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.”

___

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!

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

  1. marc levesque

    Massimo,

    Great series and exchange between you and Hacking. I think Sagan and Feyerabend where right about the manifesto being as you say “a medley of ad hominem and irrelevant arguments because they knew they were right”. I also agree scientists and science supporters would do well to follow Feyerabend’s and Sagan’s advice, and not only talk the talk but also walk the walk and that doing so will help conciliate the more analytical and the more continental views of science.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. michaelfugate

    If am reading astrodreamer correctly, astrology is not trying to be scientific at all -so it can’t be a pseudoscience. It is not a science like history or literature are not sciences.

    With a July birthdate, I would hate to be put in company with Sheldrake. shudder.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Robin Herbert

    Hi Socratic,

    And all the other many, many ways in which spurious statistical significance can arise. And it happens in all areas. I doubt that the expression “5 sigma” will inspire anything other than a wry smile since BICEP2.

    It kind of puts things into perspective when you realise that a big science project in cosmology can generate a spurious 5 sigma result. A couple of sigma here and there in an undergraduate paper back in the eighties is really nothing to argue over.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Robin Herbert

    It is a mugs game to argue pseudo science on a causation grounds especially when no causation is being claimed and no causation is required for the principle to work.

    But it is doubly a mugs game to argue against pseudo science using logical fallacies of our own. That statement in 1975 contained 2 – first the genetic fallacy that Feyerbend pointed out. And it also indirectly involves the causation/correlation fallacy. ie just as correlation does not imply causation, neither does absence of causation imply absence of correlation. I seem to be able to predict the position of the moon using the hands of my watch, I could even predict the position of the hands of my watch using the position of the moon.

    But I am not thinking that my watch hands have a mysterious power to make the Moon move, nor that the Moon has a mysterious power to move the hands of my watch.

    And that does not mean that I have “not got as far as an explanation”.

    In fact astrology probably did not grow out of “magical thinking”, rather it probably grew out of what was quite sensible and sound thinking. Ancient astrologers were taking a principle that demonstrably worked and trying to take it further.

    In fact I don’t try to dissuade people who believe in astrology, I don’t think there is a point and I don’t think it is so very harmful. There are many much more harmful beliefs that I would like to tackle.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. SocraticGadfly

    Astrology may not be as harmful as psychic reading, in that astrologers don’t seem to be quite as commonly draining people’s wallets.

    But, to the degree it leads to a surrender to fatalism (sorry, Brutus, the stars in their courses aren’t influential) it’s as harmful as Calvinist double predestination to the person at hand.

    I do agree that one has to be logically non-fallible in one’s own arguments.

    That said, while I don’t totally agree with the hoary James Frazier, the myth-and-ritual school of religion, or the idea that magic was just a bifurcation off religion, in some cases leading to religion-free astrology or divination, in others to precursors of science, I don’t totally reject that idea either.

    Astrology isn’t magic in that astrologers don’t claim we can manipulate stars and planets. But it is quasi-magical in that it claims we can know what influences they have, even if not how those influences happen, and arrange our daily lives accordingly.

    So, in that sense, it is quasi-magical, and not hugely different than a burnt offering to Zeus or Yahweh.

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  6. davidlduffy

    Dear Astrodreamer,
    questions like “twenty spins one number (any number) will come up six times?”:
    come under the generalised birthday paradox problem. In the freely available R statistical package:
    pbirthday(n=20, classes=12, coincident=6) => 0.085

    Season of birth affects many personality and psychiatric traits (eg left handers, schizophrenia and psychosis increased in the winter-born), Or even genotype x season of birth
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25132151,

    These effects will have been present over long periods of history.

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  7. garthdaisy

    If determinism is true in the sense that, say, everything that is happening right now was destined to happen since the big bang. This would mean I was destined to be writing this post when all of the stars and planets in the universe are right where they are at this moment. This does not imply that the movement and position of the stars are affecting me and my life via gravity or some other force, just that our fates are correlated via the laws of physics. In this sense, if one could do all the math, astrology could predict the future. But it would also then be able to show it’s work. So show your work, astrology, or I don’t believe you’re real. Even though an astrologer really did freak me out once. I don’t know how he did it, but I don’t know how David Copperfield made the statue of liberty disappear either so, show me the math, astrologers. Same goes for scientists who want to officially declare it bunk, even though it almost certainly is.

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  8. garthdaisy

    Yes Nancy Reagan offered astrological advice to Ronald, but she also delivered a very important message about drugs, so that cancels out the harm from the astrology. 😉

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  9. Coel

    Hi astrodreamer,

    You seem to be faulting me for my experimental design when there was no experiment, no hypothesis, merely an observation.

    That’s exactly the problem! If we merely observe, hugely improbable events occur all the time. The likelihood of a particular lottery number coming up is only one in 50 million — and yet it does come up! Every time somebody operates a lottery a hugely improbable outcome occurs. And that sort of thing is occurring all the time in everyday life. What’s the probability that the particular and exact set of people who went to New York yesterday all happened to go to New York on the very same day? It would be vanishingly small.

    Thus, in order to show a significant effect that is not just one of these random unlikely occurrences that occur all the time, one needs to form a hypothesis and then test it.

    Coel, I must add, on re-reading, that your straw man with the UK lottery ticket is apparently feeble-minded and it’s not nice of you to take advantage of him like that.

    Your responses illustrate that you don’t understand the point I’m making and that you don’t understand how to apply statistics. That’s not unusual, statistics is one of the easiest fields to misunderstand and to fall into fallacy traps.

    As I said, the safe way to operate is this. If you think that you’ve observed something significant — say a particular type of philosopher tending to have a birthday in a particular month — then you need to collect all the names that you were aware of in coming to that observation. Then put that set of names aside. They were the ones you used to form your hypothesis. You now need to test it, and for that you need independent data. So go and get a whole new list of names of the type of philosopher you’re considering, and apply your statistics to that sample.

    If you’re not willing to do that then you’re properly applying statistics and not properly testing whether you do have an affect, as oppose to cherry-picking anecdotes. In essence, science is the art of checking whether you’re fooling yourself, and thus a scientist would do what I’ve just suggested; pseudoscience is the art of believing something and cherry-picking data to bolster ones belief. Take your pick.

    Hi Robin,

    I doubt that the expression “5 sigma” will inspire anything other than a wry smile since BICEP2. It kind of puts things into perspective when you realise that a big science project in cosmology can generate a spurious 5 sigma result.

    No, not at all. There was nothing wrong with the “5 sigma result” label, it was the interpretation of the result that was wrong. Whenever one does statistics there are two types of errors (1) statistical fluctuations, such as photon shot noise, and (2) systematic errors biasing the entire sample, such as effects not known about or not taken properly into consideration.

    The “5 sigma” is a commentary about the first type of error, the statistical fluctuations, whereas the problem with the BICEP2 was with the second type of error (not properly accounting for foreground dust). So it’s wrong to conclude from this that there is anything wrong with the 5-sigma analysis. But, anyone doing experiments realises that the second type of error is also prevalent.

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  10. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    I never suggested that it was anything other than an error of interpretation. The same can be said of pretty much any case of spurious statistical significance, including the PEAR and GCP results.

    I am not sure why you think that this makes it any less an occasion for wry smiles the next time a result is announced at a “5 sigma” level. People will be asking what, exactly was measured at 5 sigma. Indeed there were a couple of physicists asking just that the day of the BICEP2 announcement.

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  11. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    The same can be said of pretty much any case of spurious statistical significance, …

    The statistical significance was not spurious! There indeed was a feature in the data with that significance. The issue was not over the statistical significance of the feature — which was real! — but over its interpretation.

    People will be asking what, exactly was measured at 5 sigma. Indeed there were a couple of physicists asking just that the day of the BICEP2 announcement.

    Exactly! Because, as I said, there are always two issues here: one is the statistical significance (which the 5-sigma label applies to) and the other is the possibility of systematic effects that are not accounted for. Everyone knows that, which is why, as you say, on the day of the announcement people were asking about the latter.

    You seem to be suggesting that the 5-sigma label is or should be a remark about the overall reliability of the result. It isn’t, it’s a remark about one type of error.

    If you read the BICEP2 “FAQ” of their initial announcement, it starts:

    “We have detected B-mode polarization at precisely the angular scales where the inflationary signal is expected to peak with very high significance (> 5 sigma).”

    Note that every part of that is correct and has not been over-turned, and note how it is worded. They did indeed detect B-mode polarization at those scales with > 5-sigma significance. The third sentence of their FAQ is then:

    “Inflationary gravitational waves appear to be the most likely explanation for the signal we see.”

    And that is where they went wrong, because their attempts to account for foreground dust were inadequate.

    I am not sure why you think that this makes it any less an occasion for wry smiles the next time a result is announced at a “5 sigma” level.

    Any wry smiles would only be from those who like to feel superior, but don’t actually understand the claims being made. As is clear from the wording of their FAQ and their paper, the BICEP2 team understood what the 5-sigma claim applied to and what it did not apply to. It is not news to anyone at all that one has to consider systematic errors in addition to statistical errors.

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  12. brodix

    Coel,

    Did the field of statistics predate astrology, or did astrology predate statistics? Possibly just as epicycles were foundational to lots of complex geometry, astrology gave a significant boost to statistics. You need something to work with, to develop the math.

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  13. Robin Herbert

    And rather embarrasing to note that at exactly the same time the Creationists over at the DI had confidently predicted that these results would not hold up and that it would turn out to be cosmic dust.

    Like

  14. astrodreamer

    Hi Coel,

    Thanks for your patient response. Your taking the trouble to explain the explain, again, the obvious help me clarify.

    You fault me for lacking experimental evidence. I fault you for reducing science to a species of accounting. In fact it is largely acknowledged now, discrediting Popper, that there is a great deal more to science than experiment. Problematization of probability statistics is of course at the heart of demarcation.

    I was under the impression that this is a philosophy of science blog, not a forum for presenting data. I merely point out that the most prominent proponents of certain philosophical positions cluster under certain astrological signs, namely Aries for mechanistic rationalism, Taurus for material/empirical realism, and Cancer for an anti-rational trend metaphorically orthogonal to Aries ideas. Your draconian response is that my numbers were wrong; notable how quickly science takes precedence over philosophy.

    Science is definitionally destined to oppose pseudo-science. I actually believe that Philosophy is large enough to envision both science and astrology with some degree of impartiality. If pseudo-science is somehow the enemy of science, must it necessarily by that of philosophy as well? Must philosophy also be forced into this knee-jerk dichotomizing? Since we don’t study phlogiston and the humours anymore, why should we still read Aristotle, not to mention Augustine? Really, until archeologists ascertain the existence of Plato’s cave, why bother? Is there a single philosopher innocent of cherry-picking?

    If you’re not tempted to engage with the specific philosophers I mention and their possible relationships that’s your prerogative. My purpose here is to introduce a more nuanced attitude towards astrology to interlocutors with specific interest in demarcation. I am hoping that by roping these names together those of you who care to will absorb a sense of the abstract nature of astrological assertions, and therefore to some slight degree be educated. Scientists are by ‘deformation professionelle’ unable to assume that existential innocence which is true impartiality. I’m hoping that some people who can follow my journey through the history of philosophy via the Zodiac will be at least engagingly perplexed at my chutzpah, and eventually as amazed as I am at the tenuous but nevertheless remarkably insinuated traces of the pre-historic duodecimal episteme.

    The idea that I was conducting an experiment surprised me. I provided statistics (none of which you have invalidated) not as a proof, but merely as pointers. (There are, in fact, many ways to ‘apply statistics). The fact that improbable things happen all the time is surely no reason to insist that all our beliefs require the intervention of sophisticated mathematical calculations. (Altho, alarmingly, there are some smart-phone addicts who seem to acquiesce to that proposition, themselves now at the mercy of unknown algorithms.)

    Coel, you wrote this:

    As I said, the safe way to operate is this. If you think that you’ve observed something significant — say a particular type of philosopher tending to have a birthday in a particular month — then you need to collect all the names that you were aware of in coming to that observation. Then put that set of names aside. They were the ones you used to form your hypothesis. You now need to test it, and for that you need independent data. So go and get a whole new list of names of the >>>>type of philosopher you’re considering, and apply your statistics to that sample.

    Since you merely scanned my remarks you might have noticed (and I should make it clearer) that I have discussed only (or mostly) philosophers of major importance and reputation. It’s obviously not possible ‘to put that set of names aside’ and replace it with a ‘whole new list of names’. Moreover I flagrantly entered a few names perhaps not sufficiently prominent to further color my argument for certain eyes only (Fleck, Meinong) while I may have missed a few biggies who didn’t easily fit. I actually resisted the fact that Dummett and Quine were Cancerians, but I came to see knowing that is a helpful way to understand them, and also the perplexing problem of Leibniz: how that portion of his work which Russell disdained as “written with a view to fame” is still alive while his logic and math are only of historical interest.

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  15. astrodreamer

    David Duffy, thanks for the math: so this distribution is likely to turn up once in approximately 12 runs. . . . The existence of known seasonal birth effects is as easily presented as evidence for as against astrology.

    Socratic: “But, to the degree it leads to a surrender to fatalism (sorry, Brutus, the stars in their courses aren’t influential) it’s as harmful as Calvinist double predestination to the person at hand.”
    Do you have any data to back this up? You have only to gather your astrologers, your devout Calvinists and your control group, operationalize harmfulness and bob’s yr uncle. Consult Coel on experimental design. Until then I don’t think, in this environment, you can get away with such loose talk.

    garthdaisy, hard to talk about determinism without falling into paradox and circularity. If determinism is real you will ‘believe’ astrology only if astrology also makes accurate predictions and shows its numbers, as it must if determinism is real. // If determinism is real what the hell difference does it make?

    Often, chatting with rationalists I feel as if in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, as if at a pleasant weekend party, only to learn that each guest hides a terrible secret. Why not at least provisionally take as a starting point, if you can, Gadamer’s remark: “Can anyone really explain how it is that on the basis of horoscopes such astonishing predictions can be made about human life that then prove true? Here we can be sceptical but at the same time we all have the right to judge from our own experience.” The tendency to denigrate one’s own experience, as if it were as worthless as anecdote is to science, is to rob oneself. So do please share your freaky astrological experience, if you don’t mind.

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  16. Coel

    Hi astrodreamer,

    I didn’t mention experiments at all. I was simply talking about the correct ways to do statistical analysis to test whether there is anything significant needing explaining.

    … notable how quickly science takes precedence over philosophy.

    Indeed!

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  17. astrodreamer

    on second thought, Garth, I’m afraid I may be misusing Dr. Pigliucci’s hospitality. He wishes to discuss how Feyerabend could ‘defend’ astrology when it is known to be wrong. I’ve made my objection to that thesis clear enough. Eke-ing out our personal astrological anecdotes would be going way to far, if I haven’t already.

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  18. astrodreamer

    Coel,

    I didn’t mention experiments at all. I was simply talking about the correct ways to do statistical analysis to test whether there is anything significant needing explaining.

    OK, but my point is that, if you had understood me, you would have been aware that I was not presenting data that could be subject to statistical analysis. hence your response could only be regarded as blinkered and pedantic. Therefore it’s better to read carefully before responding. Of course, if I were a student submitting a research proposal your reply would have been perfectly appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Alan White

    Two comments;

    1) Determinism, even absolute determinism, does not entail fatalism. Fatalism implies either the future is fixed in some purposeful way beyond a mechanism of fixture (even causality) or it is at least foreknown with absolute certainty. 18th century deism implies fatalism because there is a predeTerminator, for example.

    2) I figured out the Statue of Liberty trick when I first saw it. It involves two main parts: a camera fixed on a rotating platform that Copperfield stands on, and a helicopter in the background with very specific instructions on how to slightly move as needed.

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  20. dbholmes

    Hi Massimo, got into this too late to address most points on this topic (liked Sagan’s take most BTW). What was curious about this whole affair is that Kurtz (of the original offensive manifesto) appeared to advocate some sort of virtue ethics (eupraxophy). Is there any take you or Kidd have on Kurtz’s virtue ethics and his delivering the manifesto?

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  21. Massimo Post author

    Db,

    Right, it’s a good question about Kurtz and virtue ethics. I’m guessing Kidd would say that Kurtz and the other signatories failed in terms of virtue epistemology because they adopted a dogmatic approach to the manifesto.

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  22. Alan White

    Re the dogmatism–I think a better description would be they took a pragmatic approach. Dogmatism as a term would signal that the signatories would not retract approval under any circumstances. Pragmatism would allow that some if not all would be open to the kind of epistemic criticism offered here.

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