If you are in science and you have heard the name Paul Feyerabend, it is likely because you have heard the term "post-modernist" and, if you know about post-modernism, you likely do not think much of deconstructionist silliness like that evolution and creationism are both 'cultural traditions' because sociology and psychology play a role in how science is done.

It's not the worst thing post-modernism has said but it is the legacy of Feyerabend and others like him who replaced science with cynicism.    They never admit to that, of course.  If you mention they are always critical but never have a solution, they tell you they are there to 'challenge preconceptions' and therefore if they tear down science, they are performing a civic duty against oppressive, entrenched science.   You've heard it all before.

Imagine my surprise when, among the stack of books I got to review last week, I found a copy of a new book by Feyerabend, The Tyranny Of Science.  The surprise was because he has been dead for 17 years.  

Eric Oberheim, the editor, took the material from a series of lectures Feyerabend gave at the University of Trento in 1992 and clearly Oberheim loves the material and is faithful to it, even in its maddening inconsistency.  That is the essence of Feyerabend - his proponents say he is 'hard to pin down' but that is because he doesn't really believe in anything.    He is a classic postmodernist in that he wants to disagree with whatever you believe in, even if you agree with what he believed in 5 minutes ago.   

To give you some background on Feyerabend, he was a positivist before he wasn't, then a Popper-esque rationalist before he wasn't, then a fan of Kuhn's monistic phase model before he wasn't - basically, he was an opportunist and if something gained acceptance he wanted to be edgy and cool and puncture it.   Only post-modernism stuck because it changed so much he could never figure out what to be against.

In Feyerabend's world, there is no truth, it's all relative.  You can imagine why, possessed with the intellectual cancer that raged within him, he hated the science he claimed to love.   But the beauty of his method is that it can't really be criticized - it's the benefit of just making stuff up and being an expert sophist.    When he was criticized because his works were a jumbled mishmash rather than any systematic examination of science, he simply said that's because he was showing the drawbacks of systemization.   You see what I mean.

That's the background of why Feyerabend came to call 'science' as we think of it as nothing more than a public relations gimmick.

Paul Feyerabend - "science's greatest enemy" in his Berkeley days.

After all those criticisms, it may surprise you to have me write that it's a pretty good book.  Not 'good' in the sense that you will send it to your family at Christmas but good in that he riffs on ideas we have all had once or twice about how things get done and whether or not they could be better.    You aren't going to agree with most of what he says, if anything it will make you want to write articles correcting his many logical, philosophical and scientific errors; I would say he is the Dan Brown of philosophy but he came along well before Dan Brown jumbled up fact, hyperbole and fiction so perhaps Dan Brown is the Paul Feyerabend of art history.  Strangely, he would likely take that as a compliment.

So how can it be a good book, given my criticisms of him?   I like stepping back and wondering "is science successful?"  I grant you, science cannot solve problems of the human condition, like why we have war or poor people, but he believes it should.   Plus, this book is essentially codifying what he had refined over 30 years.  It is the thought process of someone who is at the end of his career - and, at 68 when he gave these lectures, his endurance must still have been legendary to get through all this in five days - but who has been dodging bullets from critics that entire time.   There is virtually nothing in the criticisms he was going to get that he had not thought about.  Plus, the audience is a devoted one, he is in his element, and the questions and answers at the end, also faithfully included, are often better than the lectures themselves.

He succeeds in being interesting, and maybe even plausible in parts, because when you introduce a contradiction into a closed system, in classic Bertrand Russell fashion, anything is possible.


Bertrand Russel interlude:

On hearing that 'contradiction in a closed system' business, supposedly someone in the audience yelled out a challenge: "If 2 plus 2 equals 5, prove that I am the pope."

Russell shot back: "If 2 plus 2 is 5, then 4 is 5; if 4 is 5, then (subtracting three from each side) 1 is 2; you and the pope are two, therefore you and the pope are one."


Back to Feyerabend, the closed system is that our beliefs about science are based on primitive myths, as I said above about how evolution and creationism are just opposing cultural beliefs and neither is science.   The contradiction he introduces is that observation and experimentation are flawed because some science fact has turned out to be against prior observation and experimentation.    Then he segues into how reason wrecked the native American cultures a breath later, which doesn't make a lot of sense, but that is Feyerabend's method - a guy who used performance art to try and teach philosophy didn't always make a lot of sense.   I would argue that not learning how to write 2,000 years after the rest of the world knew how is why we know little about native American culture that isn't made up in the last hundred years, not science and reason, but amateur philosophers like that he says things so well.  The book is a whirlwind of excellent prose.

Scientists deal with facts, the world according to natural laws you may contend, and policy markers deal with what should be, but Feyerabend says it is simply not true.   An LHC experiment will not be an objective experiment, he feels (well, felt) because of 'tacit knowledge' in science, the sort of thing that is why a great race car driver cannot tell you how to drive a race car, but he can show you.  A paper issuing from the LHC will instead be a series of arguments and compromises and so, he claims, "the knowledge we claim to possess" and "popular accounts of science...are therefore chimeras, pure and simple."  It is not really 'replicatable' because of tacit knowledge.  Not science, to him.

Theory and practice, of course, cannot be separated.   World War II was not won because Allied troops simply had better theory than the Axis fellows.   But Feyerabend seemed to believe that thinking about it after the fact, and modifying his thoughts to the topology of what actually was, is the same thing as doing something.  It's the reason why he never understood science, and seemed to resent its elegantly simple complexity, and turned against it.