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Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Can we give a good explication of what scientific method is?

Can we give a good explication of what scientific method is?

A well known answer to this question is proposed by Paul Feyerabend in his text “Against method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge” (1975) published shortly after his brief tenure as a visiting lecturer at the University of Sussex. In it he answers with a resounding “No” and argues that there is no specific scientific method that, if strictly adhered to, would not at some point have prevented significant advances. This claim is not entirely baseless. What I intend to show in this essay, is that at least two attempts to refute Feyerabend’s controversial views, whilst having some merit, still fall short of giving us reason to believe that a good explication of the scientific method could ever be possible.

It would not be unfair to describe a good ‘explication of scientific method’ as the Holy Grail for philosophers of science. There is good reason for this; as Feyerabend puts it:

“ if science had found a method that turns ideological contaminated ideas into true and useful theories, then it is indeed not mere ideology, but an objective measure of all ideologies” (Feyerabend. P. in Newton-Smith, 1981 p.144)

The logical positivists attempted to provide such an explication by demonstrating that ‘science is derived from facts.’ Due to the problematic nature of facts, in so far as they are theory dependant and fallible, this attempt proved unsuccessful. Falsificationism had similar difficulties in giving a complete explication of scientific method because whilst it provided some account of a method for distinguishing science from non-science, it failed spectacularly in any real situation to provide a method for determining decisive falsifications, much as logical positivism had done when seeking to provide decisive confirmations. Such failures prompted some thinkers of the time to conclude that such a method was impossible to find.

Kuhn’s paradigmatic model of science opened the door to relativism and one thinker to leap through it enthusiastically was Paul Feyerabend. Both Kuhn and Feyerabend coined the term ‘incommensurability’ independently to describe the impossibility of basing theory choice on experimental evidence where there was no shared theoretical framework. Where Kuhn sought to rescue science from absolute relativism, (restricting the non-scientific decision making to times of paradigm shift, whilst leaving periods of normal science wherein some form of scientific method would be followed) Feyerabend, conversely, embraces the idea of relativism. His view is that because in such situations of paradigm shift, theory choice is determined not by any special scientific method but by passion, belief or other socio-political factors; ‘it is very difficult to find wish-independent arguments for their acceptability.’(Feyerabend in Newton-Smith 1981. p.126)

For Feyerabend, relativism applies not just to theory choice but to the entire epistemic practice of science; to Feyerabend the times of normal science would base their methodology on the dominant theories of the paradigm and therefore be as contaminated with beliefs and superstitions as the theory choice itself. Additionally he argues that “…there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other.”(Feyerabend in Newton-Smith 1981, pp128) He refutes the idea of a system of rules, or universal scientific method that guide scientists in their theory choices.

“According to him no such system of rules can be found and to adopt any particular rules or methodology can only have the effect of impeding scientific progress” (Newton-Smith 1981 p.126).

He argues that universal rules governing scientific method, if there are any, can only be phrased so loosely so as to rule nothing out. Feyerabend’s view is perhaps best stated;

“the only principle that does not inhibit progress: anything goes.” (Feyerabend in Newton Smith 1981 p.126)

This is far from an explication of scientific method. It is however a bold claim and his arguments for epistemological anarchism do merit some attention.

There is little doubt that his arguments in Against Method make for compelling reading and provoke interesting questions, but do they stand up to scrutiny, and more importantly, do they satisfactorily rule out the possibility of an explication of scientific method? One thinker who feels this is not the case is W.H. Newton-Smith, writing in his book The Rationality of Science (1981) (Chapter VI - Feyerabend the Passionate Liberal). He finds Feyerabend’s account to be inconsistent and ill-founded and takes issue with several points. At times Newton-Smith’s criticisms do little more than cite one of Feyerabend’s conclusions (e.g. witchcraft and acupuncture should be given equal status as science) and claim it is ridiculous by appealing to the same sensibilities in the reader that Feyerabend seeks to free them from.(e.g. because that wouldn’t be rational to give them equal status, because science is based on fact) Feyerabend’s point is that it is rational; and it is when Newton-Smith looks at his reasons for claiming this, that Newton-Smith’s objections move beyond mere rhetoric and address some salient flaws. The strategy he employs to greatest success in this endeavour is to try and find contradiction within Feyerabend’s writings.

One argument posed by Newton-Smith is along these lines;

“The considerations that incline Feyerabend to view that science is ideology would equally incline him to view that philosophy as ideological. Consequently one is inclined to ask what can possibly be the force of his arguments about the science of nature” (Newton-Smith 1981 p.127)

It is my feeling that this is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Feyerabend at no point says that ideologies have no epistemic value. What he is claiming is that as an ideology, science has no purely objective grounds wherein it can measure either itself of other ideologies precisely because it lacks this special method for turning ideological views into true and useful theories that would distinguish it from other ideologies, as in the opening quote of this essay. He is therefore not using his (philosophical) ideology ex hypothesi to refute another (scientific) one as Newton-Smith claims. Feyerabend of all people would admit freely that there is a reasonable degree of incommensurability between two such ideologies. What he instead highlights is that science has no grounds upon which it can base a claim to be more than mere ideology. True; there is no basis for one ideology to make objectively valid criticisms of another ideology but Feyerabend’s criticisms are based not on such as false comparison. He is pointing out that science itself is unable to make such criticisms of ideologies and demonstrate its inherent superiority precisely because it is merely an ideology. Feyerabend makes no claim to have some philosophical objective measure of the value of conflicting ideologies. He makes no claim to the superiority of any ideology, even philosophy, precisely because he already understands that for anyone to make such a claim requires “a method that turns ideological contaminated ideas into true and useful theories…(so that it can become)…an objective measure of all ideologies”. Feyerabend does not claim to have such a method. He is simply indicating that neither does science. His reasons for this need not be philosophical. The failure of scientists, working within their own ideological frameworks, to find such a universal method leaves science without a means of positing its own superiority to mere ideology. Feyerabend needs to make no such argument because science’s own failure to deduce an objectively valid universal scientific method, is all he needs to cite when he claims it is no more than an ideology.

Another attack on Feyerabend is the accusation that in looking for an exceptionless method, he is asking too much;

“Thus Feyerabend’s easy defeat of a straw man (the rationalist who believes in infallible exceptionless rules) is construed by him as a victory over a real man (the rationalist who believes in general guiding fallible principles of comparison) who is in fact enlisted in the battle with the straw man!” (Newton-Smith 1981 pp.134-5)

I think this is actually the point at which Newton-Smith unwittingly concedes the argument in Feyerabend’s favour. Why? Because infallible exceptionless rules are the only sort that are going to give absolute guarantees of the validity of their outcome, and more importantly for the purposes of this question, are the only sort of rules that could be employed in an explication of scientific method. Anything less than infallible and exceptionless rules are only sufficient for an explanation; without a set of meta-rules governing the times when such rules need to be considered fallible or to be exceptional cases there is nothing approaching the required degree of rigour to qualify as an explication, rather than a more general explanation. Newton-Smith’s concession that there are no exceptionless rules pays into Feyerabend’s hands.

For an explication of Scientific method to be possible, in my view, it would have to be possible to give an account of the rules of investigation that can be applied in any situation, i.e. be universal. When Newton-Smith accepts that science has no such universal rules all he is left with are guidelines with no explicable superstructure to indicate where and when to follow which advice. The exceptions that Newton-Smith permits become the open door through which Feyerabend’s claims of subjectivity and personal preference manage to thrust their foot. Once that foot is in the door, Newton-Smith seems unable to provide us with reason to believe that an explication of scientific method is possible. At best he leaves the door open for a general explanation, but to explicate requires a universal means of determining what exceptions are to be made and when. Newton-Smith gives no reason to believe this is possible and therefore can only be said to concede that no good explication of scientific method is possible.

Feyerabend’s attack on method when viewed through Newton-Smith’s critical eye does not rule out the possibility of giving an explanation of scientific method but such an explanation could only ever be a general one and certainly not universal. Furthermore, Newton-Smith does not offer an explanation or explication of scientific method he merely challenges Feyerabend’s arguments against method while failing to show a method or demonstrate that such an explication could ever be possible. A.F. Chalmers, in “What is this thing Called Science?” takes a slightly different approach;

“I have no problem joining the campaign that Feyerabend launched against method… provided method is understood as universal, unchanging method…However, universal method and no method at all do not exhaust the range of possibilities. A middle way would hold that there are methods and standards in science, but that they can vary from science to science and can, within a science, be changed, and changed for the better.” (Chalmers 1999 p.162)

He then rather puzzlingly gives an argument by John Worrall (1988) against such a middle way!;

“If I am to defend a change in scientific method in a way that avoids extreme relativism then I am obliged to show in what way such a change is for the better. But better according to what standards? It would seem that unless there are some superstandards for judging changes in standards then those changes cannot be construed in a non-relativist way. But superstandards takes us back to the universal method that is meant to yield such standards. So, Worrall’s argument goes, either we have universal method or relativism. There is no middle way.” (Chalmers 1999 p.162-3)

In the following chapter of his book, Chalmers attempts an explanation of his middle way, based on an idea of gradual methodical change. He bases his explanation around Galileo just as Feyerabend does, and in particular he focuses on the methodical change from using naked eye data to telescopic data. He considers the change to be both progressive and rational but it enables him to give little more than a general explanation of scientific method.

To Feyerabend, Popper’s ideas if employed were so restrictive as to slow the growth of, if not kill off entire areas of inquiry, and where Lakatos developed these ideas into the more sophisticated ‘methodology of scientific research programmes’ his work is seen by Feyerabend to contain unfounded value judgements about what qualifies as good methodical practice or conversely to provide guidelines so lax as to rule nothing out. It was for this reason that Feyerabend often jokingly referred to Lakatos as a fellow anarchist (much to the latter’s annoyance.) It seems that Feyerabend, like Chalmers, tries to find a middle way and quickly realises that such a middle way requires superstandards that make anything more rigorous than a mere explanation impossible. Whilst a good explication of scientific method may be possible there is little reason to believe such a view in light of Feyerabend’s work. What Newton-Smith and Chalmers do succeed in rescuing is the possibility of a general explanation filled with seemingly ad hoc exceptions, but this falls far short of the explication one would expect as a justification for science’s status as a measure of all ideologies for it is fallible and has no way of knowing objectively where exceptions to its general methodology will be found.


Chalmers, A. (1999) What is this thing called science? (3rd Edition). Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis.

Newton-Smith. W.H. (1981) The Rationality of Science (1st Edition), Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, London and Henley

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