Archives For Ian James Kidd

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, University of Nottingham, i.j.kidd@durham.ac.uk

Kidd, Ian James. “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 11-16.

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The vices of the mind are the subject of vice epistemology, characterised by Quassim Cassam (2016) as the study of the nature, identity, and epistemological significance of those attitudes, character traits, and ways of thinking that obstruct enquiry. These vices range from the familiar, like arrogance and dogmatism, to the more esoteric, like epistemic insensibility and epistemic insouciance. At the moment, the small but growing body of work in vice epistemology is devoted to three broad sorts of issues:

First, to foundational issues, concerning the nature of epistemic vices—are they confined to character traits, or might they include attitudes and ways of thinking, as Cassam (2016) and Alessandra Tanesini (2016) argue?

Second, to studies of specific vices, most obviously the vices of epistemic injustice, but also closed-mindedness, hubris, servility, timidity, to name just a few. Specific studies also include taxonomic projects, ways of organising these vices, for instance by clustering them around the virtues they oppose.

Third, there is work in applied vice epistemology, studies of how the vices manifest in specific contexts, practices, and communities—of how, for instance, certain conditions under which scientific enquiry is conducted may nourish the exercise of vices like timidity.

By organising current work in vice epistemology in this way, it’s clear that this discipline is tracking the dialectics of virtue epistemology. In this journal, Cassam (2015) proposed stealthy vices as an important concept for understanding epistemic vices. Using his argument, I propose another—capital vices.

The Vice Tradition and Capital Vices

An important issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy. By what sorts of features or properties can we reasonably group epistemically vicious character traits, attitudes, and ways of thinking? It’s an important task to identify and describe the various vices of the mind, but vice epistemologists should do more than produce undifferentiated lists of thosee sundry vices. After being identifying, they need to organised in illuminating and instructive ways, as Jason Baehr (cf. 2011, 21f) did for the epistemic virtues, grouping by him according to the specific ‘demands’ of enquiry to which they respond.

An intriguing taxonomic strategy, offered by Cassam, is to argue that certain epistemic vices are stealthy, in the sense that, ‘by their nature, they evade detection from those who have them’ (2015, 20). Stealthy vices are not, of course, impossible to detect—just harder to, since they incorporate features that tend to conceal them successfully from those who have them; as such, they are self-concealing.

Cassam’s examples of stealthy vices include carelessness, a disposition to fail to perform epistemic tasks, including those constitutive of ‘conscious critical reflection’, including critical reflection on one’s own epistemic psychology. A careless person will tend to impede enquiry, for by not caring enough about epistemic goods, they fail to perform consistently and adequately the various tasks one needs to contribute to it. But that includes self-enquiry, which includes attending to actual or potential deficiencies in one’s epistemic capacities, dispositions, and performance. If so, that vice is likely to persist, at least until some other events force one to reflect critically, or until someone points it out for us (see Cassam 2015, 21-24ff). Moreover, it is easy to imagine other candidate stealthy vices, self-concealing by their nature (a further example, to which I later return, is closed-mindedness—one option an agent might be closed to is the possibility of their being epistemically vicious.)

Cassam’s concept of self-concealing, ‘stealthy’ vices offers a compelling way to reflect on and taxonomies the vices of the mind. Certain vices will be stealthy, while others will be more overt, even to the point of being self-disclosing. But here I want to suggest another way, distinct but complementary, taken from the history of philosophical and theological reflection on the vices. This is the idea of capital vices, an idea that has, historically, been mainly confined to moral and spiritual character traits, but is able to play a role in vice epistemology—or so I want to propose.

The best introduction to the concept of a capital vice is Rebecca DeYoung’s excellent 2009 book, Glittering Vices, a history of the vices tradition in the West. For the first thousand years of that tradition, reflection on the vices was motivated by practical and pastoral purposes. Concern with vices was motivated by concerns with ethical and spiritual self-examination and formation, initially following Aristotle, but developing rapidly in the early Christian period. Indeed, the first list of the vices was compiled by the 4th century desert father, Evagrius of Pontus (346-399AD), who described the seven ‘thoughts’ or ‘demons’ that afflict desert hermits. Many of his entrants persist today as standard vices—gluttony, avarice, pride—alongside others now either lost or substantially transformed, such as acedia, a spiritually-inflected weariness or lethargy, that later developed into the vices of sloth or laziness.

Such early compilations of the vices quickly developed, after Evagrius, into a more systematic project of revising and, crucially, ordering the vices. John Cassian (260-430AD)—a disciple of Evagrius—made a crucial move, by widening the scope of vice theory from solitary desert monks to communal spiritual life. Vice was made an active concern for humans in general, laity as well as clerisy, social as well as solitary. A crucial subsequent development was Pope Gregory’s (540-604 AD) editing of the list of vices down to seven—a number of biblical significance—which, importantly, made pride their root. (A historically late consequence of this, for vice epistemology, is receipt of a rich vocabulary for talking about humility and its opponent vices.)

An emerging problem in the vice tradition was that of reasons why certain vices made the list, while others did not. The worry became acute since, as DeYoung (2009:33) remarks, the seven that came to be entrenched are neither the only vices, nor indeed ‘the worst possible or the most frequent vices’. The formalised inclusion of an articulated set of vices into a list of the vices—let alone the capital vices—must be justified, not least given the possibility of alternative lists. The main response of the vice tradition, explains DeYoung, was development of the new concept of capital vicescapit in Latin meaning, of course, ‘head’, as in a ‘source’, ‘origin’, or, in her more poetic term, ‘fountainhead’. Such vices are therefore self-proliferating.

Using this new concept, one can argue that the capital vices have a special status as ‘source vices’, distinguished by their capacity to ‘proliferate other vices’, which she calls ‘offspring vices’ (DeYoung 2009, 33f). To use a tree metaphor favoured by vice theorists at the time, certain vices are the ‘trunk’, from which other vices ‘branch off’. It is for this reason that capital vices are, in Gabriele Taylor’s (2006, 124) phrase, ‘corruptive of the self’. Although she does not define the term, I’ve argued elsewhere for a vice-centric conception of epistemic corruption, where x is corrupting if it creates conditions conducive to the development and exercise of epistemic vices (Kidd 2015, 70f). If there are capital vices, then they are corrupting, for they increase one’s vulnerability to other vices, by creating internal psychological conditions for their development. A capital vice, once in place, provides conditions in which a sub-set of offshoot vices can begin to develop.

Identifying the capital vices is important, on this view, for educative and ameliorative purposes. In the early Christian tradition, vice was a problem because it obstructs our capacities for moral self-knowledge and spiritual progress—a spiritual variant on what Cassam dubs the ‘obstructivist’ account of vices. DeYoung (2009, 34) explains that, in the vice tradition, ‘the goal is to get to the problem’s source, and root it out, thereby eliminating a whole host of related vices’. If one cuts off the offspring vices at their roots, they will, hopefully, wither and die. A further advantage of thinking in terms of capital vices, continues DeYoung (2009, 34), is that it ‘encourages people to see certain sins as likely indicators of deeper moral problems and to see their connection to that great original sin, pride’.

The hope was that efforts at the purgation of vices would be more efficient if one’s energies were focused at the fundamental source—the deep ‘roots’—of the corruption. An advantage of this was that strategies for combating the vices can take forms other than urging cultivation of the virtues; the early Christians favoured spiritual exercises, fasting, psalmody, and so on. This matters, since a major problem with stealthy vices is that they can only be combated if they can be detected, but their detection often seems contingent on the exercise of a variety of epistemic virtues—like open-mindedness, alertness, and so on (cf. Cassam 2016, 21-22).

After this brief sketch of the origins of the concept of a capital vice in the vice tradition, let me ask how it can be applied to vice epistemology.

Capital Epistemic Vices

Can the concept of capital vices be usefully applied to our efforts to understand and combat epistemic vices? Since this is a big question, break it down into the following:

1. What makes an epistemic vice a capital vice?
2. Which are the capital epistemic vices?
3. How, if at all, are capital vices related to their offshoot vices?

Sharp-eyed readers will recognise that these questions are modelled on those that Cassam (2015, 20) asks of stealthiness and stealthy vices. Answering these questions will require detailed investigations of putatively capital vices and the putative offshoots vices associated with them—work that I encourage vice epistemologists to pursue. It also requires systematic reflection on issues specific to capital vices. Is the ‘capitality’ relation conceptual, causal, or psychological? Could an agent develop a capital vice without giving also developing offshoot vices—or are those ‘offshoots’ inevitable? Are there other ways to explain the dangers or harmfulness of capital vices than invoking their self-proliferating potentiality? If there are capital vices, how many are there, and how do they relate to one another? Might there be capital epistemic virtues, and, if so, what is their relation to the capital epistemic vices?

Instead of exploring these questions, let me make a modest start on the most basic issue, that of whether there are capital epistemic vices. I offer an example of a plausible candidate capital vice—closed-mindedness.

In a recent paper, Heather Battaly (2017) offers a sophisticated account of the vice of closed-mindedness. At its core, it is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with—to be ‘closed to’—relevant intellectual options. Consistent with her pluralism about vice, closed-mindedness is objectionable since it has bad effects and reflects bad motives and values on the part of the agent (see Battaly 2014). Crucially, such vicious failures to engage with intellectual options can take different forms, since there are different options to which one could be closed, and different ways in which closure can manifest. One might fail to engage seriously with relevant methods, topics, ways of thinking by scorning them or perhaps deny the intelligibility of alternatives to beliefs or views that one already holds. On the basis of this second possibility, Battaly proposes that the vice of dogmatism should be understood as a ‘sub-set of closed-mindedness’, a particular form that it can take. Dogmatism is one way—among others—that an agent can be closed to intellectual options.

Although my sketch glosses the details of Battaly’s rich account, it offers clear reasons for regarding closed-mindedness as a capital epistemic vice. Certainly it has many of the features that upgrade a vice to capital status. At the most basic, it secures the status of closed-mindedness as a vice, whether by reference to its typical effects, motives, or values. If something isn’t a vice, then it can’t be a capital vice. An essential difference, though, is that closed-mindedness is plausibly identified to be at the root of other vices—dogmatism, for instance. If so, closed-mindedness is acts as the source of dogmatism, which takes its place as what Battaly calls a ‘sub-vice’ or as what DeYoung calls an ‘offshoot vice’. Built into the idea of capital vices is a principle that to possess an offshoot vice is always to possess, even if only in a subspecific form, a capital vice. On Battaly’s account, though one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic, one cannot be dogmatic without being closed-mindedness. For to be closed-minded about alternatives to one’s beliefs or views just is to be closed-minded, within and about the doxastic domain.

These two features of closed-mindedness do not, in themselves, secure for us the claim that it is a capital vice. Granted, it’s a vice that can admit of sub-vices, but some further features are needed. If the early theorists in the vice tradition are right, we would also need to show that closed-mindedness admits of other sub-vices—no less than sixteen in the case of sloth, for one early Christian vice theorist (see DeYoung 2009, 34). Whether it does or not, I can’t say, though my intuition is that closed-mindedness is the root or source of several other sub-vices. If so, then we can become more confident about its provisional status as a capital epistemic vice.

Upgrading that intuition will require further investigation of the array of vices proximal to closed-mindedness, and studies of other candidates. A prime candidate is epistemic laziness, roughly defined as a culpable failure to acquire or exercise the epistemic capacities required for enquiry (Kidd, unpublished manuscript). Arguably, such laziness lies at the root of a whole range of vices characterised by failures to do epistemic work—think of vices like inaccuracy or rigidity, both of which are, ultimately, fails to do the work needed to ensure accuracy or revision of one’s beliefs. If laziness is a capital vice, then its various sub-vices may be distinguished by their different effects, values, or motives. A person may not care enough about the status of their beliefs to put in the epistemic work, such that laziness trumps diligence.

The case of epistemic laziness is a speculation, pending further work, and I’m more confident about closed-mindedness. But hopefully these ideas offer to vice epistemologists a useful concept, one that played important and useful role in earlier stages of the vice tradition. Capital epistemic vices may help us think about an obvious set of issues, like the ontology and structure of the vices of the mind. If so, we can retrieve from the rich, neglected vice tradition a concept that may be crucial to the vice epistemological project. Indeed, we might come to include the category of self-proliferating capital vices alongside self-concealing stealthy vices. Hopefully this can show the value of building into vice epistemology an historical dimension that it has, so far, tended to lack.

Acknowledgements

I offer my thanks to Heather Battaly and Quassim Cassam for helpful comments on this piece.

References

Baehr, Jason. The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Battaly, Heather. “Varieties of Epistemic Vice.” In The Ethics of Belief edited by Jon Matheson and Rico Vitz, 51-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Battaly, Heather. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice.” Keynote address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July, 2017.

Cassam, Quassim. “Stealthy Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 19-25.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016): 159-180.

DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009.

Kidd, Ian James. “Educating for Intellectual Humility.” In Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology, edited by Jason Baehr, 54-70. London: Routledge, 2015.

Kidd, Ian James. “The Vices of Epistemic Laziness.” unpublished manuscript.

Tanesini, Alessandra “‘Calm Down, Dear’: Intellectual Arrogance, Silencing, and Ignorance.” Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Volume 90, no. 1 (2016): 71-92.

Taylor, Gabriele. Deadly Vices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire, valdusek@aol.com

Dusek, Val. “Regarding Alternative Scientific Theories: A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 10-14.

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Massimo Pigliucci (2017) rejects Paul Feyerabend’s plea for pluralism as unneeded. I claim that there are many cases where viable or valid alternative theories that were rejected.

How much pluralism exists depends on what one counts as pluralism. Also, there is the difference between pluralism within an established field of science, such as professional physics, geology, or biology and pluralism involving theories outside the institutionalized science profession, such as holistic medicine, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, creationism and intelligent design, or various New Age conceptions.

There certainly have been limits on the permissible alternatives. This does not mean that Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm monopoly” thesis is correct for all subfields of science. There have been periods in the history of science when competing theories openly divided the scientific community. Examples are the opposition between the wave and particle theories of light in the early nineteenth century and Wilhelm Weber’s action at a distance versus Maxwell’s field theory in electromagnetism in the late nineteenth century. However, pluralism has been suppressed in a number of fields during various time periods.

I give six examples of valid or at least respectable alternative theories in physics, biology, and geology, respectively, that were rejected and largely suppressed from discussion in print by the community of professional scientists. I also add the case of one New Age theorist considered beyond the fringe, but with impeccable scientific credentials.

On Felix Ehrenhaft

Feyerabend came to recognize the suppression of alternative views through exposure to two controversies. In Austria Feyerabend attended lectures of Felix Ehrenhaft, who questioned the claim that electrons have unitary charge, showing experiments that he claimed exhibited electrons with fractional charges. His claims were dismissed, largely because the idea of fractional charges was thought ridiculous. (Decades later charges of 1/3 were found in quarks.) The standard experiments concerning the charge of the electron were those of Robert Millikan at Chicago. It has later turned out that Millikan removed from his published reports observations that went against his thesis. One could say, in the manner of Michael Polanyi’s authoritarian and hierarchical view of science, that, as in the cases of Newton and Mendel, there may be fudging or worse going one, but that the genius and intuition of the great scientist gave prophetic insight.

The other area in which Ehrenhaft presented views that were rejected is in his claim that there are magnetic monopoles, that is particles with a magnetic north pole but not a south pole, or vice versa. Here again the notion of monopoles (though not Ehrenhaft’s macroscopic observations) came to be respectable, if not confirmed, with the recognition of the asymmetry in Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and the consequences of Paul Dirac’s equations for relativistic quantum theory of the electron. Dirac in 1931 derived the existence of monopoles but this did not become a center of interest Post-1950 quantum field theory. In 1974 two physicists using the gauge theory of the electroweak field independently derived monopoles as Moebus-strip-like twists in the relevant fiber bundles. When This field theory is combined with theories of the origin of the universe, one gets the prediction that in the early universe there was asymmetry Though no monopoles have been confirmed the acceptance of the monopole is shown by physicists’ enthusiasm for several apparent observations, one in 1975, immediately after the such as a Spanish one on Valentine’s Day 1982 while no one was in the lab. At my university, the soon discredited discovery led to the college of engineering and physics to call a public meeting to explain the observation of the monopoles, which shortly after was discredited.

On David Bohm

The second controversy that led Feyerabend to point out the lack of pluralism in science is the cases of the decades-long rejection of David Bohm’s alternative version of quantum mechanics with hidden variables. Bohm’s theory is based on a simple mathematical transformation of the standard Schroedinger equation and is logically unexceptionable, but physicists at the time general rejected it as crackpot. Cushing’s fascinating Copenhagen Hegemony and Historical Contingency shows how de Broglie’s alternative, deterministic quantum mechanics was basically shouted down and the big Solvay meeting in 1927, and his approach was not revived until the 1950s with David Bohm and Jean-Paul Vigier. There were two major reasons for the discrediting of their views.

One was John von Neumann’s proof, or supposed proof that deterministic hidden variables are impossible. Most working physicists hadn’t read the proof, and many chemists and solid-state physicists, wouldn’t have understood it, given the highly abstract algebraic formulation of quantum theory in which it is formulated. Yet it was taken on faith because of von Neumann’s superior ability in abstract mathematics. This was until John Bell reexamined it in the early 1960s, and even then it took time for Bell’s critique to sink in in the 1970s and 1980s. Secondly, the Marxism of the two determinists helped discredit their approach.

At the Institute for Advanced Study Oppenheimer accused Bohm of being a “Trotskyite” (as the assembled physicists were mostly ex-orthodox Stalinists) and said “We will refute Bohm by not reading him.” Not all the rejection was that of Marxism. De Broglie was not Marxist, but his 1927 original pilot wave theory was rejected. He kept silent for twenty-five years, until Bohm’s theory appeared, which gave him the courage to revive his original theory. This is just one example, and Bohm was whom Feyerabend defended in his debates with Hanson. Bohm’s alternative wasn’t developed by many until the 1990s and beyond. Even then it remains very much a minority view.

Examples From Biology

There are also examples in biology. One is the claim that there is genetic material in the mitochondria in the cell, different from the main genetic material in the nucleus of the cell. Initially supporters of mitochondrial DNA were accused of being Communists. This was due to the need for militant opposition to Stalinist Lysenkoite biology. Lysenko, a non-scientist agronomist was supported by Stalin because of initial success with improving wheat output and later bogus promises of improving all crops without lengthy, multi-generational breeding and selection of strains. Lysenkoism’s support by Stalin led to the suppression of Mendelian genetics in the USSR, including the Siberian exile or execution of recalcitrant geneticists. In reaction to the Western biologists combatted any suggestion that the simplest nuclear and chromosomal account of genetic material was incomplete. Hence what later was to become accepted theory was rejected.

Another case where an alternative theory has been rejected is Barbara McClintock’s theory of mobile genetic elements or “jumping genes.” Although McClintock’s orthodox work on maize genetics and meticulous experiments within it were respected, her claims that experiments of hers showed that genetic material could migrate around on or among the chromosomes was rejected. Ironically, her theory was only accepted over three decades later, not because of her experiments and observations, but because of results in bacterial genetics within molecular biology. Evelyn Fox Keller’s account, involving, among other things, the rejection of McClintock’s work because she was a woman, and the rejection of her empathetic, non-dominant-manipulative was of doing science, has been later criticized by those who wish to defend the detached and objective portrait of science, such as by Comfort. However, even he accepts much of the story of the rejection of jumping genes.

Continental Drift and Prehistoric Floods

In geology, a classic example of rejection of a superior alternative theory is that of Wegener’s theory of continental drift. When I describe the account of spread and migration of prehistoric creatures such a dinosaurs and early mammals via narrow “land bridges” between the continents, such as between Africa and South America across the Atlantic Ocean that was scientifically accepted until 1967 and that I learned as a child and as a college student, my students laugh and wonder how such a ridiculous theory was believed. Yet the alternative theory of drifting continents was ridiculed and rejected for the first two thirds of the twentieth century. Only when radiometric evidence of sea floor spreading and subduction of continental plates was collected, did Wegener’s theory become accepted. It has been claimed that Wegener’s lack of a physical mechanism for his process prevented geologists from accepting his theory. However, many of the theories accepted by paleontologists were not founded on physical mechanisms, but through qualitative theorizing.

Another, less famous case of an alternative, valid theory being rejected, despite much descriptive observation in its favor is J Harlen Betz’s theory of humongous prehistoric floods in the American West. Betz in the early 1920s, on the basis of his observations in eastern Washington state that there had been gigantic floods in the area of the Channeled Scablands. He noted that the desert landscape must have been sculpted by massive erosion from what he called the Spokane Flood. Massive ice dams had built up during the Ice Age in around Missoula MT and Spokane WA, which burst and produced a vastly forceful flood over eastern Washington state. For fifty-five years Betz’s theory was rejected as crackpot by the geology profession despite respect for his other work. Again, only by 1967, on the basis of improved knowledge of glaciation and aerial photography of the scablands that Betz’s theory was accepted, praised, and received awards. (One may wonder why both Wegener’s and Betz’s theories were both finally accepted only in 1967. The standard account appeals to further empirical observations, but might it be that the loosening up of thought during the radical and countercultural sixties?)

Now the defender of the claim of tolerance within the scientific community may answer that all these alternative theories were eventually accepted, or at least deemed acceptable, even if several or many decades later.

Morphogenetic Fields

An interesting case of a New Age theory that has been totally rejected by mainstream science and is explicitly associated with the most far out hippie conceptions, drug exploration, and shamanism, is Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenetic fields. Unlike much New Age or countercultural theory this theory is propounded by someone with top scientific qualifications. Sheldrake received studied at Harvard, earned a PhD in biology at Cambridge University, was a fellow of Clare College and did research on embryology.

Sheldrake has proposed the reality of “morphic resonance,” in which form is transmitted via action at a distance among crystals and biological organisms. One crystallographer of my acquaintance who was rabidly opposed to New Age thought surprised me by agreeing with Sheldrake and telling a story of such transmission of crystal shape concerning industrial crystal growing.

Again, unlike many New Age theorists, Sheldrake has suggested several simple, easy to perform experiments. One includes having people sit with their backs to the observer with a baffle or board around them so that they cannot see in back of them, and then to guess whether the other subject is looking at them or not. Another is to place video recorders in the house in which a dog has been left alone in the house of its owner, who is away at work. The experiment is to see whether the dog shows heightened activity and agitation when the owner, at her office, begins to get ready to commute home.

The prestigious Nature magazine’s editor Maddox wrote an editorial advocating that Sheldrake’s New Theory of Life should be burned. Even the most adamant defender of the reality of the Popperian or Mertonian openness to alternatives in science would have to admit that this shows some desire to suppress an alternative theory.

Sheldrake has associated himself through video dialogues with Ralph Abraham, a leading theorist of chaos theory, advanced theoretical mechanics, and global analysis, who supports Hindu accounts of the world and notoriously mentioned in the men’s magazine GQ that countercultural drug use had offered a gentle “kiss” to topologists in the 1960s. Also involved in the trialogue was the prematurely deceased Terrence McKenna, far out Amazon psychedelic drug explorer, chemist, and shaman, who found enlightenment dialoging with a grasshopper in the rainforest. These associations, among other, would understandably alienate more buttoned up mainstream scientists, but don’t prejudge the results of his suggested experiments.

References

Bohm, David. Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Bohm, David. Wholeness and Implicate Order. London: Routledge 2002.

Dusek, Val, The Holistic Inspirations of Physics: The Underground History of Electromagnetic Theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Ehrenhaft, Felix, and Leo Banet. “The Magnetic Ion.” Science 96 (Sept. 4, 1942): 228-229.

“Felix Ehrenhaft.” Physics Today 5, no. 5 (1952): 37. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.3067599

Fox Keller, Evelyn. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1983.

Frankel, Ken: “Magnetic Monopole Search, Past and Present.” Physics Today 70, no. 6 (2017).13

Frankel, Henry. “The Continental Drift Debate.” In Resolution of Scientific Controversies: Theoretical Perspectives on Closure, edited by H. Tristram Engelhardt and Arthur L. Caplan, 312-373. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1985.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Holton, Gerald. The Scientific Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Le Grand, Homer Eugene. Drifting Continents and Shifting Theories. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1988.

Oreskes, Naomi. The Rejection of Continental Drift. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Peat, F. David. Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2016): 1-6.

Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life: The Theory of Morphic Resonance. Park Street Press, 1995.

Sheldrake, Rupert, Terrence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham. The Evolution of Creativity. Monkfish Book Publishing, 2002.

Thompson, Dietrich. “Monopoles Oughtn’t to be a Monopoly.” ScienceNews 109, no. 8 (February 21, 1976): 122-123.

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, Durham University, ian.kidd@nottingham.ac.uk

Kidd, Ian James. “Cranks, Pluralists, and Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 7-9.

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A debate that began about how best to understand Feyerabend’s motivations for his ‘defenses’ of astrology has, thanks to Massimo Pigliucci (2017) and Jamie Shaw (2017), developed into a larger reflection on pluralism. Along the way, our exchange explored the authority of science, demarcation problems, and, in its most recent stages, the status and rationality of science. In his contribution to this exchange, Shaw give an overview of the main principles of Feyerabend’s pluralism, namely, the commitments to proliferation and tenacity. Together, they function methodologically to urge scientists to develop theories that are inconsistent with established points of view, and then to defend those alternatives, even in the face of criticisms and obstacles (see Oberheim 2006).

Understanding Pluralism

The general style of argument for pluralism, developed by Feyerabend during the 1960s, merits two comments. The first is that, as Feyerabend himself constantly affirmed, the pluralistic nature of scientific enquiry is perfectly obvious to anyone with acquaintance with its history or practice. In his writings, the methodologists to admire are not philosophers of science, isolated in their studies from the laboratory workbench; rather, they are those reflective scientists, like Einstein, Mach, and the other heroes, whose epistemic authority on matters of methodology is rooted in their practical experience. So, when Pigliucci remarks that Feyerabend was complaining about nothing, since pluralism has always been a hallmark of scientific theorizing, he’s quite right—for one deep complaint of Against Method was a lack of pluralism in philosophical models of science, not in science itself.

The second comment on Feyerabend’s arguments for pluralism is that, in his hands, they were unsystematically developed—as one should expect, of someone hostile to theoretical pretensions. What one finds throughout his work, instead, are experiments with different types of argument for pluralism, adapted to changing concerns and interests. A job for later scholars, most obviously Eric Oberheim (2006) and Hasok Chang (2012, chapter 5), was therefore to give a more systematic treatment of ‘Feyerabendian’ arguments for pluralism—ones informed by, but not articulated in, the writings of, everyone’s favorite epistemological anarchist. Chang, for instance, divides pro-pluralist arguments in terms of those with ‘benefits of tolerance’ and ‘benefits of interaction’, locating instances of both mixed up in Feyerabend’s writings.

At this point, though, we run into the worries that motivate Pigliucci; namely, that these forms of sensible pluralisms are apt to degenerate, at least in Feyerabend’s hands, into grossly permissive forms of the ‘anything goes!’ variety. Closely attending to the history of science can, it’s true, give us enough cautionary tales to keep open a space for alternative theories—no one doubts that. But what’s not reasonable, argues Pigliucci, ‘is for Feyerabend to think that astrology, or demonology, or homeopathy, are alternative “theories” that ought to be included in the modern pluralist portfolio’ (2017, 2). An appeal for pluralism should not degenerate into an abuse of pluralism, and the million-dollar question is how to mark the point of that shift in a principled way. Unfortunately, Feyerabend does not offer a crisp answer to that question. But, I think, there is no need for one in the case of astrology.

In my original article (Kidd 2016a), I argued that the defenses of astrology were not motivated by a sense of astrology’s epistemic value—so, on my reading, there’s no call for inclusion of astrology and the rest in our ‘pluralist portfolio’. There was no question of including astrology within the modern scientific imagination as a first-order epistemic resource, able to inform contemporary enquiries. That being so, there’s no need to demarcate inclusion worries. Indeed, what one sees in Feyerabend’s essay, ‘The Strange Case of Astrology’, is not really a defense of astrology at all, but rather of the epistemic virtues that are integral to the character of scientists qua epistemic authorities. Astrology was discussed since it was attacked, by a group of scientists, who failed to provide easily-available arguments against it, and who instead relied on dogmatic assertion, arrogant rhetoric, and appeals to authority. It was this bad epistemic behavior that really motivated Feyerabend, rather than any sense on his part that astrology belongs in our pluralist portfolio. I suggested that Feyerabend’s purposes in defending astrology can be profitably understood as an appeal to epistemic virtues and vices—that was he was really concerned with are the virtues of the mind scientists ought to evince, and the danger to their authority if they evince the related vices of the mind (see Battaly 2014, Cassam 2016).

Epistemic Virtues and Vices

I want to suggest that, at this point in our debate, another role for epistemic vices comes into view. Pigliucci rightly remarks that ‘a constant danger for pluralism of any sort is that it risks becoming a fairly lazy intellectual position, where anything goes because one is not willing to do the hard work of narrowing down its scope’ (2017, 1). Two points should be made here. The first is that pluralism can admit of epistemically vicious forms, licensing failures to do the sorts of epistemic work that effective enquiry requires—if ‘anything goes’, one can suspend the hard work of investigating and evaluating those things, and shrug off the responsibility to remove those that aren’t. Although pluralism may enjoy benefits of tolerance and interaction, as Chang calls them, it can also pose costs—disorientation, confusion, and incapacitation, say. It is not always virtuous to be pluralistic, a point that Feyerabend often neglects.

A second point is that Feyerabend, at least as I read him, tends to only see pluralism as virtuous. Throughout his writings, the underlying sense is that being pluralistic is edifying, an expression of—and means to exercise—admirable qualities, like humility, imaginativeness, and open-mindedness. An epistemic anarchist, after all, enjoys an openness unavailable to the poor Kuhnian normal scientist, stifled by their self-imposed dogmatism—a virtue-epistemic aspect of Feyerabend’s famous essay, ‘Consolations for the Specialist’ (1970), that has gone unnoticed. Indeed, note that Feyerabend’s two pluralist principles can both function as virtues of enquirers, as well as norms of enquiry: tenacity can be an epistemic virtue, a disposition close to the virtue of epistemic perseverance (Battaly forthcoming), and proliferation might not itself be an epistemic virtue, but surely requires the exercise of several, including creativity and diligence. Indeed, Feyerabend constantly praises qualities like creativity, imaginativeness, and tolerance while also castigating vices like arrogance and dogmatism.

I want to suggest that we take seriously the idea that certain epistemic stances can be epistemically virtuous or vicious. Clearly, the stance of those scientists who attacked astrology was epistemically vicious, specifically, arrogant and dogmatic, as I argued in my original paper. I think that certain pluralistic stances can be vicious, too, such as the overly permissive sorts that Pigliucci criticizes. But other pluralist stances can be virtuous, encouraging tolerance and imaginativeness and other admirable qualities, perhaps as in Chang’s account. The claim is not that a stance can have epistemic virtues or vices in the full-blooded ways that human agents do, only that stances can have the essential components of those virtues and vices. I have given a methodology for appraising stances in virtue-and-vice-epistemic terms elsewhere and offered a set of examples (Kidd 2016b, Kidd forthcoming a). In one of these, I argue that many forms of scientism, construed as a stance, is epistemically vicious (Kidd forthcoming b). Investigating the the various stances emerging in this debate in vice-epistemic terms would be a worthy project. Perhaps what is really wrong with doctrinaire scientism, flaccid pluralism, and uncritical zeal for pseudoscientific sentiment is that all of these are, deep down, epistemically vicious.

References

Battaly, Heather. “Intellectual Perseverance.” Journal of Moral Philosophy, forthcoming.

Battaly, Heather. “Varieties of Epistemic Vice.” In The Ethics of Belief, edited by Jon Matheson and Rico Vitz, 51-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016): 159-180.

Chang, Hasok. Is Water H2O? Evidence, Pluralism, Realism. Dordrecht, Springer, 2012.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Consolations for the Specialist.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 197-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Kidd, Ian James. “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016a): 464-482.

Kidd, Ian James. “Charging Others with Epistemic Vice.” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016b): 181-197.

Kidd, Ian James. “Epistemic Vices in Public Debate: The Case of New Atheism.” In New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, edited by Christopher Cotter and Philip Quadrio. Dordrecht, Springer, forthcoming a.

Kidd, Ian James. “Is Scientism Epistemically Vicious?” In Scientism: Problems and Prospects, edited by Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, and René van Woudenberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming b.

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

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no.7 (2017): 1-6.

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

Author Information: Massimo Pigliucci, City College of New York, massimo@platofootnote.org

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2016): 1-6.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3C4

Please refer to:

Image credit: magro_kr, via flickr

Jamie Shaw (2017) has vigorously engaged both my (mild) criticism of Ian Kidd’s take on Feyerabend’s famous defense of astrology (Pigliucci 2016), and Kidd’s own (mild) concessions in light of such criticism. Here I want to push back a little against Shaw’s approach, with two goals in mind: (i) to identify the limits of Feyerabend’s “hard core pluralism”; and (ii) to elaborate on and defend my take on the feasibility of the science-pseudoscience demarcation project. I will proceed by following the steps in Shaw’s argument, highlighting those that in my opinion are the most important bits, and addressing them to the best of my abilities.

Citing Farrell, Shaw writes: “pluralism is the hard-core of the Feyerabendian philosophical program and it came to permeate all aspects of his thought” (2017, 75). That is surely correct. But a constant danger for pluralism of any sort is that it risks becoming a fairly lazy intellectual position, where anything goes because one is not willing to do the hard work of narrowing down its scope. This is, for instance, what is clearly in evidence in the recently (obviously, posthumously) published book by Feyerabend himself, Philosophy of Nature (2016). The book is a perfect display, writ large, of what the author’s take on astrology was in a more narrow instance: erudite scholarship, sharp criticism of others’ positions, and grand claims about methodological anarchism. The whole thing followed, unfortunately, by very little in the way of positive delivery.

Why Feyerabend is Wrong About Radical Pluralism

To be specific, Shaw rightly says that

two principles comprise Feyerabend’s pluralism: the principles of proliferation and tenacity … the principle of proliferation [says that] 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.” … 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 (2017, 75).

Neither of these two principles would find much resistance from either scientists or philosophers of science, in part because they are so vague that it is hard to see what, exactly, one would resist. Moreover, there are plenty of instances in the history of science in which precisely what Feyerabend advocates did, in fact, happen. The Copernican revolution (Kuhn 1957), for example, during which Copernicus elaborated a theory that was certainly highly inconsistent with the accepted point of view, with Galileo and others tenaciously keeping it alive for decades, in spite of its obvious difficulties, which were resolved only with Kepler’s adoption of the non-circularity of planetary orbits.

A second example, from biology, is the period of so-called “eclipse” of the Darwinian theory (Bowler 1992), between the end of the 19th and the early parts of the 20th centuries, when criticism of Darwinism from paleontology first, and the new science of genetics later, brought about a proliferation of radically alternative theories, from orthogenesis to saltationism. These theories were tenaciously defended for decades, despite increasing issues confronting them, and which eventually led to their rejection in favor of the so-called Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology (Huxley 1942/2009).

Many other examples could be plucked from the history of science, and it seems to me that Feyerabend was engaging in much complaining about nothing, since pluralism has always been a hallmark of scientific theorizing. That, after all, is how science makes progress in the first place. What does not seem reasonable, however, is for Feyerabend to think that astrology, or demonology, or homeopathy, are alternative “theories” that ought to be included in the modern pluralist portfolio. Sure, there is always the logical possibility that fringe notions may turn out to contain a kernel of truth, but Feyerabend does not provide us with an iota of reason for why we should keep clearly discredited ones such as those just mentioned around as potentially viable alternatives to investigate, particularly when there is only so much time, money, and resources that go into the scientific enterprise in the first place.

“If we were to abandon theories the moment they came into difficulties,” Shaw continues (2017, 76), “we would have abandoned many of the most successful theories throughout the history of science.” Notice the conditional: turns out, historically, that scientists often did no such thing. Not even Popper (1934/1959) at his most strictly falsificationist ever advocated such a stance.

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. … Even theories that have blatant internal contradictions or seem to conflict with facts can be, and often are, developed into useful research programs … 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 (2017, 77).

I take it Shaw (and Feyerabend) and I subscribe to different concepts of what counts as “perfectly rational.” If there are no conditions for acceptance (or rejection) of a theory, then how, exactly, does the principle of tenacity not commit us to indefinitely pursuing every line of research? Who, and on what grounds, makes the decision to stop being tenacious? It seems that Shaw and Feyerabend simply want their cake and eat it too. As for the statement that theories affected by blatant internal or factual contradictions are “often” developed into useful research programs, it is curious that Shaw does not provide us with a single example. Feyerabend is awfully vague about this point as well.

Shaw then goes on to state that “[a]lternatives will be more efficient the more radically they differ from the point of view to be investigated. … what is ‘non-scientific’ one day is ‘scientific’ the next and the transition between the two requires being placed within scientific debates.” But hold on. Why, exactly, should such a counterintuitive relation between radicality and efficiency hold? What historical evidence has been marshaled for that being the case? Indeed, what criterion of efficiency is being deployed here? And yes, sometimes what may appear non scientific may turn out to be so later on (e.g., the idea of continental drift in geology: Frankel 1979). But I never proposed that the science / quasi-science / pseudo-science territory is demarcated a-temporally. Rather, it is a territory marked by fluid boundaries that evolve because they reflect the understanding of the world on then part of the scientific community at any given moment. That said, my colleague Maarten Boudry and I (2013) have observed that there don’t seem to be cases where a notion has been seriously entertained by the scientific community, then relegated to the pseudoscience bin, and later on somehow re-emerged to find new life and success. We refer to this, informally, as the “pseudoscience black hole”: once in, you never get out. It is true for astrology just as much as for demonology and homeopathy, and we have yet to find exceptions.

Once More on Demarcation

Shaw then proceeds to consider my proposal for the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem. Correctly noting that I do not think classical attempts based on small sets of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions could possibly work, he acknowledges that my proposal is that of considering both science and pseudoscience as Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts, with no sharp boundaries and no set of criteria that are instantiated in all cases. To which I would add the above reminder that I am also explicit about the fact that the science-pseudoscience territory is temporally fluid, to a point (Pigliucci 2013).

In that paper, I propose two axes (not really “criteria”) that may help us map said territory: one that has to do with the internal coherence and theoretical sophistication of a given theory, the second that captures the empirical content of the theory. So for instance, the Standard Model in physics scores high on both counts, as does modern evolutionary theory. Accordingly, they are (currently) considered very solid sciences. At the opposite extreme, astrology and intelligent design creationism are both empirically and theoretically poor, so they are classed as obvious instances of pseudosciences (again, for now). The interesting stuff lies in the middle, e.g., fields that are high on theoretical but low on empirical content (economics) or vice versa (psychology). The borderlands also include fields of inquiry that are usually considered pseudoscientific, such as parapsychology, but are still sufficiently interesting—either theoretically or empirically—to warrant further study.

Shaw acknowledges all this and yet says that”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,” and that “Pigliucci’s criteria fail to provide reasonable grounds to prevent the consideration of ‘pseudosciences’” (2017, 79). Well, but my criteria are not those of Feyerabend, so the fact that we disagree may be taken as an indictment of my views just as much as of his, it all depends on which position one finds more plausible. And the latter part of the quote misunderstands what my criteria were developed to do: not to prescriptively separate science from pseudoscience, but rather to provide a compass of sorts to navigate the territory and its complex, temporally fluid, boundaries.

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. … 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 (2017, 79).

The first bit seems to me to confuse epistemic assessment, which is definitely within the purview of the scientist, with other, surely important, aspects of social discourse. I have never claimed that scientists should be in charge of taxation policies, or more broadly of decisions concerning the broader societal impact of scientific research. Indeed, I most certainly oppose such a stance. Take the issue of climate change, for instance (Bennett 2016). It seems eminently sensible, in that case, to leave the science to the scientists—because they are the ones who are qualified to carrying it on, just like dentists are qualified to take care of teeth—while the much broader and more complex question of how to deal with climate change requires that we call to the high table a number of other actors, including but not limited to economists, various types of technologists, sociologists and even ethicists.

As for the series of conditionals in the second bit quoted from Shaw above, there are far too many unsubstantiated ones. Is it the case that scientists are “forced” to conform because of their education? Is it true that peer review is “too conservative”? On what grounds, according to what criteria? A lot of heavy duty legwork needs to be done to establish those points, work that is obviously beyond the scope of Shaw’s commentary, but that Feyerabend himself simply never did. He was content to throw the bomb in the crowd and watch the ensuing chaos from the outside.

So, was Feyerabend Right in “Defending” Astrology?

The last part of Shaw’s commentary returns to the question that began this whole series of interesting, and I hope useful, exchanges: was Feyerabend right in mounting his peculiar defense of astrology?

“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” (2017, 80). Indeed, but epistemic integrity is a necessary and yet not sufficient condition for being taken seriously as a scientific research program. It is truly astounding that people still think astrology is worth defending, and I’m not talking just about the horoscope variety, as Shaw suggests. While it was certainly the case that some of the signatories of the infamous anti-astrology manifesto that so railed Feyerabend did not due their homework on astrology, plenty of others have. Among them Carl Sagan, who famously did not sign the manifesto, precisely for the reasons Feyerabend thought it was a bad move, but who nonetheless was a harsh critic of much pseudoscience, including astrology.

Shaw writes that “a view one may have may have reason to reject may still be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. … A problematic view ‘may and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth.” (2017, 80) Well, no, definitely not. The accusation of infallibility against critics of pseudoscience is ludicrous. If taken seriously that would mean that every time one has very strong theoretical or empirical reasons to reject a given notion (until, and if, proven wrong) one ipso facto thinks of himself as infallible. Yes, a problematic view may turn out to contain a portion of truth, but “very commonly does”? This is another example of Shaw using a page from Feyerabend’s playbook, making grand statements that are accompanied by absolutely no evidence. Why should philosophers of science take them seriously?

“Because its critics are being arrogant, defending a ‘pro-astrology’ perspective is  necessary to combat this vice,” continues Shaw (2017, 82). But why is it a good idea to fight vice with vice? Why is it not enough to embarrass some of the signatories of the anti-astrology manifesto, showing to the public that they did not know what they were talking about? Why is it that one has to take the next step and defend the possibility that there is still value in astrology, when one patently does not actually believe it, as Feyerabend did not?

Complaining about my objection that Feyerabend’s attitude is positively dangerous, because it facilitates the acceptance by the public of notions that endanger safety, Shaw replies:

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. … Pigliucci cannot ascribe any of these particular consequences as emanating from Feyerabend (2017, 83-84).

Except, of course, that I do no such thing. I’m perfectly aware that those issues became prominent after Feyerabend’s death. But it would be naive to believe that there is no connection to be made here. Indeed, the infamous “science wars” of the ’90s (Gross and Levitt 1994), pitting strongly postmodernist philosophers and sociologists on one hand against scientists and philosophers of science on the other, had a pretty direct connection with Feyerabend’s work, which was, predictably, ailed by the first group and condemned by the second one.

Finally, Shaw takes up what Feyerabend, Kidd, and myself have in common: a strong suspicion for what nowadays is referred to as “scientism,” the exponents of which are those who Shaw labels “the cranks.” Citing Feyerabend, Shaw writes: “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” (2017, 85). I have certainly encountered such types, both among scientists and among so-called skeptics. They are not serving the interests of science, critical thinking, or society. So Shaw is correct when he states that “it is clear that there is a commonality between Pigliucci, Kidd, and Feyerabend: their disdain for the cranks!” Indeed. But, contra, Feyerabend, I do not think that the way to do it is to take an anti-rationalist stance about the value of pseudoscience. It is both counterproductive (Feyerabend was famously labeled “the Salvador Dali of academic philosophy, and currently the worst enemy of science” by two physicists in the prestigious journal Nature: Theocharis and Psimopoulos 1987), and simply not the virtuous thing to do.

References

Bennett, Jeffrey. A Global Warming Primer: Answering your Questions About the Science, the Consequences, and the Solutions. Big Kid Science, 2016.

Bowler, Peter. The Eclipse of Darwinism. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Feyerabend, Paul. Philosophy of Nature. Polity, 2016.

Frankel, Henry. “The Career of Continental Drift Theory: An Application of Imre Lakatos’ Analysis of Scientific Growth to the Rise of Drift Theory.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 10, no. 1 (1979): 21-66.

Gross, Paul and Levitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Huxley, Julian. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. MIT Press, 1942/2009.

Kidd, Ian James. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 11-17.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Harvard University Press, 1957.

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.

Pigliucci, Massimo, and Maarten Boudry, eds. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson, 1934/1959.

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

Theocharides, Theocharis and Mihalis Psimopoulos. “Where Science Has Gone Wrong.” Nature 329 (1987): 595-598.

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

Please refer to:

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.

Acknowledgements

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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[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.

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, University of Nottingham, ian.kidd@nottingham.ac.uk

Kidd, Ian James. “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 11-17.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-31a

Please refer to:

celestial_globe

Image credit: Alan Bloom, via flickr

I am grateful to Massimo Pigliccui for his response to my paper,[1] the subject of which was Paul Feyerabend’s well-known, but poorly-understood “defences” of astrology, voodoo, and other “eccentric” beliefs, practices, and traditions. Like many modern Feyerabend scholars, my sense is that there is a lot of sense in the epistemic anarchist’s work, but a lot less sense in the way that he said it. I can sympathise with those without the patience to put up with and filter through the mass of polemics, exaggerations and provocations that characterise so much of Feyerabend’s writing. Indeed, the first chapter of Eric Oberheim’s masterly study, Feyerabend’s Philosophy, is taken up with the important task of showing that, despite the presentational deficiencies, there is much that is important and interesting in Feyerabend’s writings.[2]  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Massimo Pigliucci City College of New York, platofootnote.org, mpigliucci@ccny.cuny.edu

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2Vs

Please refer to:

Image credit: magro_kr, via flickr

I am thankful to Ian Kidd (2016) for his piece in defense of Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, even though, as I shall argue in a moment, I think Feyerabend failed precisely on virtue ethical grounds, which is how Kidd wants to rescue the enfant terrible’s work.  Continue Reading…