Home Forum Community CasP RG v. 1.00: Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (Open Jan 01, 2023). Reply To: CasP RG v. 1.00: Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (Open Jan 01, 2023).

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Blair Fix
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Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Chris.

I read Feyerabend’s book with great interest. In the end, I find it both enlightening and infuriating.

Let’s start with the enlightening part. I found Feyerabend’s discussion of the theory behind empirical evidence to be fascinating. For example, I’d never considered the worldview that comes with perceiving the earth as a flat, unmoving plane. In this cosmology, there is a universal ‘up’, and objects fall in a straight line. All of the everyday evidence seems to support this view.

It was only when people thought hard about the motions of the planets that they had to rethink this view. In particular, it was the retrograde motion of planets that made little sense if the Earth was at rest. But if the Earth orbited the sun, the ‘common sense’ facts of daily life had to be re-interpreted using the law of inertia (an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an external force).

In Feyerabend’s opinion, Galileo simply invented the law of of inertia to rescue his geocentric view. Interpreted through the lens of Karl Popper, this kind of ‘ad hoc’ theorizing is bad — anti-scientific even.

Here’s where I start to have problems. Feyerabend clearly revels in controversy, which is fine. But does he accurately represent the ideas he’s criticizing? I’m no so sure.

For Popper, there was no ‘method’ for the creation of ideas, hypotheses and theories. They could come from anywhere. That said, once the idea has been formulated, it must be ‘consistent with the evidence’, otherwise it is ‘falsified’.

(I use scare quotes here because Feyerabend is correct to question what it means to be ‘consistent with the evidence’ and how we know a theory has been ‘falsified’. More on that later.)

So in a Popperian sense, a more charitable (to Popper) interpretation of Galileo’s actions was that he was engaging in theory building. He had a hypothesis that the Earth orbited the sun. To make that hypothesis consistent with the observations of daily life (objects fall down), he needed to add a secondary hypothesis: objects in motion tend to stay in motion … meaning unless there’s a difference in relative velocity, you can’t tell if something’s moving.

Now Feyerabend is correct to point out that when two theories have very different world views, there is much controversy about how to test each theory, and what counts as ‘conflicting’ evidence.

On this front, gravity continues to be a center of controversy. You’ll frequently hear, for example, that there is no evidence that contradicts Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity). But this claim is patently untrue. The fact is that everywhere we look in the universe, general relativity fails. When we look inside galaxies, the visible mass is moving far faster than general relativity allows. And yet very few people think this is evidence ‘against’ general relativity. Why? Because they assume that Einstein was correct. As such, the data gets interpreted as evidence for missing mass: dark matter.

The astronomer and astrophysicist Stacy McGaugh writes consistently great material on this controversy. I highly recommend that you read his blog, Triton Station.

In short, McGaugh notes that the whole dark-matter odyssey amounts to an a priori assumption that general relativity is correct. A better interpretation of the evidence, however, is that there is an ‘acceleration discrepancy’ between what general relativity predicts and what is observed. This discrepancy can mean one of two things:

  1. The discrepancy is caused by missing mass
  2. General relativity is wrong

Largely for sociological reasons, most scientists take the first option.

Anything goes

My other big qualm with Against Method is Feyerabend’s catchphrase ‘anything goes’.

Let’s review how he gets there. Feyerabend looks at our theories of science and concludes that at various times, famous scientists (particularly Galileo) have disobeyed all of the supposed ‘rules’ of the scientific method. Since these rules don’t hold, anything goes.

This reasoning is superficially convincing. But closer investigation reveals that it is a complete non-sequitur. (I read quite a few reviews of Feyerabend, and this is the most common criticism.)

We can more easily see the problem by applying the same reasoning to theories of physics. It is a well know fact — acknowledged by virtually all physicists — that there is no coherent theory that explains everything about nature. At present, all of our theories are contradicted by some form of evidence. So when it comes to doing physics, anything goes.

Seems silly, right?

It is equally silly when it comes to the ‘scientific method’. As far as I can tell, most philosophers agree that we have no theory that explains everything that scientists do. (It would be astonishing if we did … right up there with psychohistory.)

But so what? Nothing in science is about absolutes. There are always gray areas. The point, though, is to find patterns that tend to hold. Clearly some approaches to science work better than others. Does Feyerabend really believe that testing a drug through prayer is as good as testing it through a double-blind clinical trial? (I don’t think he does, but his penchant for controversy leaves it an open question.)

Now, I take Feyerabend’s point that science is healthy when there are a plurality of ideas. On that front, the worst thing we can do is kill off an idea because it contradicts our idea of the ‘scientific method’. But are there any examples of this actually happening?

My reading of Popper, for example, was that he was trying to provide a way to kill off long-lived ideas that refused to go away. Religion, for example, is usually framed so that it is amenable to all evidence (that’s the convenient thing about an all powerful God). In response to these long-lived ideologies, Popper wanted a basic criteria for a ‘scientific’ theory. In simple terms, the theory had to put forward criteria by which it could be wrong. The best option was to make a clear, a priori prediction that could be ‘falsified’.

I, for one, am convinced that this is a basic criteria for a good theory. But it’s just the start. In general, Popper was naive about how difficult it was to convincingly ‘falsify’ a theory. Sometimes it takes centuries and the work of thousands of scientists.

To wrap up, I think Feyerabend could have written the same book, but with the following catchline: “All of our theories of the scientific method are wrong; some are probably more useful than others.”