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.

95 theses on the church door

I’ve uploaded a version of my new talk “Towards a methodology for integrated history and philosophy of science” (with Tim Räz). If it seems rather programmatic, then that’s because it is intended that way.

The talk begins with a version of my “fundamental argument” for an integrated history and philosophy of science. It then proceeds to a discussion of how the methodological problems of the HPS project can be approached in practice.

I like the way it raises its family, partly birdly, partly mammaly

Ann Moyal’s book on the history of the platypus is a good read. It gives an overview of the difficulties the platypus posed for zoology and of the way it gradually came to be understood in light of evolution. Along the way, we meet many of the great figures of the history of 19th century biology – Georges Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Richard Owen, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley – and learn something about their scientific context. Much of this material is familiar, but it works. There are also some very nice platypus anecdotes spread throughout the book, such as Churchill’s attempts to import a platypus to Britain in the middle of the second World War (it came to be known as “Winston”).

However, something about the book irked me, and I think it relates to a broader issue in the history of science. As the etiquette for serious historians of science dictates, Moyal discusses the past entirely on its own terms. This means that we do not get much of a primer on platypus biology early on in the book, and as past scientists formulate theories about the platypus, we are rarely told whether their findings were true or not. This approach makes for a cognitively challenging read. Sometimes it would be nice just for orientation to know which early findings were true or false, why past scientists were mistaken, and how exactly they squared their (false) theories with empirical findings. Far from resulting in de-contextualized history of science, I believe that this would make it easier to appreciate the social context of scientific discovery – to understand in some detail how empirical, social and personal forces interacted. As it stands, the history is often just one thing after another, and in some sense we wind up as ignorant of the overall process as the historical actors themselves. Surely that’s not the goal of historiography.

More generally, I felt that a more distanced view would have improved the book. Much of the second half is structured around a “race” (there are shades of The Double Helix here) to determine the platypus’s mode of reproduction – oviparous, ovoviviparous, or viviparous. This ends with what is perhaps the most famous telegram in the history of science: “monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic”. (The platypus lays eggs, and their development is more like reptiles than mammals.) However, it seems to me that much of the real intellectual action of the case was in the struggle to use different kinds of information about the platypus – including, but not limited to, its mode of reproduction – to see where it belongs in the overall scheme of biological classification. I would have loved to read more about that side of the story. But I guess it can’t be told unless we relax and make good use of our privileged present-day view of the case.

This is not to say that Moyal stays strictly in the past. In the final chapters, she reports on present-day findings about the platypus. These are among the most fascinating chapters. For instance, the platypus’s snout (famously “duck-like” in dead specimens, hence its scientific designation Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or “duck-like bird snout”) is in fact a unique organ for electrolocation. The platypus uses it to locate its prey as it dives with eyes and ears closed. In this respect the platypus is a highly specialized modern species rather than a relic of our evolutionary past. When I read about this, I thought it would have made for a great essay by Stephen Jay Gould. Of course, SJG was way ahead of me: you will find his highly enjoyable take on the story in Bully for Brontosaurus.

Hasok Chang: Scientific Pluralism and the Mission of History and Philosophy of Science

Hasok Chang’s Cambridge inaugural lecture is a fascinating and accessible presentation of his views on the mission of history and philosophy of science. He argues that one function of HPS is to provide a pluralistic perspective from which we can study the history of science not only in order to understand it, but also in order to recover forgotten experimental facts and theoretical approaches. The idea is that this “complementary science” will ultimately enrich current science and contribute to its public understanding.

I can’t claim that I have entirely made up my mind about Chang’s ideas. It seems to me that there are a number of different components to the package, and these can be discussed independently.

For example, I am quite ambivalent about Chang’s non-relativist pluralism about scientific knowledge – although I am not sure that I fully understand what it entails. Meanwhile, I largely agree with his conception of the relationship between history and philosophy of science: philosophy is a rich source of questions about the history of science, and historical scholarship allows us to refine our philosophy in a way that is often superior to purely philosophical omphaloskepsis. Chang likes to say that “historical fact is stranger than philosophical fiction”, which I think is spot-on.1 Finally, it is yet another separate question whether “complementary science” can be a productive mode of inquiry. My hunch is that science is too efficient to leave many fruitful avenues unexplored. But a hunch is all it is, and I would not bet much on it. It certainly gives me pause that Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus, which I have long found fascinating, can easily be construed as a sustained exercise in complementary science!

In any case, I highly recommend the talk, which is well worth the hour.

  1. Chang discusses his view of the relationship between the history and the philosophy of science at some length in his contribution to a recent volume of the Boston Studies (S. Mauskopf and T. Schmaltz (eds.), Integrating History and Philosophy of Science). Among other things, he says that we should stop thinking about integrating history and philosophy of science either “top down” or “bottom up”. Instead, we should think about it in terms of how an episode (say, of The Simpsons) relates to the concept of the whole series – perfect!