Feyerabend and the Cranks: On Demarcation, Epistemic Virtues, and Astrology, Jamie Shaw

SERRC —  March 22, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Jamie Shaw, Western University, jshaw222@uwo.ca

Shaw, Jamie. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: On Demarcation, Epistemic Virtues, and Astrology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 74-88.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3we

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Image credit: Jonathan Khoo, via flickr

In a well-known paper, Larry Laudan announces the demise of providing any criteria to distinguish science from non-science or pseudoscience.[1] He writes “the [demarcation] question is both uninteresting and, judging by its checkered past, intractable.”[2] While there were many philosophers who contributed to this “checkered path,” one of the most noteworthy critics of demarcation was Paul Feyerabend who argued against the ability to provide any meaningful demarcation criterion that does not simultaneously deny the scientific status of many of the most important transitions in the history of science. The primary aim of this paper is to reconstruct Feyerabend’s arguments for pluralism and the corresponding implications for the very idea of a demarcation criterion and show how Pigliucci’s revival of the demarcation problem fails to address these arguments. I then evaluate Kidd’s attempt to reintroduce Feyerabend into this discourse via his defense of purported pseudosciences. I conclude by highlighting Feyerabend’s numerous remarks about “the cranks,” which shows his intellectual allegiance to some of Pigliucci’s and Kidd’s goals.

The structure of this paper is as follows. In the first section, I reconstruct Feyerabend’s views of pluralism.[3] Specifically, I focus on his principles of proliferation and tenacity and what consequences they have for the demarcation problem. In the second section, I show how Pigliucci’s demarcation criteria fail in light of this reconstruction. In the third section, I consider Kidd’s analysis of Feyerabend’s defense of astrology and its reformulation in light of Pigliucci’s criticisms and defend a revised formulation of Kidd’s original position. The final section highlights Feyerabend’s disdain for “the cranks,” which appears to line up with Pigliucci and Kidd concerns.

A Tale of Two Principles: Feyerabend on Proliferation and Tenacity

Though Popper inspired Pigliucci’s revival of the demarcation problem, his own criteria differs from falsificationism. Since Feyerabend was one of the most vociferous and important critics of Popper’s philosophy and the demarcation criteria in general, his arguments must be circumvented for a revival of the demarcation problem to be successful. Indeed, in Pigliucci and Boundry’s 2013 collection, Feyerabend is only referenced once en passant. The burden of proof, therefore, lies on Pigliucci to show how Feyerabend’s arguments against demarcation have been mistaken. This section will repeat Feyerabend’s arguments against any demarcation criteria via his defense of pluralism that can serve as a standard of evaluating Pigliucci’s own model.

Pluralism is the most dominate theme throughout Feyerabend’s career. As Robert Farrell rightly notes:

The most long-lived, ubiquitous and deepest theme of Feyerabend’s philosophy is pluralism. The changes in Feyerabend’s philosophy, over the decades is best interpreted as the gradual drawing out of the consequences of a pluralistic philosophy: pluralism is the hard-core of the Feyerabendian philosophical program and it came to permeate all aspects of his thought.[4]

Similarly, Oberheim writes that “almost all of [Feyerabend’s] major publications, and even most of the minor ones, contain some form of a methodological argument for pluralism.”[5] As such, I cannot hope to capture the details of Feyerabend’s views, their development, and their motivation.[6] In this section, I outline two principles that comprise Feyerabend’s pluralism: the principles of proliferation and tenacity.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Feyerabend argued that all observation statements (“facts”) rely on theoretical assumptions. For any observation statement to be true, we must make certain theoretical assumptions about the nature of observation. This may include theories about observation itself (e.g., perception, physiology, etc.) or about what Feyerabend calls “mediating terms” which are not immediately present in observation (e.g., the laws of optics, relative motion, Coriolis forces, etc.). Furthermore, the meaning of observation terms is, at least partially, dependent on theories. Demon possessions used to be (and, for some, still are) observational facts in the same way we “observe” seizures.

If we deny medieval demon psychology, then observation statements such as “I see a demon possession” are false.[7] Facts, therefore, can be tested. Feyerabend’s favorite example of this is Brownian motion which, he argues, would never have refuted the second law of phenomenological thermodynamics if it weren’t for the kinetic theory of heat. This forms the basis of the principle of proliferation: we should “[i]nvent, and elaborate theories which are inconsistent with the accepted point of view, even if the latter should happen to be highly confirmed and generally accepted.”[8] As Feyerabend’s thought develops, his notion of a “test” becomes multifarious. For example, we may also:

  1. Compare the structures of infinite sets of elements and see whether there is an isomorphism or not.
  1. Compare theories via their “local grammars’, defined as “that part of a [statement’s] rules of usage which is connected with such direct operations as looking, uttering a sentence in accordance with extensively taught (not defined) rules.”[9]
  1. Construct a model of a theory “T” within its… alternative “T” and “consider its fate.”

Additionally, alternatives change the importance of facts. Even though the discrepancies between Newton’s celestial mechanics and the orbit of Mercury at its perihelion was known since Le Verrier’s observations and calculations in 1859, it wasn’t until general relativity’s alternative explanation that this minor problem became a major problem. As Feyerabend puts it, theories “on the basis of new principles will lift them out of the background and deviational noise and then turn them into an effect that is capable of refuting the [alternative] scheme.”[10] Finally, alternatives have psychological benefits; “a mind which is immersed in the contemplation of a single theory may not even notice its most striking weaknesses.”[11] This means that even if the alternatives are not true (or empirically successful), they should still be welcomed into scientific discourses for their heuristic import.[12] This, in a nutshell, is the basis of the principle of proliferation.

The principle of proliferation, on its own, is empty. It would merely result in half-baked theories rather than sophisticated theories making interesting criticisms. This is why proliferation must be complemented by the principle of tenacity which states that we should “select from a number of theories the one that promises to lead to the most fruitful results, and stick to this theory even if the actual difficulties it encounters are considerable.”[13] In other words, we must develop theories from their infantile stages with internal contradictions, apparent paradoxes, and recalcitrant evidence to more sophisticated theories that can reconcile at least some of their initial problems. One could easily claim that the slogan of Feyerabend’s pluralism is “Proliferation without Tenacity is empty and Tenacity with Proliferation is blind” or, as Feyerabend puts it, “[t]he interplay between tenacity and proliferation which we described in our little methodological fairy tale is also an essential feature of the actual development of science.”[14]

Kuhn was the first to recognize the principle of tenacity: all theories are constantly beset by anomalies. As Lakatos puts it, all theories are “born refuted.”[15] If we were to abandon theories the moment they came into difficulties, we would have abandoned many of the most successful theories throughout the history of science. The justification of some kind of tenacity is, therefore, quite reasonable. However, Feyerabend’s mature view of tenacity is exceptionally radical in two ways. Firstly, it has no conditions for acceptance; any theory can be held tenaciously. This is because only research can determine what theories are useful and in what ways.[16] Even theories that have blatant internal contradictions or seem to conflict with facts can be, and often are, developed into useful research programs; all that is needed is “[a] brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests).”[17] Secondly, and more importantly, for Feyerabend, tenacity, has no “expiry date.” There are three primary arguments for this. First, any expiry date will be arbitrary. “If not now why not wait a bit longer?”[18] Second, the reason for granting a theory “breathing space” in the first place remains true; the theory may make a comeback. This is not a mere “logical possibility,” as Achinstein suggests,[19] but one that has been substantiated many times throughout the history of science.[20] Finally, any view that theories cannot make comebacks must make various metaphysical assumptions about the simplicity of nature.[21] The principle of tenacity does not, of course, commit us to indefinitely pursuing every line of research we inquire about but simply that it is always perfectly rational to continue developing ideas despite their extant problems. Furthermore, tenacity must be complemented by proliferation; so it is not the case that the entire scientific community should tenaciously develop one theory, as Kuhn thought, but multiple theories competing and complementing each other in a variety of ways. While this provides only a cursory glance at Feyerabend’s pluralism, it provides us with a starting point for evaluating demarcation criteria.

The principle of proliferation applies equally to many features of science; methods, theories, experimental designs, and so forth. Furthermore, what is proliferated need not be consistent with the features already at play in a given research context since “[a]lternatives will be more efficient the more radically they differ from the point of view to be investigated.”[22] Because of this, any theory of demarcation will rule out some features that have played or could play important roles in advancing knowledge. Furthermore, the principle of tenacity has important consequences for theories of scientific rationality. This is because if at any given time, t1, a theory does not meet the requirements of that theory of rationality (e.g., that theories conform to the facts, are made as simply as possible, etc.), cannot be rejected since it could eventually come to meet those requirements at t2 given sufficient attention to these issues. Because of this, what is “non-scientific” one day is “scientific” the next and the transition between the two requires being placed within scientific debates. While there is much more that could be said about the details of these principles and their justification, this should be sufficient for evaluating Pigliucci’s proposal for a model of demarcation.

A Feyerabendian Criticism of Pigliucci’s Demarcation Criterion

If science is as diverse as Feyerabend claims, and cannot be understood as a single entity, then any demarcation criterion that provides necessary conditions that theories or methods must meet to be scientific will inevitably exclude other valuable scientific endeavors. Pigliucci is sensitive to this point and does not wish to return to the “old-fashioned” ways of distinguishing science from pseudoscience via some set of necessary and sufficient conditions.[23] Pigliucci, instead, suggests that demarcation must be understood as a family resemblance concept “characterized by a number of threads connecting instantiations of the concept, with some threads more relevant than others to specific instantiation.”[24] Pigliucci immediately follows up by stating that “[a]t a very minimum, two ‘threads’ run throughout any meaningful treatment of the differences between science and pseudoscience: what I label ‘theoretical understanding’ and ‘empirical knowledge.’”[25] This definition, admittedly preliminary,[26] provides necessary conditions for what constitutes science.[27] He then states that theoretical understanding and empirical knowledge come in degrees, with pseudoscience possessing little to none of either virtues. While Pigliucci does not define what he means by “empirical knowledge,” he appears to mean that “confirmed predictions” and “theoretical understanding” involves “internal coherence and logic.”[28] I have no clue what it means for a theory to “have logic,” but internal coherence is cashed out as a lack of internal contradictions or contradicting other well-established scientific theories. Pigliucci concludes by providing three meta-criteria for any demarcation criteria:

  1. A viable demarcation criterion should recover much (though not necessarily all) of the intuitive classification of sciences and pseudosciences generally accepted by practicing scientists and many philosophers of science…
  1. Demarcation should not be attempted on the basis of a small set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions…A better approach is to understand them via a multidimensional conditions classification based on degrees of theoretical and soundness and empirical support…
  1. Philosophers ought to get into the political and social fray raised by discussion about the value (or lack thereof) of both science and pseudoscience.[29]

Let us now consider these statements from what we have learned in section 1. First, theories that contain low degrees of empirical support (or even conflict with known facts) or are theoretically confused are perfectly pursuit-worthy on Feyerabend’s account. This is because these theories can gain empirical support, can “correct” evidence, and become more coherent. Furthermore, even if theories are not pursued as a potentially true description of the world, they can be pursued for a variety of heuristic purposes (e.g., instruments of criticism, points of contrast, serve a number of psychological functions necessary for more general critical attitudes, and so forth). Therefore, Pigliucci’s criteria fail to provide reasonable grounds to prevent the consideration of “pseudosciences.”[30]

Furthermore, not only does the principle of tenacity allow us to pursue theories with internal contradictions, we can pursue theories that contradict previously well-established theories as well. Pigliucci wrongfully states that “[f]ollowing a Quinean conception of the web of knowledge, one would then be forced to either throw out astrology (and, for similar reasons, creationism) or reject close to the entirely of the established sciences…The choice is obvious.”[31] We don’t need to “throw out” anything! We can retain both theories, develop them, and see what happens.[32] As for the meta-criteria, seems suspicious for two main reasons.[33] The first concerns virtue epistemology. Pigliucci concedes to Kidd that it is a virtue to not make declarations about fields that are alien to their field of expertise.[34] However, demarcation criteria affect people with different intellectual backgrounds. They affect funding distribution policies, taxation policies, those who benefit or are harmed by the creation (or lack thereof) of particular pieces of scientific knowledge, and so on. This is far beyond the domain of scientists or philosophers of science who provide, at best, one perspective on demarcation. Additionally, the intuitions of scientists and philosophers may have been shaped by social forces which themselves are problematic. If scientists are forced to conform to certain views because their education does not provide viable alternatives, if peer review is so conservative that it causes long-term conformity, and so on, then those intuitions aren’t worth taking seriously.[35] They are products of sociological forces which themselves are open to criticism. On this view, scientists and philosophers of science may have the wrong intuitions that need to be corrected. I have no immediate complaints about (2)[36] and (3) is completely Feyerabendian. If we are to have a theory of demarcation, it should be of practical relevance.

I welcome a response from Pigliucci and his sympathizers to reformulate their views in light of these problems. In the meantime, there appears to be little reason to find this view appealing in light of the many criticisms of Feyerabend and others.[37] I will leave this issue aside for now and move on to Kidd’s arguments on Feyerabend’s defense of astrology.

On Feyerabend’s Defense of Astrology and Virtue Epistemology

Kidd’s paper does not directly target Pigliucci’s claims on demarcation. However, as evidenced by their dialogue, their arguments overlap. In his paper, Kidd makes two primary claims. First, that Feyerabend defended the epistemic integrity of some practitioners of astrology because he was practicing the pluralism he preached and decided to defend views that were dismissed or ostracized from the philosophy of science. In other words, Feyerabend was proliferating.[38] Secondly, these actions can be understood using the resources of contemporary virtue epistemology. In this section, I outline Kidd’s original claims, show his concessions in light of Pigliucci’s criticisms, and argue that Kidd’s original claims are correct. I then point out a few potential pitfalls for the subsequent development of a Feyerabendian account of virtue epistemology.

Kidd’s paper attempts to “identify the epistemic rationale for Paul Feyerabend’s defences of astrology, voodoo, witchcraft, Chinese traditional medicine, and other ‘non-scientific’ beliefs, practices, and traditions.”[39] His thesis is that the epistemic rationale motivating Feyerabend’s defense of purported pseudosciences is not that he is committed to them (i.e., believes them to be true) but that he is practicing his own brand of pluralism which derives from Mill.[40] Feyerabend lays out his interpretation of Mill’s pluralism as the conjunction of four claims:

  1. Because a view one may have may have reason to reject may still be true. “To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”
  1. Because a problematic view “may and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
  1. Even a point of view that is wholly true but not be contested “will…be handled in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension of feeling of its rational grounds.”
  1. One will not understand its meaning, subscribing to it will become “a mere formal confession” unless a contrast with other opinions shows wherein this meaning consists.[41]

Or, in Kidd’s words:

Central to [] pluralism is the epistemological conviction that the use of “radical alternatives” to prevailing theories and methods enables “immanent critique” of entrenched systems of thoughts and practice. The use of radical alternatives can afford new and otherwise unavailable forms of empirical and theoretical critique and so provides an essential strategy for countering…a tendency for enquirers to drift into a state of unreflective reliance upon a fixed set of epistemic resources.[42]

There are plenty of empirical reasons to think that pluralism of this kind can deliver its promises so we can reasonably expect pluralism to achieve its desired results.[43] Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, according to Kidd, can be seen as an attempt to combat the epistemic vice of arrogance (or, conversely, to promote the epistemic virtue of humility).[44] To support this interpretation, Kidd considers Feyerabend’s “The Strange Case of Astrology” which was written in response to a statement made in The Humanist with 186 signatures from prominent scientists condemning astrology as contributing to the “growth of irrationalism and superstition.”[45] Without going into the details of Feyerabend’s article, he essentially argues that the writers of the Humanist statement are often historically inaccurate, make confused conceptual statements about astrology, and, more generally, do not know anything about astrology. Astonishingly, Feyerabend writes:

This [that the writers of the statement “certainly do not know what they are talking about”] is quite literally true. When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview some of the Nobel Prize Winners they declined with the remarks that they had never studied astrology and had no idea of its details.[46]

Feyerabend admits that there are genuine problems with modern astrology (which are not the same problems of the astrology of, say, Kepler); modern astrology is “not used for research; there is no attempt to proceed into new domains and to enlarge our knowledge…. they simply serve as a reservoir of naïve rules suited to impress the ignorant.”[47] However, “this is not the objection that is raised by our scientists.”[48] By revealing the ignorance of this statement, Feyerabend defends modern astrology not because he thinks its true (or even valuable) but because its critics are being arrogant, so defending a “pro-astrology” perspective is necessary to combat this vice. For scientists to enjoy any epistemic authority, they must display the proper epistemic virtues that were not demonstrated in The Humanist response.

We can see how Pigliucci’s demarcation conflicts with Feyerabend’s pluralistic defense of astrology. Astrology in its modern form is not an empirically successful science and thereby fails to meet his demarcation criterion.[49] Remember, alternatives have many different functions and Kidd has highlighted one of them in Feyerabend’s defense of astrology: combating arrogance and ignorance. Pigliucci makes a few criticisms in his reply to Kidd that Kidd concedes to. Pigliucci admits that the Humanist statement is indeed problematic. Specifically, it is a form of scientism which Pigliucci defines as “scientific claims overstepping the epistemic authority of science…largely directed at delegitimizing the humanities and establishing a sort of scientific imperialism on all human knowledge and understanding.”[50]

Scientism, Pigliucci claims, is the common enemy; he, Kidd, and Feyerabend merely “disagree on how most effectively to deal with the menace.”[51] These disagreements are in two primary forms:

  1. That astrology is a particularly bad choice of proliferation,
  1. Feyerabend displayed the vice of “epistemic recklessness” in defending astrology.

For the former, Pigliucci argues that “astrology has never been a research program” and, even more strongly, that “both astrology and voodoo have no epistemic value whatsoever.”[52]

Pigliucci then generalizes this claim to other purported pseudosciences and states “radical alternatives are fine if they are credible and constructive, but astrology, voodoo, homeopathy and the like are light-years away from being either.”[53] For 2), Pigliucci states that the results of Feyerabend’s “attitude” are deeply troublesome; “rampant denial of climate change, the anti-vaccination movement, AIDS denialism, and so form. All of which is costing us in the hard currency of actual pain, suffering, and death.”[54]

Kidd then backs off from a few of his claims. He writes that Pigliucci is “quite right” that “Feyerabend is wrong to say that astrology is a good example of the limits of scientific explanation” and that he is “happy to concede” that astrology was not a research program though he does not respond to the stronger claim that pseudosciences are completely worthless.[55] Kidd also concedes that Feyerabend himself had “epistemically vicious positions at certain times of his life [and] joins the rest of us in having a dappled character.”[56]

I argue that Pigliucci hasn’t offered any good reasons for Kidd to back down on any of these claims. First, Pigliucci never addresses the pluralist motivation behind Feyerabend’s defense of astrology. Remember tenet (3) of Feyerabend’s Millian justification of pluralism: we do not understand the rational basis for, say, rejecting astrology and preferring modern astronomy without knowing what astrology was, what the arguments for and against it were, and so forth. In other words, it must be taught and discussed. The lack of pluralism is a partial cause for the ignorance of the writers of the Humanist manifesto and, therefore, astrology doesn’t need to be true to be a part of some kinds of scientific discussions. Second, astrology most certainly was a research program in a loose sense.[57] Feyerabend even supplies some of the preliminary arguments for this in his article.

Depending on how loosely one interprets the astrological tenet that celestial events influence human affairs, there was research in the early 70s suggesting that there are many causal links between certain celestial events and non-reproducible physico-chemical processes. This research spawned a number of further studies, the citations of which Feyerabend provides, which even filled a (then) lacunae in environmental studies.[58] Feyerabend also discusses Kepler’s arguments and evidence for retaining a constrained version of sidereal astrology (though not tropic astrology) and there is much more that could be discussed about the developments of astrology over centuries of overlapping research programs.[59] This is a part of Feyerabend’s complaint: these expansive explorations with varying degrees of success all become subsumed under the single heading of “astrology” with the assumption that the entire research program contains the rigor found in newspaper horoscopes.

Finally, Pigliucci has not given any reason to think that Feyerabend’s defense of astrology was an instance of “epistemic recklessness.” While Kidd has argued elsewhere that Feyerabend chagrined many intellectually dishonest endeavors that paraded his arguments,[60] Feyerabend never, to my knowledge, discusses climate change, anti-vaccination movements, or AIDS denialism; these (mostly) became issues after Feyerabend’s death. Furthermore, there is no legitimate inference from Feyerabend’s pluralism to defending these topics in a direct way. Feyerabend repeatedly states that each case must be analyzed on its own and not lumped into more general categories.[61] Since Feyerabend made no specific comments about these issues, he has no commitment to any of the peculiarities of these subjects (which are also all multifaceted and disunified subjects themselves).[62] Therefore, Pigliucci cannot ascribe any of these particular consequences as emanating from Feyerabend. It is because of these reasons that I urge Kidd to retain his initial arguments that Feyerabend’s defense of the epistemic authority of scientists via astrology is a perfectly fine choice; both in terms of virtue epistemology and its scientific credentials.

I’d like to finish this section by remarking that if Kidd wishes to elaborate on his virtue epistemology reading of Feyerabend, which I would certainly encourage, there are pitfalls that he (and those similarly inclined) should be careful of. Many epistemic vices contain functions that may be of value to the scientific community as a whole. Feyerabend points out how vices like stubbornness (e.g., Boltzmann’s defense of atomism) or deceptiveness (e.g., his case study of Galileo), for example, can be important for the growth of knowledge. This argument is most prominent in Feyerabend’s defense of propaganda: contingent idiosyncrasies of particular communities may require overcoming by unorthodox and potentially “vice-like” behaviour.[63] Unless Kidd wants to suggest that vices are inherently problematic, he must allow for a flexible notion of what counts as a “vice” or a “virtue.” I think this accommodation can be easily made, but it does require attention in the subsequent development of a Feyerabendian virtue epistemology. Regardless, it would be an interesting topic to see what virtue epistemology Feyerabend may have endorsed given his recognition of the diverse kinds of mindsets needed for a flourishing community and his radical cultural pluralism.

Feyerabend and the Cranks

Throughout Feyerabend’s career, he complains about what he calls “the cranks.” While Feyerabend did not, and would not, provide a definition of who counts as a “crank,” his general description of cranks should sound familiar to those worried about intellectual honesty in science. Early in Feyerabend’s career, he writes the following:

The distinction between the crank and the respectable thinker lies in the research that is done once a certain point of view is adopted. The crank usually is content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and he is not prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favor the opponent, or even admit that there exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the “respectable thinker” from the crank. The original content of his theory does not.[64]

Indeed, Feyerabend’s aforementioned complaints about modern astrology fall under this category. Those who do not wish to assess astrology critically, attempt to apply it in new ways, test it, and so forth are, simply put, cranks. One can infer that Feyerabend is not supporting the proliferation of the cranks, but serious researchers who get lumped together with the cranks. This is evidenced by who Feyerabend cites. In his defense of Voodoo, he doesn’t defend con-artists on Bourbon street, but the sophisticated and extensive work by C.R. Richter and W.H. Cannon[65] which is scientific by any reasonable standard![66] Similarly, in Against Method, Feyerabend complains about “intellectual pollution” where “illiterate and incompetent books flood the market, empty verbiage full of strange and esoteric terms claims to express profound insights, ‘experts’ without brains, without character, and without even a modicum of intellectual, stylistic, emotional temperament tell us about our ‘condition’ and the means of improving it.”[67] It is clear that there is a commonality between Pigliucci, Kidd, and Feyerabend: their disdain for the cranks! Feyerabend’s lack of defense of the cranks[68] clarifies what kind of proliferation Feyerabend is interested in and what attitudes he thinks belong in scientific communities.

Concluding Remarks

Pigliucci is right to stress the social, political, and epistemic importance of the demarcation problem. For decades, the preoccupation with uncovering what is unique and praiseworthy about science dominated the philosophy of science. But times have changed. Increasing investigations into various scientific practices throughout history and across the globe have made it seemingly impossible to resuscitate the universal standards that philosophers once sought. I hope to have contributed to this discussion by ensuring that our revitalization of the demarcation debate does not repeat the mistakes of the past and that we begin thinking of demarcation in terms of its conditions of applications and its relationship to pluralism.


Many thanks for Ian James Kidd’s helpful comments. I tried to address as many of them as I could. Marie Gueguen, Erlantz Etxeberria, and Adam Koberinski also provided superb feedback while workshopping an earlier draft of this paper.


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Laudan, Larry. “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem.” In Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, 111-127. Springer Netherlands, 1983.

Lloyd, Elisabeth A. “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism.” Philosophy of Science 64 (1997): S396-S407.

Oberheim, Eric. Feyerabend’s Philosophy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “The Demarcation Problem: A (Belated) Response to Laudan.” In Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, 9-28. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology? A Commentary on Kidd.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 1-6.

Post, H.R. “Correspondence, Invariance and Heuristics: In Praise of Conservative Induction.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 2.3 (1971): 213-255.

Preston, Christopher J. “Pluralism and Naturalism: Why the Proliferation of Theories is Good for the Mind.” Philosophical Psychology 18, no. 6 (2005): 715-735.

Preston, John. Feyerabend: Philosophy, Science and Society. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Roberts, Royston M. Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 1989.

Stanford, P. Kyle. “Unconceived Alternatives and Conservatism in Science: The Impact of Professionalization, Peer-Review, and Big Science.” Synthese (2015): 1-18. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-015-0856-4

Tsui, Anne S. “From Homogenization to Pluralism: International Management Research in the Academy and Beyond.” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 6 (2007): 1353-1364.

[1] Laudan, “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem.”

[2] Ibid, 125.

[3] I acknowledge that the act of treating Feyerabend’s pluralism as a unified doctrine conflicts with Oberheim’s reading of Feyerabend as having no unified view (Oberheim, Feyerabend’s Philosophy, 12). I disagree with this reading, since there is substantial theoretical continuity across Feyerabend’s published works up to (and including) Against Method, but I will not make this argument here.

[4] Farrell, Feyerabend and Scientific Values, 135.

[5] Oberheim, Feyerabend’s Philosophy, fn. 338 246.

[6] The most detailed discussions of Feyerabend’s pluralism can be found in chapters 7-9 in Oberheim, Feyerabend’s Philosophy; chapter 7 of Preston, Feyerabend; Lloyd, “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism”; and chapters 5 and 6 in Farrell, Feyerabend and Scientific Values; though these accounts differ in various ways. I do not think any of these accounts is completely accurate for reasons I will not go into here. However, they should provide the reader with a starting point for understanding Feyerabend’s pluralism.

[7] The same point is true for less complicated observation terms since any term licenses particular inferences and, therefore, makes theoretical assumptions about the entity observed. The sentence “I see a tree” is false if what is seen does not, say, absorb carbon dioxide or engage in photosynthesis.

[8] Feyerabend, “Reply to Criticism,” 105. For a more detailed description of this process of “anomaly import” see Bschir, “Feyerabend and Popper on Theory Proliferation and Anomaly Import” and Couvalis, “Feyerabend, Ionesco, and the Philosophy of the Drama” for a reconstruction of Feyerabend’s account of Brownian motion.

[9] Ibid, fn. 32 116.

[10] Ibid, fn. 7 106.

[11] Ibid. See Preston, “Pluralism and Naturalism” for an empirically updated defense of this view.

[12] Feyerabend cites many empirical studies to support this intuition and a few which show its limits (cf. Feyerabend “Against Method,” fn. 42 107). Contemporary empirical literature also supports a Feyerabendian view (Preston, “Pluralism and Naturalism”).

[13] Feyerabend, “Consolations for the Specialist,” 203.

[14] Ibid, 209.

[15] See chapters 6 and 7 of Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” 3(c) and (d); and Feyerabend, “Against Method,” 37-40 for examples and discussions.

[16] While Feyerabend does not mention this explicitly, many theories are fruitful in unexpected ways. See Roberts, Serendipity and the subsequent literature on serendipity in scientific discovery for examples.

[17] Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” 100.

[18] Feyerabend, “Against Method,” 77.

[19] Achinstein, “Proliferation.”

[20] Feyerabend’s favorite example of this is Boltzmann’s defense of atomism (see Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism,” 108). Furthermore, while Feyerabend never makes this connection, comebacks can include theories that were pursed without a gap and theories that were abandoned at one point and resurfaced later on (see chapter 4 of Against Method and his “In Defence of Classical Physics” (especially fn. 20, 66) for his defense of the revival of classical physics in the 1960s and recent literature on Kuhn-loss (cf. Post 1971) for several examples).

[21] Feyerabend, Against Method, fn. 12 185. Defending the simplicity of nature thesis is remarkably difficult to do in a non-circular fashion since Hume. However, one could conceivably have other metaphysical theses that entail that theories that fail will continue to fail.

[22] Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism,” 214.

[23] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 19.

[24] Ibid, 21.

[25] Ibid, 22.

[26] “I am certainly not suggesting that these are the only criteria by which to evaluate the soundness of a science (or pseudoscience), but we need to start somewhere” (Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 22).

[27] Pigliucci states that theoretical understanding and empirical knowledge can both be made rigorous with fuzzy logic with no clearly defined borders and this is what he means by a “family resemblance concept.’ But these are completely separate issues. A family resemblance concept would allow that a concept can be missing some conditions entirely which is different from saying these conditions have fuzzy boundaries. I will leave this ambiguity alone for the moment, as it does not affect his primary claims.

[28] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 22.

[29] Ibid, 25-26.

[30] See Desjardins et al. (forthcoming) for a defense of the use of non-testable theories to ground policy decisions.

[31] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 24.

[32] This, of course, is a practical impossibility since we must make choices about what to fund and what to abandon. However, it is a separate question about how the hypothetical unconstrained nature of tenacity and proliferation must be adapted to meet these practical demands.

[33] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 1.

[34] Pigliucci, “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology?,” 1.

[35] This, often times, seems to be the case (cf. Stanford, “Unconceived Alternatives and Conservatism in Science”).

[36] Kidd has pointed out to me that Feyerabend himself may have been sympathetic to this notion (see the introduction to the Chinese edition of Against Method).

[37] There are similar, but importantly distinct, justifications of tenacity from Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes” and Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Feyerabend’s criticisms are not the only ones that need to be overcome to advance our knowledge on demarcation.

[38]. “The principle of proliferation not only recommends invention of new alternatives, it also prevents the elimination of older theories which have been refuted” (Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism,” 107).

[39] Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 464.

[40] Kidd credits Oberheim’s Feyerabend’s Philosophy for the arguments that Feyerabend was not committed to his defense of pseudosciences and Lloyd’s “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism” for the argument that Feyerabend’s polemics can be seen as his pluralism in action.

[41] Feyerabend, “Proliferation and Realism as Methodological Principles,” 139.

[42] Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 468. This Millian defense of pluralism extends the account roughly sketched out in section 1 though I will not go into the fine-grained details of how Feyerabend’s understanding of pluralism evolved from the early “60s to the “early 80s.”

[43] Cf. Preston, “Pluralism and Naturalism”; Tsui, “From Homogenization to Pluralism”; Bigo and Negru, “From Fragmentation to Ontologically Reflexive Pluralism.”

[44] Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 473.

[45] Quoted in Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 470.

[46] Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, fn. 13 91.

[47] Ibid, 96.

[48] Ibid.

[49] It is unclear what the practical applications of Pigliucci’s demarcation criterion are supposed to be. Should pseudoscience not appear in journals? Textbooks? University curriculum? Subjugated to further research? All of the above? The answer to this question is crucial if we are to understand what exact functions pseudosciences should or should not play within science.

[50] Pigliucci, “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology?,” 1. Kidd, “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology?,” 11 reaffirms his and Feyerabend’s allegiance to combat scientism.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid, 2.

[53] Ibid, 3.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Kidd, “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology?,” 11-12.

[56] Ibid, 15. Kidd states that this is “affirmed in [Feyerabend’s] autobiography” but does not offer any quotations or hints as to what these epistemic vices are or how they are relevant to Feyerabend’s defense of astrology. I certainly would not argue that Feyerabend, nor anyone else, was an epistemic saint, but these ambiguities should be addressed.

[57] Pigliucci cites Lakatos suggesting that he means “research program’ in his sense (though nowhere in that volume does Lakatos make that argument). This would require an exceptionally complicated historical analysis to show that this is the case. For now, I will merely argue that astrology was a research program in the more casual sense that Pigliucci seems to use.

[58] See Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, fn. 16 93.

[59] For a fraction of the expansive literature on the history of astronomy and its applications in medicine, meteorology, astrobiology, and many other disciplines see the references contained in Kassell, “Stars, Spirits, Signs.”

[60] Kidd, “Was Feyerabend a Postmodernist?”

[61] As a side note, both Pigliucci and Kidd often lump together many distinct research programs together and discuss them as if they could be treated uniformly. It is important to note that astrology, voodoo, homeopathy, climate change skepticism, and so on are distinct disciplines with their own histories, successes and problems, methods, and so forth and should not be treated under a single heading.

[62] Pigliucci also argues that Feyerabend’s support for the democratization of science has had “horrible results’ citing the decisions of parents to not vaccinate their children (Pigliucci “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology?,” 4). First, the decision to vaccinate or not is partially a value decision and, therefore, certainly one that should be discussed in a democratic fashion. Second, there is a wealth of literature on the positive effects of the democratization of science, such as racial inclusivity in AIDS control trials (Epstein, “The Construction of Lay Expertise”), increasing safety standards of nuclear waste transportation, and many other important social issues. See Kitcher, Science In A Democratic Society for a brief overview of some of these discussions.

[63] “Even the most puritanical rationalist will then be forced to stop reasoning and to use propaganda and coercion, not because some of his reasons have ceased to be valid, but because the psychological conditions which make them effective, and capable of influencing others, have disappeared. And what is the use of an argument that leaves people unmoved?” (italics in original, Feyerabend, Against Method, 16).

[64] Feyerabend, “Realism and Instrumentalism,” 305.

[65] Feyerabend, Against Method, ft. 7 30.

[66] The case is more difficult with witchcraft and ancient Chinese medicine since his references are more oblique and sporadic. See chapter 4 of Against Method for a somewhat sustained discussion of ancient Chinese medicine and witchcraft.

[67] Feyerabend, Against Method, 219.

[68] He does, however, explicitly defend the use of the cranks’ ideas (Feyerabend, Against Method, 26). This can also be seen in the “Realism and Instrumentalism” quote where he states that the content does not distinguish the respectable thinker from the crank.

One response to Feyerabend and the Cranks: On Demarcation, Epistemic Virtues, and Astrology, Jamie Shaw

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