabend himself fell short of virtue does not undermine the virtue-epistemic reading of his work that I offered — for my aims were to show that this usefully fills out the rationale for his criticisms of the Humanist signatories and points to an interesting conception of epistemic authority. Neither of those requires that Feyerabend was himself a paragon of virtue and I would concur with Pigliucci and other commentators that his personal professional conduct did him more harm than good.”
Fair enough. In the last part of this increasingly long mini-series, out tomorrow, I will summarize my further and final response to Kidd.