Paul Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, part IV

FeyerabendTime to bring to a close this longer than expected (by me, when I started it!) mini-series on the fruitful exchange I’ve had recently in the pages of Social Epistemology with Ian Kidd, concerning Paul Feyerabend’s (in)famous “defense” of astrology and criticism of scientific dogmatism. (part I, part II, and part III here). This last entry will focus on my second response to Kidd, which has concluded our exchange, at the least so far.

I begin by welcoming Feyerabend’s later acknowledgment that astrology, homeopathy and the like were bad examples to pick, because they are unquestionably pseudoscientific. But I add that “This, however, seems to be lost on some contemporary followers of Feyerabend, such as Babette Babich, who recently published a paper on “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.” In it, Babich writes that ‘Feyerabend himself was all too aware of both the advantages and the limitations of non-Western medicine,’ going on to quote him as saying that: “Ultimately, ‘Any argument that seems to work against ghosts [as against creationism, psychoanalysis, psi-fields] will hit scientific ideas of a similar generality and any move that lets such ideas survive will also save ghosts.'” All of this within the context of a paper in which she insists in portraying homeopathy, AIDS denialism, cold fusion, and climate change denialism, among other dangerous or problematic notions, in a somewhat positive way.”

(If you are interested in a more in-depth criticism by yours truly of that paper by Babich, go here.)

Regarding Kidd’s point that just because Feyerabend himself fell short of good virtue epistemological standards this doesn’t undermine a broader approach to philosophy of science in terms of virtue epistemology, I agree, but:

“Indeed, just because individuals fail at practicing virtue it does not mean that a virtue ethical reading of what they were attempting to do is not both interesting and on the mark. However, this line of reasoning risks condoning a “do what I say, not what I preach” attitude, which would in turn undermine the whole point of virtue epistemology. I think it is time for philosophers to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.”

In the remainder of my commentary, then, I make a case for a reconciliation of the (largely analytic) tradition in philosophy of science and the (largely continental) one in science studies — for the benefit of both disciplines, of science itself, and even more broadly of liberal societies.

“Let us recall what our joint goal is [according to Kidd]: ‘a central and urgent task for the philosophy of science is to actively contribute to public and political understanding of the sciences. It is hopefully now clearer that virtue epistemology can contribute useful resources to this large project — to affirm the epistemic virtues constitutive of scientific authority and to expose the epistemic vices characteristic of so many enemies of science.’ Precisely, but doing so will require also the willingness to turn our critical scrutiny towards our own discipline, be that philosophy of science or so-called science studies. And there is a lot to be desired in both instances.”

Continuing: “As I’ve pointed out recently, philosophy of science and science studies have unfortunately diverged from each other over the past several decades, in part as a reaction by some philosophers against precisely the sort of academic sterility and even arrogance that Feyerabend was railing against — not just on the part of scientists, but of overly science-friendly philosophers of science.”

I then characterize philosophy of science as the study of the logic of scientific discovery and theorizing, i.e., essentially as an epistemic effort, though informed by the history of science ever since Thomas Kuhn’s landmark Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (As in the recent edition of Feyerabend’s Against Method, linked in the first post, this one too has an excellent introduction by Ian Hacking.) I contrast this with science studies, which are by nature more sociologically, and even politically, inclined, focusing on science as a social activity and a set of power structures.

The clash between the two approaches was perhaps most evident during the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s, which included the spectacular Sokal hoax. In those wars, philosophers of science were clearly on the side of science, while science studies scholars found themselves clearly (and unfortunately) in postmodernist territory.

I conclude by reiterating my position that science needs to be studied, supported, as well as criticized, depending on the circumstances:

“I would broaden the call to the deployment of virtue epistemology as a general reading key to reconcile the so far largely parallel and somewhat conflicting traditions of philosophy of science and science studies. Science is the best epistemic practice available to us when it comes to finding out how the world works, but scientists and science supporters are ethically bound by the sort of considerations that Feyerabend put forth.”

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P.S.: given the unusual length of this mini-series, there will be no Plato’s Weekend Suggestions this week, in order to allow for further discussion of the Feyerabend-astrology issue. Plato’s Weekend will be back next week!

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79 thoughts on “Paul Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, part IV

  1. Morning All, some overall comments:

    I still think the accusation of “dogmatism” aimed at Kurtz et al is over-done. As Massimo says, dogmatism is more about how one arrives at a conclusion than about the conclusion, and there isn’t space to put all of that in a short statement.

    I challenge anyone to come up with a 100-word statement that amounts of “astrology is pseudoscientific bunk” which does not sound as dogmatic as Kurtz et al’s letter. If the suggestion is that one should never state conclusions in a concise manner then that’s just silly.

    Hi Christoph,

    Frankly evangelists of Science do this all the time. They define science as that-which-works, and so, by definition, it can never fail, …

    Well it’s true. Science is a mix of tools that have been adopted because they have been found to work. If some tools were found not to work that well, and others found to be better, then science would adopt those instead. Nothing about that, though, prevents anyone critiquing particular tools and methods currently used by science.

    Hi michael,

    … it was actually some Platonic ideal. Some are viewing Science in this manner – no matter its faults in practice – true Science rises above its baser aspects.

    No-one claims that science is perfect. As a human activity it will always be highly imperfect. The question is whether it is good enough, and to a large extent it is. Many of the methods of science are about coping with the limitations and faults of individual scientists.

    On outsider scrutiny: big science is expensive, and that means ongoing interacting with funders (governments). All the expensive stuff has to be justified and defended to politicians (as representatives of the public). It’s not clear that any wider pool of scrutineers would improve things, though I’d be interested to see any actual proposals for this.

    Further, all the big projects put extensive effort into public interactions, and the evidence is that a sufficient swathe of the public is indeed interested and supportive (e.g., picking some examples of space science: Pluto flypast, Rosetta comet landing, LIGO detection of colliding blackholes, lots of stuff about extrasolar planets, particularly habitable zone ones, etc).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Coel,

    Wouldn’t dogmatism more essentially be sticking by a conclusion past its sell by date? Astrology and the various theisms might well be considered interesting and insightful speculative theories, thousands of years ago, so if one is insisting on sticking to them, when the evidence gets questionable, wouldn’t that be the original dogmatism? While rejecting them for facile or poorly reasoned arguments might better fall in the category of bias.

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  3. Dear Astrodreamer. A strong test for season of birth effects is to compare N and S hemispheres.

    I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975) is regarded more favourably than Science in A Free Society (1978) – the review by his student Munévar of the latter lists many weaknesses that I think are natural extensions of these ideas of incommensurability and epistemic anarchy. For example “rationality cannot serve as an ‘objective’ arbiter of traditions, for it is itself a tradition” and “if the taxpayers want their universities to teach…astrology…then this is what they will have to teach”. This leads me to see the earlier defence of astrology in a less charitable light.

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  4. David,

    Might it not be a classic case of overreach? Reductio ad absurdum. We probably shouldn’t be looking for perfect ideas, any more than we would look for perfect people to express them.
    Like a lot of things, there is a natural tendency to push ideas to their limits and than those promoting them taking a stand on the very edge, rather seeing the original context which made them useful.
    Meanwhile others use this overreach to disparage the entire argument, resulting in more heat than light.

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  5. Coel,

    “I challenge anyone to come up with a 100-word statement that amounts of “astrology is pseudoscientific bunk” which does not sound as dogmatic as Kurtz et al’s letter. If the suggestion is that one should never state conclusions in a concise manner then that’s just silly.”

    Sure “one” can state conclusions is a concise manner but “Kurtz et al” is not “one.” For you or I to personally give the opinion that astrology is bunk is fine. But for a group of scientists to officially declare (as scientists) that astrology is bunk, yes, I expect more than 100 words. I expect scientists qua scientists to show their work, calculations, data, test results, findings. etc.

    Any one of those scientists stating their personal opinion that astrology is bunk works for me. But as a group of scientists making an official; statement as a group of scientists on behalf of science I expect a properly scientific paper that would almost certainly require more than 100 words.

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  6. davidlduffy — reference to your remark in iii about “Good day for Leos: Horoscope’s influence on perception, cognitive performances, and creativity”
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886916307826

    It’s interesting to see that under the assumption that astrology is ‘false’ any demonstration that it has an influence may be presented as further justification to suppress it. Whereas this article demonstrates only that astrology has a positive effect, while having no direct bearing on astrology’s validity. Pointedly, or rather glaringly unmentioned, is the fact that the negative readings failed to produce negative effects! And conscientious daily horoscope writers, for whatever they are worth, are just as aware as any writers are of having some sort of effect with their words, make great effort to put a positive spin on their observations. Which is what makes daily horoscope copy characteristically peculiar.

    Aside from the way the lens of bias distorts the interpretation of this study, however, please note that the study itself is a deplorable continuation of the scandal of recent research in psychology , sociology and economics: the exploitation priming ‘theory’, called “one of the most robust ideas to come out of cognitive psychology in recent years,” and the foundation of thousands of mindless doctorates. Daniel Kahneman’s critique of the field in Nature, no less) is here:
    http://www.nature.com/news/nobel-laureate-challenges-psychologists-to-clean-up-their-act-1.11535
    and a more general view of the rot in psychology is here:
    http://www.livescience.com/27262-psychology-studies-questioned.html
    The argument as to whether the human sciences are sciences at all or even definitionally pseudosciences, continues. The question is ethical, one of overcoming the implicit circularity of mind explaining mind without dehumanization.

    Nor is there a there a clear line between pseudoscience and bad science. It is disappointing when philosophers well equipped to criticize methodologies and assumptions expend so much energy clutching their pearls over the slippery slope of traditional and fringe beliefs, rather than courageously confronting the many ways that scientists good and bad feed the blind maw of capitalism.

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  7. Hi garth,

    . I expect scientists qua scientists to show their work, calculations, data, test results, findings. etc.

    But the evidence that astrology (or other pseudosciences) is bunk is never of that sort, and it would be foolish to venture down that route. The evidence that they are bunk is always the lack of decent evidence that the believers have presented.

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  8. It seems astrology is being framed as a quaint little new age fixation, rather than a relic of thousands of years of human speculative thinking. That it is the scientists who seem most fixated on its current status raises questions about their historical perceptivity.

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  9. As far as assessing the validity of astrology, this seems reasonably simple to me. The way to do it, I believe, is to take whatever it is that astrologers theorize about reality, and then check to see if this seems to be the case. Note that while theists simply can’t be so disproven given the supernatural nature of their claims, that’s not the case for astrology. Thus astrologers do at least pass “the Popper test” (not that I have much esteem for it).

    Though I’m not entirely sure what’s being claimed here, I did notice something from the second video that viktorblasjo presented on the first day of this series. Here we had a guru sort of guy explain that identical twins provide tremendous verification for the soundness of astrology. His point was that these humans happen to be “identical” because of the coinciding times of their births and locations, not because of their genes. Of course we can easily demonstrate that it’s the genes rather than time/location which produces such similarities. Case closed?

    Personally I’m not all that bothered by beliefs such as astrology. Observe that most seem to believe whatever it is that they’ve been conditioned to believe, regardless of “evidence.” My preference would be for philosophers and scientists to first work on getting their own houses straight.

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  10. When you consider Astrology sought to connect everything from astronomy to psychology, with just about everything else thrown in, it really was the original TOE. Almost makes the various theisms seem pale in comparison.

    As for our modern fields of knowledge, does math even understand the difference between abstract and foundational? For instance, is 1+1=2 foundational to reality, or an abstraction from it?

    The assumption seems to be that math is a window into the foundations of reality, not just the patterns we distill from it. Yet the above equation is just a tautological description of the process of combination. It is not the seed from which reality springs, but the skeleton that emerges, as the process calcifies.

    If space were fundamentally three dimensional, rather than this coordinate system being the most simple mental mapping of it, than why are straight lines and right angles so rare in space?

    It is just another form of idolatry to think math is platonic. The ideal is illusion, emergent from the mental process.

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  11. Coel,

    “I challenge anyone to come up with a 100-word statement that amounts of “astrology is pseudoscientific bunk” which does not sound as dogmatic as Kurtz et al’s letter. If the suggestion is that one should never state conclusions in a concise manner then that’s just silly”

    Concise? It’s over 400 words of mostly, how should I call it, unsubstantiated pronouncements? bunk? e.g. “Why do people believe in astrology? In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realize that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars.”

    They may have had good intentions, but I don’t think their target audience is going to be swayed by empty statements like that (to put it nicely), and moreover, in doing so they’re undermining the public’s respect of scientists.

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  12. It is simply to state an inescapable fact that if society wanted their universities to teach astrology then that is what they would have to do.

    It is worth noting that societies do not want their universities to teach astrology.

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  13. Robin wrote “It is simply to state an inescapable fact that if society wanted their universities to teach astrology then that is what they would have to do.”

    I think the context is more that there is no “principled” way (given Feyerabend’s totally relativist way of thinking) to argue for or against any position. It just so happens that rationality and science have the upper hand in terms of political power in the education system at the moment – just as church and state should be separate, so should science and state. The quotes about the worst enemy of science do seem to postdate publication of Science in A Free Society.

    Munevar again:

    “According to Feyerabend, the excellence of science on methodological grounds is mistakenly assumed. There are no good arguments to show that Aristotle is inferior to modern science for example. That Aristotelian science does not follow the standard of content increase. as critical
    Rationalists are prone to claim, only shows that Aristotle is different, not that he is worse.”

    Again this can be read in a charitable light – that internalist epistemology and rationalism alone cannot demarcate pseudo-knowledge from knowledge. Unlike the historian of medieval astrology who commented he thought it useful to study old mistakes and how they affect society, I don’t feel enthused with reading any more F. to dig out insights.

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  14. Coel,

    “But the evidence that astrology (or other pseudosciences) is bunk is never of that sort”

    You mean not of the scientific sort? Agreed. So why are scientists writing a paper about it?

    “It would be foolish to venture down that route.”

    Right. But they did. They weighed in as scientists on something with no science or evidence.

    “The evidence that they are bunk is always the lack of decent evidence that the believers have presented.”

    Right. Scientists work with data not the lack there of. Science should not more have a position on this than it does on purple dragons. It’s no different than releasing a paper that God does not exist.

    The question is why make the positive claim that something does not exist when you can just say “you have no evidence for that.” Why the need to say “that does not exist.”

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  15. Hi garth,

    You mean not of the scientific sort? Agreed […] Scientists work with data not the lack there of.

    No, I do not mean “not of the scientific sort”. Discounting things for lack of evidence is just as much science as pointing to things because of evidence. It is entirely scientific to pronounce: “Followers of astrology have not provided anything like decent evidence for it, therefore it is pseudoscientific bunk”. In order to make any statement or claim about how things work one needs to be rejecting alternatives (whether implicitly or not).

    They weighed in as scientists on something with no science or evidence. […] you can just say “you have no evidence for that.”

    Their actual phrasing included things like: “Those who wish to believe in astrology should realize that there is no scientific foundation for its tenets”, which is what you just asked for. But, as above, excising unsupported beliefs (Occam’s razor) is a central part of science.

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  16. Coel,

    “It is entirely scientific to pronounce: “Followers of astrology have not provided anything like decent evidence for it, therefore it is pseudoscientific bunk.”

    I agree whole heartedly with that statement. I just consider it an intellectual opinion rather than a scientific statement. Again, why do scientists need to add the “therefore it is pseudoscientific bunk” part? Why not just leave it at “there is no evidence for that whatsoever” and let people decide the rest for themselves?

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  17. Hi garth,

    I agree whole heartedly with that statement. I just consider it an intellectual opinion rather than a scientific statement.

    But, from my usual scientistic stance, I don’t see being “scientific” nearly as narrowly as some here.

    Why not just leave it at “there is no evidence for that whatsoever” and let people decide the rest for themselves?

    The definition of “pseudoscientific bunk” is stuff that people believe when there is no evidence for it, so adding that phrase simply repeats and emphasizes the point. Yes, one could omit it, but equally there is nothing unscientific about including it.

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