Paul Feyerabend was the enfant terrible of 1960s philosophy of science. His most famous book, Against Method argued that science is a quintessentially pragmatic enterprise, with scientists simply using or discarding what does and does not work, meaning that there is no such thing as the scientific method. It’s not for nothing that he was referred to as a methodological anarchist. (Incidentally, the new edition of the book, with introduction by Ian Hacking, is definitely worth the effort.)
The controversy of the concept of “race” in humans is always a live one, and I have commented on the topic before. We have, for instance, discussed the famous Stephen Jay Gould vs Samuel George Morton controversy, as well as a wonderfully clear headed paper by Jonathan Kaplan and Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther on “Realism, Antirealism, and Conventionalism about Race.”
Here I return to the topic by republishing a short paper I co-wrote with my colleague and long time friend Guido Barbujani (University of Ferrara, Italy), which originally appeared in Current Biology 23:185-187 (2013). I think our thoughts are still valid and may be useful to people interested in the never ending controversy.
What is the relationship between developmental and evolutionary biology? This apparently simple question (aren’t developmental systems the result of evolution?) has been controversial for more than half a century, which strongly hints at the possibility that the question isn’t just a scientific one (though it is that too), but also has inescapable philosophical dimensions.
My colleague Raphael Scholl and I published a paper on this very topic a couple of years ago in the journal Biology and Philosophy, and I think it is worth revisiting some of our arguments and conclusions.
I have built a reputation for being a critic of scientism, which my dictionary defines as “excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” Indeed, I am putting together a new volume on the topic for Chicago Press, which will be co-edited with my long time partner in crime, Maarten Boudry (a couple of years ago we put out an analogous collection on pseudoscience, a topic that I actually see as in some sense the mirror image of scientism). The contributors include colleagues who participated to a workshop I co-organized with Maarten at CUNY’s Graduate Center back in 2014.
Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and yours truly have published a paper on what we call the “epidemiology of pseudoscience.” Here is the abstract, to give you an idea:
What makes beliefs thrive? We model the dissemination of bona fide science versus pseudoscience, making use of Dan Sperber’s epidemiological model of representations. Drawing on cognitive research on the roots of irrational beliefs and the institutional arrangement of science, we explain the dissemination of beliefs in terms of their salience to human cognition and their ability to adapt to specific cultural ecologies.
I’d like to bring to readers’ attention a paper I co-authored recently with my former philosophy PhD mentor, Jonathan Kaplan, and my former graduate student (in biology) Josh Banta: Gould on Morton, Redux: What can the debate reveal about the limits of data?, published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 52:22-31 (2015).
Here is the full abstract: Lewis et al. (2011) attempted to restore the reputation of Samuel George Morton, a 19th century physician who reported on the skull sizes of different folk-races. Whereas Gould (1978) claimed that Morton’s conclusions were invalid because they reflected unconscious bias, Lewis et al. alleged that Morton’s findings were, in fact, supported, and Gould’s analysis biased.
I recently co-authored a paper — together with Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri — on the topic of so-called “informal” fallacies. These are instances of bad inductive reasoning (as opposed to formal fallacies, which are far fewer in number, and concerning strictly deductive reasoning).
The problem that Maarten, Fabio and I write about is that accusations of informally fallacious reasoning (“ad hominem!”, “red herring!”) are actually too easily hurled around during debates, when in fact many times the alleged fallacy is a pretty reasonable heuristic, or a first approximation at tackling a problem.