The Rhetoric of Scientific Method

by Paul Feyerabend.

I have said on several occasions that there is no such thing as the scientific method, a claim that is standard in the philosophy of science. The curious reader need only look at whether geologists follow the same approach as biologists to divine this circumstance, or else compare condensed matter physics with particle physics and organismic biology with molecular biology to appreciate that all this method talk bears no resemblance to what actually goes on. Given that this is the case, what I want to consider here is why so many people insist - usually in public discourse - that there is such a unified and well defined method, often not hesitating to pour scorn on those who fail to follow its dictates.

The answer - an obvious one, hopefully - is that the existence of the so-called scientific method is a useful rhetorical tactic to employ, especially when hoping to accord a theory scientific status or deny it to another. Where a uniform methodology exists, particularly one defined by a short list of clear steps, it is a relatively simple matter to compare the approach of some “pseudoscientist” or other with the “scientific method” and note that one or more key stages is missing - the failure to make a claim falsifiable, say, or even to attempt refutation where falsification does seem possible. This then allows the critic to dismiss the claim as pseudoscientific or non-scientific, with consequences such as a decline in funding if the objection convinces those who allot resources. Notice that a self-fulfilling prophecy can occur: if an idea is characterised as pseudoscientific and support withdrawn from its development then it should be no surprise when it founders and the charge of pseudoscience appears justified post hoc, confirming the earlier complaint.

The appeal of a unique scientific method is thus a powerful one, and even moreso to a person wanting to cleave the world clearly into scientific and non-scientific parts. It grants considerable power to the status quo and to academia, or more specifically those who take it upon themselves to advocate the method and use it to demarcate between theories to the cost of those not making the grade. If applied consistently, of course, it would commit us to calling much of what goes on in science today (along with almost all of what passed before) as pseudo- or non-science. This is an example of selective skepticism, in that the same “critics” who are constantly on guard against cranks and crackpots do not also take their “scientific method” and regularly test to see whether practicising scientists are adhering to it - and, from their perspective, it is as well they do not. In any case, why should a methodology describing the fallibilistic endeavour that everyone accepts science to be not be fallible itself? Why should theories forever be susceptible to refutation but not the (supposed) approach that led us to them? It is difficult to see why a methodology that was arrived at in a historically contingent fashion to govern a fallible enterprise should itself be considered settled once and for all, as well as not subject to its own requirement for skepticism. The important point, however, is that this inconsistency shows us that the appeal to the scientific method is indeed a rhetorical strategy. If a step-by-step method is important enough to insist on then its application must cover all of science.

It may be that this is another legacy of positivism and there can be little doubt that some people really do believe that science can be defined by a procedural list. Nevertheless, the tragedy is that those so enamoured of science that they become scientistic and elevate their simplisitic approach to the status of a canon are the very ones who then deprive themselves of an appreciation of just how rich science is on its own terms, without the attempt to force it into a methodological straightjacket. (Indeed, the behaviour of scientists is fascinating, one of my favourite stories concerning Einstein that I mentioned previously here*.) Judging by its history, science has worked so well because the scientists of the past refused to be bound by what was expected of them and struck out on their own. Sometimes this can lead nowhere, apparently (although even this is not clear), but it can also result in the re-enchantment of the world that those keen on science know only too well.

October 10th, 2005

*on the subject of tenacity in science:- remarking on Einstein’s unwillingness to give up the special theory of relativity in the face of Kaufman’s experimental falsification the author writes:
I’m not exactly sure why, but Einstein decided to stick with his theory of relativity, rather than reject it.

As philosophers of science who wrote on this seemingly strange circumstance have noted, Einstein was unimpressed by “verification through little effects”. The tenacity referred to in this instance is actually a widespread phenomenon, observed in most scientists (and elsewhere).

Source: Galilean Library