Against what method? (Or: Feyerabend in context)

In December 2012 the Blogosphere and Twitterverse became agitated about an opinion piece by Brian Cox and Robin Ince in the New Statesman: Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science. Cox and Ince were immediately criticized by members of the science studies community such as Rebekkah Higgith and Jack Stilgoe. I don’t wish to get into the many issues of this debate, but I have a straightforward point to make about one aspect of it. It concerns the term “scientific method”.

Cox and Ince refer to the “scientific method” (without going into much detail) and are taken to task for this. For instance, Higgith writes:

[T]here are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.

If Twitter is any indication, mentioning the “scientific method” is considered a sign of naiveté in the science studies scene. Jon Butterworth summarizes this nicely (also in the Guardian) when he says that talking about scientific method is “apparently not the done thing”. True! But where in the technical literature do we find the roots of the apparently deeply held belief that there is no such thing as scientific method, or that it is in any case “not particularly methodological”?

My best guess is that the denial of scientific method traces back in some way to Paul Feyerabend’s famous Against Method. Popularly associated with the slogan “anything goes”, Feyerabend’s book used historical cases to argue that a number of mid-20th-century philosophical beliefs about scientific method are wrong, or at least do not hold universally. These include: the belief that there is one single method that regulates all scientific epistemology; the belief that falsification plays a key role in the progress of science; the belief that ad hoc hypotheses are condemned and rarely occur in good science; the belief that replacing theories always have more empirical content than replaced theories.

Without a doubt Feyerabend’s book was an important milestone. It pointed out many serious problems with widespread mid-20th-century views of scientific epistemology. But it is important to understand that Feyerabend’s argument was more local than his title suggests. The book was not some ingenious, grand reductio argument that showed that no such thing as scientific method can possibly exist. It mostly showed that old proposals of scientific method — then dominant, but now largely abandoned — don’t hold water. Since these old conceptions were largely the product of non-naturalistic, ahistorical armchair philosophizing, this should not be too surprising.

So Feyerabend’s Against Method does not license sweeping claims against scientific method, and if seen in context it should not give comfort to social constructivists. The best explanation of the massive success of the empirical sciences remains the assumption that its theories have some special relationship with nature. In brief, scientists are great at epistemology! The hard problem, however, is to describe and understand the process. Peter Lipton summarized this nicely in his 2004 Medawar Lecture:

It is one thing to be expert at distinguishing grammatical from ungrammatical strings of words in one’s native tongue; it is something quite different to be able to specify the principles by which this discrimination is made. The same applies to science: it is one thing to be a good scientist; it is something quite different to be good at giving a general description of what scientists do. Scientists are not good at the descriptive task. This is no criticism, since their job is to do the science, not to talk about it.

Lipton’s next remark is so good as to deserve special emphasis:

Philosophers of science are not very good at describing science either, and this is more embarrassing, since this is their job.

But the difficulty of the task is no indication of its hopelessness. That would be a bit like denying that organisms grow on the grounds that the causes and mechanisms of developmental biology are incompletely understood.