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Culture clash: Two scientists on philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend

PLoS Biology celebrates the release of Paul Feyerabend's latest book, The Tyranny of Science, with two book reviews. (The Tyranny of Science was published posthumously, as Feyerabend passed away in 1994.) Before we get to the reviews, let's start with some quotes from Feyerabend's 1975 claim-to-fame bestseller, Against Method, to give you a flavor of what the famous philosopher of science was all about (no quotes from The Tyranny, I'm afraid, because I don't have a copy):

Paul Feyerabend (Photo credit: [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Feyerabend_Berkeley.jpg]Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend[/url])"Science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise. (...) The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes."

What a delightful opening! Although I would have expected no less from a celebrity intellectual from the 70s. Perhaps the statement is a bit devoid of meaning, but it makes very clear that, in Against Method, shit is going to hit the fan. (Incidentally, I assure you that our department, with its 12:30 brown-bag lunches, departmental Christmas dinners, yearly outings, and weekly drinks on Friday at 5, is far removed from an anarchist stronghold.)

Feyerabend continues:

"For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories (...)."

Sure, a little controversy is always good.

"No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain, yet it is not always the theory that is to blame."

Well, ok, I suppose. I would say that, if something is refuted, it was never really a fact to begin with. But that's largely semantics, because it's no trivial matter to distinguish facts from hypotheses. So in practice he's right.

But then:

"Thus science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best."

Now I'm starting to see why not everybody is fond of Feyerabend's ideas. These kinds of statements make science out to be some kind of fixed, religion-like dogma, rather than an umbrella term for any kind of activity that seeks to gather new knowledge. I'm sure Feyerabend wouldn't have approved of his ideas being used in this context, but you may recognize the uncanny resemblance with statements that are made nowadays by creationists and practitioners of quackery, who try to put their own ideas on an equal footing with science.

But back to the two PLoS biology reviews. It is a duel, you might say, written by two people from very different backgrounds. Biologist Axel Meyer is a pragmatic scientist with very little time for the likes of Feyerabend. James Kidd, on the other hand, is a philosopher who holds Feyerabend in high regard.

It's quite interesting to see their very different characterizations of The Tyranny of Science. As you might expect, Kidd judges quite favorably, saying that "fortunately, Feyerabend is far more sensible than (...) his reputation suggests." In contrast, Meyer wonders about the relevance of Feyerabend's ideas, and concludes that "I do not see much of any."

The two authors even strongly diverge on the qualities of Feyerabend as a writer. Meyer feels that the book is "a barrage of seemingly unconnected tidbits of information", whereas Kidd lauds the "ecclecticism and immense learning obvious in Tyranny."

All in all, it's quite entertaining! Both reviews (all of PLoS biology, in fact) are freely accessible:

References

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London, UK: Redwood Burn Limited Trowbridge & Esher.

Feyerabend, P. (2011). The tyranny of science.  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Kidd, I.J. (2011) Rethinking Feyerabend: The “worst enemy of science”? PLoS Biolology, 9(10), e1001166. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001166

Meyer, A. (2011) On the nature of scientific progress: Anarchistic theory says “anything goes”-But I don't think so. PLoS Biolology, 9(10), e1001165. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001165