It’s all very well to look at the history of science and the prominent revolutionary figures therein and conclude that these were ‘Masters of Science and Scientific Method’; but did they really follow set rules handed down to them? After all, it was precisely their radical ideas that caused change. A traditional scientist of the day might have dismissed those radical scientists as rogues, or worse, pseudoscientists (if they’d had that word back then!). Clearly, following prescribed rules does not imply scientific progress.
We’ve met Karl Popper and falsificationism, which seemed to help us decide what is scientific or not, but then we found that this is problematic if the evidence partially supports the hypothesis. We’ve seen that enough of this can lead to a paradigm shift (Thomas Kuhn). Now we return to look at the activity of scientists, and we find that in reality, scientists who progress science seem to be just proposing whatever theory they like.
Paul Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science, who, true to his theories of science, lived in 4 different continents and at least 6 different countries. He rejected the notion of universal method in science, instead advancing what is termed ‘epistemological anarchism’, which is to say, there is no absolutely fixed way of knowing things and that ‘anything goes’ would better describe scientific method in ‘revolutionary science’. Furthermore, he suggested that science cannot claim the role of ultimate arbiter of truth.
Controversially, Feyarabend looked at heroes of science, such as Galileo, and said that instead of being sticklers to persistent and careful methods who finally got their day in the Sun, these guys were really just great persuaders. So forceful was their campaign, that their theories won the day. Crucial to this is that their theories were, at the time of their proposing, either not fully supported by the facts, or the technology did not exist to fully test their theories (a number of Copernican-era predictions went untested for centuries, for example). This implies that their theories, at the time, were not necessarily scientific, meaning they shared the stage with competing theories of a more mystical nature (for example, astrology or religious doctrine). The success of the ‘scientific’ theories has led to science becoming the dominant way of knowing about the world, and that in turn has lead to science oppressing other epistemologies.
All this leads to a rather dismal postmodernist view of science – that there really is no way to decide between science or magic or religion when it comes to understanding the world, that they are all ‘relative’. This simply does not bear scrutiny when we look at the advances science has made. Feyerabend is perhaps best understood as a product of huge social change that resulted in postmodernism becoming a dominant philosophy in the post-war era. His work, however, shed light on that suspicion we always had, that science is not strictly rule-bound, that advances are made through radical activities. This much is probably true; even if we discard the notion that religion could be on equal footing to science when it comes to understanding the world.
This article first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, 15 August 2013.