Time 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.”
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!