Thursday, July 14, 2011

Saving Science from the Cult of Scientism

The modern cult of science has enshrined the "scientific method" as their foundational principle, in much the same way that Christians look to Jesus on the cross, and all that it implies for them.

But method supremacy over subjective thinking which emphasizes context and meaning is a tragic mistake, and one which was the central target of the critique of modern science offered by philosopher Paul Feyerabend.

People interested in moving forward into the 21st century, and new knowledge and discoveries, should acquaint themselves with Feyerabend's work - in particular, his classic treatise Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.

An excerpt:
For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a "search for the truth" in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? "Is it not possible," asks Kierkegaard, "that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?" I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard's sense) is urgently needed.
Feyerabend called for a separation of state and science, in much the same way that we have long had a separation of state and religion in the West. In doing so, he is spot on. The institutionalization of science, and the resulting rigidity of thought, has done much to impede what should have been even greater progress for humanity by now, in the same way that the institutionalization of spirituality and faith throughout human history has led to rigidity in belief, and a lack of knowledge.

Feyerabend wasn't "anti-science" - far from it. He was an articulate, thoughtful and passionate voice calling out for a revitalization and reform of science, in a way that would be accessible to everyone, and that would recognize the strengths of science, and its limitations. It is a science that will no longer just speak to people; rather, it will be of the people, and in doing so encourage greater and more widespread knowledge.
The way towards this aim is clear. A science that insists on possessing the only correct method and the only acceptable results is ideology and must be separated from the state, and especially from the process of education. One may teach it, but only to those who have decided to make this particular superstition their own. On the other hand, a science that has dropped such totalitarian pretensions is no longer independent and self-contained, and it can be taught in many different combinations (myth and modern cosmology might be one such combination)... Scientists will of course participate in governmental decisions, for everyone participates in such decisions. But they will not be given overriding authority. It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues such as the teaching methods used, or the truth of basic beliefs such as the theory of evolution, or the quantum theory, and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology. There is no need to fear that such a way of arranging society will lead to undesirable results. Science itself uses the method of ballot, discussion, vote, though without a clear grasp of its mechanism, and in a heavily biased way. But the rationality of our beliefs will certainly be considerably increased.
You can find a short excerpt from Feyerabend's Against Method here.

We ignore his wisdom, particularly his central thesis that science is not one thing but rather many, at our peril.

Paul Kimball


Greg said...

Very good post and right on all counts, as far as I'm concerned. It's always nice when someone says what you want to say, but more eloquently.

Greg said...

Link up at ufomystic.

Paul Kimball said...

It's always nice when someone says what you want to say, but more eloquently.

Indeed. Feyerabend is a must read.

Yoav said...

It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues such as the teaching methods used, or the truth of basic beliefs such as the theory of evolution, or the quantum theory, and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology.
Reality doesn't care about public opinion. Evolution is a proven fact and will remain fact whether a vote agree or not. If you would have taken a survey in 1630 a vast majority would have voted that the pope is right and the sun orbits the earth and this vast majority will still have been wrong.

Paul Kimball said...


You clearly missed what Feyerabend is saying - indeed, I suspect, having read your post here, and at your message board, that you're unfamiliar with his work, or the concept of the philosophy of science in general. But never fear - you can remain comfortable in your single-minded (and limited)view of "reality", just as the religious types are comfortable in theirs. Yin, and yang.

Kind regards,

Yoav said...

Reality is single minded. From my subjective point of view it is clear that the sun orbits the earth, and this point of view is wrong there are no two sides there. The scientific method is the best way we have to determine the truth (small t as in factually correct not some metaphysical concept). Being open minded doesn't mean that you have to give all ideas the same respect, evolution is a fact and we shouldn't teach school children that creationism is equally valid, real medicine works while homeopathy is just overpriced water that will cure nothing other then dehydration and you can wave crystals over your head until you drop and it will have no effect on a tumor. Sometimes there aren't two equal sides and we should be willing to point that out instead of using wishy washy language. The science curriculum should include science, if you want to also teach mythology go for it, but in a context where the students get a clear distinction as to which is which.

Paul Kimball said...

Reality is single minded.

I feel sorry for you if you really believe that, but given your apparent single-mindedness, I can see how you would think that.

Meanwhile, no-one is advicating teaching mythology in a science class (I'm well aware of how idealogues on both sides of an argument like to use such extreme examples). I really do suggest that you read Feyerabend and other philosophers of science, and get a firmer grasp on the big picture, in the same way that I tell my religious friends to read Sartre.

Real medicine works? Does it, indeed? Well, that depends on what you call "real medicine". Is it any one of a number of drugs or substances that we were told were safe by the medical / pharmaceutical / corporate establishment over the years, only to find out after the fact that they were not? I could go on, but this one example suffices to prove Feyerabend's central point about the merger of science and the state in the modern era (and business). Unfortunately, you can't seem to see what he's really getting at, or worse, you do see it, but ignore it.

It's interesting that you used evolution as an example. Given how Darwin worked, and his own background, (yes, it was still very much a theory back then), do you really think that he would be given the freedom to do that work today, unfettered by the government / corporate straightjacket that has been placed on scientific research, and thinking that runs counter to the established orthodoxy?

Reading your comments, and seeing in them that orthodoxy at work, I'm afraid that I very much doubt it. In the world that I would live in, people like Darwin would flourish; in yours, they would never be heard from, because they would be too "out there" given the orthodoxy of the time.

Food for thought.


The Doctor said...

Very few people "do" the kind of nuanced analysis that you've suggested here Paul. They would rather just argue with each other than search for truth.

John HC said...

Hard science creates a model, not truth. Our science has a relatively higher success rate for predicting outcomes than the science of 100 or a thousand years ago.
Looking at weather prediction is a great example of the lack of truth in the results of using our science.
One of the things that gives credence to the absolute view of science as truth is mathematics. We have all heard "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics." We have all been taught that 1 +1 = 2, but 1 + 1 could just as easily have been set to equal 3, including the interaction of the 2 objects as the third entity: this, that, and both = 3. But we believe that 1 + 1 = 2 only and have built an incredible system upon that belief. I think that is because, like GOD, many people fear math.
I could go on.....