Paul Feyerabend - "Science's Greatest Enemy" Attacks From The Grave
    By Hank Campbell | April 27th 2011 04:39 PM | 33 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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.


    Gerhard Adam
    What a deal!! Making science and philosophy look bad ... all in one individual.
    Mundus vult decipi
    But the words of science steer to the point at which you present conclusions.

    To a postmodernist (or its defenders) the computer you typed that comment on could never have come into being, because science is too flawed to have laid the foundation for the semiconductor industry.
    Science laying the foundation for the semiconductor industry is a convenient narrative hiding and therein supporting a new tool of imperialism which could have and in a sense did develop many or even any other ways.
    (Now you are not sure whether I meant that.)
    Still good to know you can pinch hit for Feyerabend should the need arise.  :)
    Larry Arnold
    I can't possibly let that go, and never mind what I am typing on, it subjectively exists for me until I leave the room. As for what you read it on depends upon a whole interpretative narrative constructed out of your individual flawed experience and interactions with entities beyond which may or may not be or have been real. :)

    Assuming I didn't just dream the whole thing up, I'll check back tomorrow, or at least I would if I believed in such transient concepts as time and calendars.

    You don't have to be a post modernist to see that a scientific metanarrative of absolute truth is not necessary in order to construct an industry, you just need a few pragmatic instances of what works and seems consistent with the current theory. After all a lot of devices did not stop working overnight just because Newtonian mechanics was replaced by something rather more complex, any more than steel was unable to be forged without an explanation at a molecular level and beyond. You just have to examine the crystalline structure of Viking blades to realise they knew there stuff even if the practice was imbued with mythology.
    That's the problem with post-modernism; something that can never be wrong, and therefore explains everything, explains nothing, in classic post-modernist fashion.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Great article Hank. I have had to write several essays on this subject as part of my Social Sciences degree. A great website is The Postmodernism Generator website which generates a random postmodernist article each time it is loaded. I just generated this :-
    Thomas T. L. Hubbard
    Department of Semiotics, Stanford University
    Smith and cultural deappropriation.

    The main theme of the works of Smith is the role of the poet as participant. Lyotard uses the term ‘the subcapitalist paradigm of consensus’ to denote not construction, but preconstruction. If one examines neosemanticist nationalism, one is faced with a choice: either accept Batailleist `powerful communication’ or conclude that discourse must come from the collective unconscious. Thus, the primary theme of Scuglia’s[1] analysis of neosemanticist nationalism is the role of the observer as participant. Batailleist `powerful communication’ states that the task of the artist is significant form, but only if sexuality is interchangeable with truth.
    Wonderful stuff! I think it would be great if there was a particle physics blog generator website too.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Larry Arnold
    I think though that the case is open, as it is a property of language that it can randomly generate nonsense that is still grammatically correct and reads fluently. Something Lewis Carrol was very aware of.

    I am sure jargon generators can be equally constructed for various scientific disciplines to produce surface plausible (to the lay person) technical screeds. You can also write nonsensical equations.

    Post modernism is not an "entity" a field of study even, it is a flag of convenience under which a variety of philosophical, literary, artistic and critical discourses are gathered. There is no hard and fast definition at all. It is a reminder too that the point at which "science" breaks down, is not so much in the pursuit of whatever you more or less define it to be, but in the communication of that to a variety of communities, none of whom are capable (because of the investment in study neccessary) of having in depth knowledge of but a few fields.

    The problem is  that the robes of science can easily be adopted by the pseudo scientist in order to bamboozle the public. I have been at presentations where the logic seems impeccable, but there is something as a skeptic I have distrusted and not been able to put my finger on because I am not familiar with exactly what the jargon denotes, or just how valid the assumptions behind it's origins are. So you cannot really take a piece of machine generated nonsence and really take it to stand for all of the propositions that can be expressed from a post modernist perspective. Post Modernism has no pretensions to be a meta narrative in it's own right as that would be a contradiction.

    Oh well back over to Hegel I guess.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Yes Laurence, I agree with you and as I said earlier a particle physics blog random generator would be just as much fun. It doesn't mean that all particle physics blogs are nonsensical, it just means that for some complex subjects like these, it can be difficult for the layperson to distinguish between a genuine article and a fake nonsensical one because they can't understand either of them anyway.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    I agree.  If you throw in 1 sigma, Dirac, laws of thermodynamics and 4 or 5 other misused terms, I can recreate a few articles that I have seen.
     I like stepping back and wondering "is science successful?" 
    The notion that nothing is true because we live in a modern relativist world is just self-defeating. But in the hands of someone more prone to rational thought and analysis, asking whether science is successful might not be such a bad book. 

    Another worthwhile distinction may be basic vs applied science. I often find it interesting how, for all the intelligence packed into America, so much of it is applied. Today we take it for granted that science may have a utilitarian purpose, but if you go back to Tocqueville, it's clear that this is a break from the longer tradition of 'natural' science, cosmology, theology, pure geometry, and the like.

    One last book to consider here (for everyone except Gerhard;) is Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals&Society. Although still a popular read with broad brushstrokes, it's more along the lines of a critical and thoughtful mind asking questions like whether science is successful.
    So, Paul Feyerabend was basically a useless wanker, contributing nothing and complaining about not being listened to?

    You can't fix a thing unless you agree on what the thing is and how to fix it - merely pointing out problems isn't fixing anything - and, when you're the only one with the problem, guess where the problem lies........

    Feyerabend was not a relativist. This article assumes too much. If you read Against Method, he shows through the history of science that the idea that there is a rigid methodology that we follow to conduct science is a myth. And he shows, using examples of scientific breakthrough that were done breaking what some would say is the scientific method.
    Any criticism of science must be done within the framework of science. This is the essence of science, and it is restrictive because outside criticism of science is taken to be useless and erroneous. Since science itself is the arbiter of judgement on scientific matters, it turns into an ideology (much like religion where religion is sole arbiter of judgment on religious matter).

    I get your point but what he does is cite exceptions as rules.  Obviously many breakthroughs have been achieved using the scientific method and he says a few inflection points that deviated from it invalidate the entire enterprise.    It's like saying the invention of velcro means the entire semiconductor industry need not use any science today.

    It's fine academic speculation but you have to be comfortably ensconced in a post-modernist bubble to buy into it.
    Well I agree with you that the exceptions are not the rules, and maybe Feyerabend does exaggerate a little on the flexibility of science.
    But I also think that the rigidity of the science needs to loosen a little, where other perspectives are not dismissed outright. And that science should be open to criticism of itself and its methodology, so that it is able to improve itself.

    I simply don't buy the argument that the philosophy of science is as useful to scientist as ornithology is to birds. Philosophy of science has a lot to offer to science and simply because sometimes philosophers of science criticize science, they shouldn't be dismissed without even considering their arguments. Popper's falsification theory has had a huge influence on contemporary science.

    The contempt for philosophy that many scientist show is simply unwarranted.

    Modern philosophers did that to themselves by getting increasingly silly, though.  Obviously philosophy of science has a great deal of historical credibility.   One of the best articles I ever read on this site was by a philosophy of science writer, but he was a science mind first, so he understood what he was talking about and gave additional context few physicists could have provided - but too many philosophers go into it because they think they just make something new up and rationalize it with sophistry.

    If philosophy wants to be respected again, they can try policing their own
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Hank, thank you for this link to 'Revisiting The Einstein-Bohr Dialogue' and the related articles by Professor Don Howard from the University of Notre Dame. These articles look brilliant, hours of really interesting reading and references but I can't believe there are so few comments on them. Were they ever featured articles, why are there so few comments?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    No idea, I thought this was brilliant stuff.   Like most any community, I think audiences become personal and comments will go up over time - so anyone starting out new will generally get readers who are wandering around and some from Google but nothing huge.   

    He got around 10K readers for each, so 50X as many as he got in any academic journals he has written in, but few comments likely because the bulk of the audience, like me, got smarter reading his work but didn't necessarily have anything constructive to add or ask.    If he did more than a guest piece I think he would get a ton of comments and a wide audience over time.
    Do you actually think that technology has something to do with science? Did Faraday need somebody's textbook theory to discover electric induction? Nope. All he needed was money, stuff, and imagination. Those three things are the essence of what dumb dogmatists call "science."

    Thank God for people like Fayerabend. The only thing I've ever heard in relation to scientific theories is "Well, according to so-and-so or such-and-such, that's impossible."

    If inventors throughout history had listened to that junk, you wouldn't have the leisure time to write dumb articles like this. You'd be hunting for food or working somebody's farm, and oh yeah, laughing at people who say things aren't the way your shaman says they are.

    You have it backwards - in the ancient world, when there was a problem, people like Feyeraband sat around saying we were doomed and nothing mattered, science was too flawed because it was done by humans. Actual scientists, and not Berkeley postmodernists, made the modern world possible.

    Your contention that Faraday was some nobody who didn't understand science is silly.   Feyerabend could not do an equation to save his life.  He was a sophist, except he got paid for it. He essentially ruined philosophy for at least one generation by making it meaningless.
    Gerhard Adam
    Wow, you're certainly succinct in demonstrating that you understand neither science, technology, nor philosophy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Consider the following developments in science:
    The Copernican Revolution: The theory of Earth is motion was contradicted by evidence, and experiments that were present during the time period. The tower experiment is one such example. If the earth was in motion, then a ball that fell from a tower would not fall straight down. Since, this wasn't the case, the earth could not be in motion. Of course, in this experiment, there is a supposition of absolute motion. But, see this supposition was carried in the experiment. From an inductivist view point we should have abandoned the theory that the Earth was in motion. But this was not what happened. Galileo invented new natural interpretations that countered the supposition of absolute motion.
    Furthermore, because of this type of theory-dependence of observations (i.e. observations cannot be thought of as independent entities, they always have some theory behind them that is presupposed), we shouldn't abandon a theory because it runs counter to evidence. Evidence is formed by older theories.
    A modern example of this is Gel-Mann's work in QED and weak nuclear force. In Gel-Mann's own words, his theory ran counter to "seven different experiments" that were performed. Still he did not abandon his theory because evidence contradicted it.
    Thus, a scientific method of the inductivist, where we let evidence have the final word, would be disastrous.
    Another example is the particle-wave duality of light. Maxwell's equation established light as a wave, and numerous experiments attested to this (the interference experiment). When Einstein presented light as a photon, the evidence stood contrary to his claim. He should have abandoned his approach, if we were to follow the strict inductivist methodology.
    Ad hoc hypothesis - Most dismiss ad hoc hypothesis. But, ad hoc hypothesis are common in scientific theories. Einstein's cosmological constant is an example of ad hoc hypothesis

    I'm a little late to the party (and maybe 40 years behind on my philosophy of science reading), but my first encounter with Feyerabend was a couple years ago in reading For and Against Method--the unresolved & mildly fictitious re/constructed version from 1999. In there, it sounded like he had some valid perspectives and rational discourse (or at least an outline for it) with Imre Lakatos. I realize the two had a friendship, but the fact that they talked to each other at all makes me think there was some value in Feyerabend's perspective. Maybe I'm putting Lakatos on a pedestal (and Feyerabend with him, to some extent). ...Or maybe we're overly dramatic in condemning Feyerabend? Along that line, I'd actually hesitate to characterize Feyerabend as a model postmodernist. Isn't that a better role for Lyotard or someone else? (Here again I'm a little out of my depth, but I thought postmodernists were usually pretty cut off from direct contact with science beyond an occasional mention of Kuhn's or maybe Popper's philosophies, whereas Feyerabend actually talked with a philosopher of science or two...or twenty? For what it's worth.)

    Anyway...if it's not a completely "done" topic, do you (or anyone else here) have thoughts on Lakatos/a level-headed scientific realist having an honest debate with Feyerabend? Was it a valid & rational discourse between disparate points of view, or has it since become something less useful? Pardon me while I flog this dead horse...

    Your article starts in a silly manner, and it only gets sillier after that. You start by referring to "deconstructionist silliness like that evolution and creationism are both 'cultural traditions' because sociology and psychology play a role in how science is done."

    I assume you mean that evolution reflects MORE than just a cultural tradition, that it accurately reflects something about the world. But this is not incompatible with with considering evolutionary thought as a cultural tradition. Just because something is bound by culture doesn't mean that it is untrue or doesn't have elements of the truth. Thus, there is nothing silly about the idea that evolution and creationism are both embedded in culture. If you think about it, you'll realize that the claim is actually trivially true.

    Is evolution science or not?  You're trying to find a clever way to state that all science is relative and thus does not explain the world according to natural laws.  Feyerabend would be proud because it is the kind of anti-science mumbo-jumbo he loved. But because he was a postmodernist, he would spend an hour showing you how your argument is wrong.  That is the problem - there is never any truth, just the argument.  It's the crippling weakness of postmodernism because it is just about the vanity of the speaker.
    Hank, you're misinterpreting Behnam. I think Behnam is simply saying that evolutionary theory is both a science and a culture. Describing it as a culture has nothing to do with commenting on whether or how well one thinks it explains the world. How is that "anti-science mumbo-jumbo?" You seem to be confounding talking about science on a cultural/historical/philosophical level with talking about scientific theory on a scientific level...Are you saying the only way to talk about science is "scientifically?"

    The only way to interpret it is scientifically. The article is about a postmodernist who did not accept science in any way - yet he claimed he did it because he loved science, which is a very postmodern-y thing to do.

    How can descent with modification be a culture? It is or it isn't science.  Or, if science absolutes are not a common language in this discussion, evolution is apodictically evident.
    You ask, "How can descent with modification be a culture?"

    You surely aren't ascribing to Feyerabend the idea that a scientific theory or law is a culture? Some people may say that a scientific proposition is cultural construct (and nothing more), but nobody says that a scientific proposition is a culture, or if they say it they don't mean it literally. Feyerabend was not dumb; he could tell the difference between a sentence and the social context in which a sentence is uttered.

    If that's what you're ascribing to Feyerabend, you're painting an even more ridiculous caricature than the one in your original article.

    For the record: I'm not a relativist, social constructivist, or post-modernist. I think Feyerabend was wrong. But he was most definitely not silly. You are silly for calling him silly.

     You are silly for calling him silly.
    Why?  If I said he was a white guy, is that also wrong?  He was what he was.  I did not say he was not literate or even intelligent, I said in these lectures he was at the top of his game and they are even enjoyable because of his process - he was still wrong and in much of it, silly.  Freud was also wrong, he was a product of his time and his ideas did not hold up and much of what he claimed was silly - like Feyerabend.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think Behnam is simply saying that evolutionary theory is both a science and a culture.
    So, how does this make sense?  Are you suggesting that Special Relativity and General Relativity are "both a science and a culture"? 

    How is this determined?  How does something become a "culture"? 

    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm using "culture" in a loose/general sense along the lines of whatever CP Snow meant when he talked about "two cultures" in academia--sciences versus arts and humanities. My understanding is that his version of culture can be related to an anthropological sense of the term, and simply refers to a social human endeavor with a set of traditions, which could denote a research group's preferred research methods.

    So "culture" and "science" are not mutually exclusive; they're just different levels or types of categorization in this case. Physics and biology are currently considered sciences, and sciences and the humanities are academic cultures...In which case, you could argue that it's redundant to call evolutionary biology "both a science and a culture," but it's not nonsensical. Nor is it an attempt to call evolution "imaginary," or creationism "true." Personally, I'd just as soon call them two research programs, denote one as scientific and the other as non- or pseudo-scientific, and be done with it.

    I'll defer to Behnam from here.

    First of all, it would help if you didn't try make up stuff about what I'm trying to do. I gave no opinion about relativism. You have four lines going off on tangents without addressing the point I made, which was about your denial that scientific thought is a tradition and that is embedded in culture.

    Yes, I took issue with your denial that the scientific enterprise is a "tradition" or that it is embedded in human culture. As I said already, this is not to say that the theory of evolution is wrong, nor does it mean it's as good/bad as any other theory. I didn't say that all traditions are equally good. I didn't argue for relativism.

    Sure, I've read Feyerabend, et al.'s arguments on relativism that are based on the Duhem-Quine thesis, the underdetermination of theory by evidence, and the theory-dependence of evidence. I ultimately disagree with Feyerabend on relativism and incommensurability, but given the muddle-headed and nearly fanatical manner in which you discuss things, you're the last person with whom I would want to get into the nitty gritty of the philosophical debate.

    You can probably tell that I'm annoyed.