Flat Earth and Feyerabend

campanile-1014213_1280.jpgThe inclusion of actual ivory towers in many universities seems to blatantly ignore the implicit irony. Image credit: Pixabay / sarangib

One of the most de jour topics for scientists to discuss around the dinner table is the relationship between science and the broader public. How is science perceived? Does the public trust what scientists say? I spend perhaps more time than is healthy ruminating on these and similar questions, and like many of my peers I’ve been troubled by the seeming decline in public trust in science. Topics that most scientists would dismiss out of hand, like creationism or climate-change denial receive extensive attention in the media and are seemingly taken seriously by policy makers. Even extremes of ‘pseudo-science’ get exposure; I’d point to the ‘Flat Earth Society’ as maybe the most obvious example.

To try and understand these trends better, I’ve been exploring the science-philosophy literature. To that end, I recently finished Against Method by Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend is a polarising character in scientific philosophy; he espouses a kind of Anarchism in the conduct of science, and rejects the more rigid methodological approaches proposed by earlier authors. In Against Method he argues that ‘Science’ as an enterprise can only be understood in the context of the prevailing social attitudes and cultural constructs of a given era. These ideas require a little unpacking, but within them I think there are crucial concepts that help explain the state of the relationship between science and society today.

Let’s put Feyerabend’s ideas in context. Much of the effort of 20th century philosophers of science was devoted to explaining how science should progress, especially in the context of historical scientific advances. Two key ideas came from the thinkers Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Popper argued that science should progress through the falsification of older theorems by new observations, and the replacement by newer theorems that can better explain the evidence (‘Falsificationism’). This arose from a clear understanding of the problem posed by science relying upon inductive proof; no theory is ever definitively proven since there may be evidence to the contrary that we simply haven’t uncovered yet – hence, advance by falsifying, not proving.

Kuhn offered a more nuanced perspective, arguing that science advances through paradigm shifts. These shifts occur when evidence accumulates, bit by bit, that refutes the existing theory or theories. Eventually, this becomes a crisis, and a new set of theorems must be proposed that can explain all of the new observations – a paradigm shift. From then, science continues within this paradigm – so called ‘normal science’.

Why do these perspectives matter? Well, they are widely accepted by scientists, and one or other is often touted as ‘how we should conduct science’. Feyerabend, however, disagreed with both of these concepts. His perspective was that imposing methodological rules such as these would inevitably stifle science and limit the benefits it could have for society. Let’s explore this, using the example Feyerabend uses: Galileo, and the shift from an Earth-centred universe to one with the sun at the centre.

Galileo famously observed the moons of Jupiter orbiting the planet, and from this observation and others concluded that the Earth must rotate around the sun, rather than the other way around. Alongside other observers like Kepler and Copernicus, he disproved the Aristotelian theory that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, in defiance of the Catholic church. This is a classic example of science progressing, and it fits within Popper or Kuhn’s schema, with the observation of Jupiter’s moons serving as sufficient evidence to falsify the old ideas, resulting in a paradigm shift.

Feyerabend paints a different picture. While Galileo’s observations were striking and problematic for the old Earth-centred perspective, there were alternative ways proposed at the time that could still explain the orbit of Jupiter’s moons within that context, not to mention that the telescopic equipment wasn’t advanced enough that he could ignore instrumental error. Thus, he didn’t definitively disprove the existing theory, says Feyerabend. Furthermore, the idea that the Earth rotated raised significant problems of it’s own. A thought experiment posed by Galileo’s contemporaries went as follows: if the Earth rotates, would we not expect a ball dropped straight down from a high tower to land some distance away, if the Earth beneath it has rotated? Today, we have a grasp of relative motion as expounded by Newton’s laws, but at the time, these laws hadn’t been formulated; the prevailing theories did not permit the ball to land at the foot of the tower if the Earth rotated. The idea that the Earth rotated around the sun thus would not have seemed to explain as much as the existing theory, and wasn’t a definitive advance. Feyerabend argues that according to the ‘scientific methods’ proposed in the 20th century, Galileo’s theory should have been rejected – at least at the time.

We know, now, that Galileo was right. But how did his ideas become accepted? Feyerabend convincingly argues that it was as much political as it was scientific; Galileo was well connected in Venice, and his ideas carried weight; he was widely respected for advances in other fields, and could not be easily dismissed. He set out to prove an idea, and used propaganda as an aide; he didn’t wait for Newton and other later advances to definitively disprove the earlier Aristotelian ideas. The rise of secular attitudes allowed his ideas room to grow, which may not have been the case in earlier years when the Church held a more tight grip on cosmological perspectives. Thus, says Feyerabend, science advances not according to some specific method, but because of cultural attitudes and propaganda, as much as it does because of advances in observation.

Feyerabend’s picture of Galileo’s advances is well constructed and arguing against it is difficult. Personally, I feel that there are numerous more recent examples of scientific advances that do not so strongly rely upon contemporary cultural and social constructs to be received favourably. For example, the discovery of plate tectonics and the motion of the continents necessitated advanced technology to make the observations (ocean floor observations, measurement of trace magnetism in the sea bed, etc.), but once they were made the theory followed naturally. Feyerabend’s point, however, is not so much that strict methodological constraints on scientific advances haven’t been followed in the past, but that mandating our progress only through those approaches in future limits us, and could stifle advances like Galileo’s in the future.

It is hard to apply these ideas to our current scientific endeavours. We are hard pushed to see beyond our own cultural perspectives, so such stifling might not even be obvious. And here’s where it becomes difficult; according to Feyerabend’s famous “Anything goes” argument, we should consider all research concepts equally – even up to and beyond Flat Earth theorists. The extreme version of his argument is that they’re only ‘wrong’ according to the cultural tropes and ideas that we broadly accept at present.

‘Surely you’re not arguing we should take these ideas seriously?’ I hear you exclaim. Well, no; while I think Feyerabend has a valid point that we shouldn’t ascribe strict methodological approaches to our science, we cannot consider every idea equally. My personal view aligns with the philosopher Imre Lakatos, who suggested that a theory is superior to another if it has greater explanatory potential, and it must be falsifiable; nevertheless, I agree with Feyerabend that bending these rules must be allowable within the scientific endeavour. We need some way of drawing a distinction between ‘radical science’, that would not be provable or even logical within the current theoretical or observational frameworks, and outright untruths. I would invert Feyerabend’s point somewhat; just because society or mainstream science accepts something, it doesn’t necessarily indicate it’s validity. There is always the potential that the truth is deeper than we know: Feyerabend would argue that simply stating ‘the world is round’ needs to be couched in the caveat ‘according to our frames of reference, scientific models, and observations made within a set of theoretical paradigms’.

Feyerabend shares common intellectual ground with other postmodern thinkers; the idea that science progresses not by any specific formulation, but rather as a result of the practitioners and associated cultural trends overlaps with the sceptical and relativistic perspective adopted by many later 20th century thinkers. In particular some of the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault – that changing knowledge and value systems throughout history are the product of contemporary culture and politics – are in many ways similar. In broad terms, postmodernism would hold that science as an enterprise has no objectively ‘correct’ direction, and as such a notion of ‘progress’ is in itself illusory. Any change in scientific knowledge instead reflects both the technology available at the time and the cultural hegemony.

What’s interesting about this, to me, is that the broad core of postmodernist practitioners tend to fall on the left side of the political spectrum; a postmodern rejection of traditionalism and older values as objective truth certainly aligns more with leftist cultural perspectives. It is deeply ironic, then, that the recent upswing in ‘anti-scientific’ arguments has come instead from the right. Postmodernism has left open the door by saying “Anything goes”, and that space has been exploited by creationism, climate denial, and ‘alternative facts’. The deeper irony is that Feyerabend and Foucault and others were striving instead for a more open, fairer world – and above all, more freedom – and yet their intellectual ideas have been used to advance in many cases a more restrictive world-view.

Perhaps we should follow the advice offered by Popper in his later work The Open Society and it’s Enemies; to maintain a tolerant society, we must be (somewhat paradoxically) intolerant of intolerance. The relativistic perspective of the postmodernists may be logically sound but its praxis seems incompatible with human psychology; we’re not beings that can drift directionless, we have to have meaning.

What does all of this mean for science as a human enterprise? Feyerabend’s controversial reputation among scientists highlights that researchers generally aren’t looking for an “Anything goes” approach; the striving for forward progress and scientific advancement is a deeply held aim of most practitioners. That’s not to say we should always be rigid with our scientific methodology – and we should particularly avoid intolerance in our viewpoints. We must operate in the grey area between rigid methodology and total scientific anarchy. For example, Feyerabend asks why science requires qualifications to be considered a ‘peer’; advanced degrees are a necessity for most academic advances, but is this fair? For most organised religions, the interpretation of religious texts is left to only the clergy; how is science different if we reject any scientific suggestions made by those outside the academy?

A personal example: I’m currently working outside the formal scientific ‘academy’, but am simultaneously working to get parts of my PhD research published in a research journal. I was required to list my affiliation to an academic or research institution as part of this publication process, but clearly this isn’t possible. Why are these restrictions necessary? Perhaps most scientists would feel differently to me (certainly my personal experience has informed my view), but I do think it is worth asking whether preserving some notion of scientific purity within the research world will inevitably lead to missing future radical leaps in our understanding from outside the narrow academic ivory tower.

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