Skeptical Inquirer, March 13, 1997, No. 2, Vol. 21; Pg. 36
Why do many now view science as a failed ideology rather than as an epistemological ideal? Should science be viewed that way?
A little over six years ago, I attended the twenty-fifth annual Nobel conference, the only program outside of Sweden and Norway sanctioned by the Nobel Foundation. It was entitled, "The End of Science?" John Horgan, senior writer for Scientific American, has recently written a book of the same name (Horgan 1996). The subject of both of these inquiries is not the impending solution of certain scientific problems, but the impending dissolution of science itself. What prompted these projects is the growing belief that science is not the royal road to the truth. There is a view abroad in the land that science is more of an ideology than a methodology, and thus that it cannot legitimately claim to have a corner on reality. No one expresses this view more pugnaciously than the late philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. He writes:
Science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realized. (Feyerabend 1975, 295)
In Feyerabend's view, science is a religion, for it rests on certain dogmas that cannot be rationally justified. Thus, accepting it requires a leap of faith. But just as government has no business teaching religion in the public schools, it has no business teaching science either. In a truly democratic society, people would be as free to choose their epistemology as their political party.
The Nobel prize-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow spoke at the twenty-fifth Nobel conference in an attempt to counter these sorts of claims. His response consisted of the following "cosmic catechism": "We believe that the world is knowable, that there are simple rules governing the behavior of matter and the evolution of the universe...[and that] any intelligent alien anywhere would have come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature of supernovae. This statement I cannot prove, this statement I cannot justify. This is my faith" (Glashow 1989, 24). Instead of refuting Feyerabend, however, Glashow vindicated him. For he admitted that his belief in the objectivity of science is simply a matter of faith. It's no wonder that science's stock has fallen so precipitously in recent years.
Scientists' ignorance of the philosophical underpinnings of their enterprise has not gone unnoticed. In 1986, biology Nobelist Sir Peter Medawar commented:
Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare. (Quoted in Theocharis and Psimopoulos 1987, 595)
Scientists are a philosophically naive lot. But this naiveté does not come without a price. Because most scientists can't justify their methodology, Feyerabend's claims have gone largely unanswered. As a result, Feyerabend's position has become prominent in both academia and the public at large. This has arguably led not only to the rise of pseudoscience and religious fundamentalism, but also to a shrinking pool of scientific jobs and research funds. As physicists T. Theocharis and M. Psimopoulos lament in their article "Where Science Has Gone Wrong":
Having lost their monopoly in the production of knowledge, scientists have also lost their privileged status in society. Thus the rewards to the creators of science's now ephemeral and disposable theories are currently being reduced to accord with their downgraded and devalued work, and with science's diminished ambitions. (Theocharis and Psimopoulos 1987, 595)
The rise of Feyerabend's view of science, they claim, is the "most fundamental and yet the least recognized cause" of the decline in science funding in the West. So don't let anyone tell you that philosophy has no practical import. If Theocharis and Psimopoulos are right, philosophy has put a number of scientists out of work.
Feyerabend once proclaimed that scientists "have more money, more authority, more sex appeal than they deserve, and the most stupid procedures and the most laughable results in their domain are surrounded with an aura of excellence. It is time to cut them down in size, and to give them a more modest position in society" (Feyerabend 1975, 304). It appears that he has done just that.
How did this happen? Why is science increasingly viewed as a failed ideology rather than as an epistemological ideal? Let's take a closer look at the arguments underlying Feyerabend's position.
Popper, Induction, and Falsifiability
Ironically, one of those most responsible for the diminished view of science is one who was firmly convinced of its superiority: Sir Karl Popper. Although Popper believed that scientific theories were better than nonscientific ones, he argued that the traditional inductive conception of science was mistaken.
According to inductivism, scientific method consists of three steps: (1) observe, (2) induce a hypothesis, (3) confirm the hypothesis through additional observations and tests. Popper objected to all three of these steps on the grounds that scientists do not - and cannot - follow them.
Popper found the notion that scientific inquiry begins with an observation ludicrous. He writes:
Twenty-five years ago I tried to bring home the same point to a group of physics students in Vienna by beginning a lecture with the following instructions: "Take pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!" They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction, "Observe!" is absurd. (It is not even idiomatic, unless the object of the transitive verb can be taken as understood.) Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. (Popper 1965, 46)
For Popper, a scientific investigation begins with a hypothesis. For without a hypothesis to guide research, scientists would have no way of distinguishing relevant from irrelevant data.
Popper also objected to the view that enumerative induction was used to generate scientific hypotheses. Many theories, such as the atomic theory, the genetic theory, and the gravitational theory, postulate entities or forces that are not mentioned in their data. Consequently, they cannot be arrived at through enumerative induction.
Finally, he claimed, no universal generalization can be conclusively confirmed, for we can never be sure that we have examined all the relevant data. It is always possible that we will discover something that will overturn even the most well-established theory. Thus, he viewed science as the attempt to falsify rather than verify hypotheses. Besides, he thought, finding confirming instances of a theory is far too easy (Popper 1990, 104-10).
The most significant problem for inductivism, however, was first recognized by eighteenth-century empiricist David Hume. Hume noted that enumerative induction rests on the principle that the future will resemble the past. But this principle cannot be proven deductively, for it cannot be deduced from self-evident truths; and it cannot be proven inductively, for that would beg the question. So if science rests on induction, it rests on a dogma. And if it rests on a dogma, it is not a purely rational enterprise. So there may be more to Feyerabend's position than mere posturing.
By construing science as the attempt to falsify rather than verify hypotheses, Popper thought that he could avoid the problem of induction and distinguish real science from pseudoscience. The success of a test does not entail the truth of the hypothesis under investigation. But, he believed, the failure of a test does entail its falsity. So if science is viewed as a search for refutations rather than confirmations, the problem of induction drops out and the mark of a scientific theory becomes its ability to be refuted. Thus we have Popper's famous demarcation criterion: a theory is scientific if it is falsifiable. If there is no possible observation that would count against it, it is not scientific.
It was soon realized, however, that hypotheses can no more be conclusively falsified than they can be conclusively verified, for a hypothesis cannot be tested in isolation. Physicist-philosopher Pierre Duhem and logician Willard Van Orman Quine have convincingly demonstrated that hypotheses have testable consequences only in the context of certain background assumptions. If a test fails, it is always possible to maintain the hypothesis in question by rejecting one or more of the background assumptions.
Moreover, Popper's demarcation criterion is far too weak to distinguish science from pseudoscience. According to Popper, a theory is scientific as long as there is some possible state of affairs whose actual occurrence would refute the theory. By this criterion, however, astrology, creationism, and Immanuel Velikovsky's theory of planetary development would all be scientific theories, for they all imply propositions that could turn out to be false. Popper's demarcation criterion, therefore, lets in too much; it grants scientific status to theories that don't seem to deserve it.
Thus we have arrived at an impasse. We can't establish science's superiority by viewing it as an attempt to verify theories through induction, and we can't establish its superiority by viewing it as an attempt to falsify theories through deduction. Perhaps Feyerabend is right that there is no way to prove the superiority of science.
Kuhn, Paradigms, and Relativism
Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and Feyerabend argue that neither verification nor falsification can establish the objectivity of science because both assume that data are independent of theory. They claim, on the contrary, that all observation is theory-laden, for all perception involves conceptualization. Since each theory manufactures its own data, there is no neutral data that can be used to adjudicate among competing theories. As a result, theories are "incommensurable."
Kuhn and Feyerabend see science primarily as a puzzle-solving exercise. The rules for solving particular puzzles are contained in a "paradigm." A paradigm defines for scientists what sorts of puzzles are worth solving and what sorts of methods will solve them. From time to time, however, certain puzzles or "anomalies" arise that cannot be solved within the existing paradigm. When the cognitive dissonance created by these puzzles becomes too great, the scientific community undergoes a "paradigm shift." Kuhn describes the effects of a paradigm shift this way:
Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well. Of course, nothing of quite that sort does occur: there is no geographical transplantation; outside the laboratory everyday affairs usually continue as before. Nevertheless, paradigm changes do cause scientists to see the world of their research engagement differently. In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world. (Kuhn 1970, 111)
In Kuhn's view, scientists don't discover the nature of reality; they create it. There is no way the world is, for each paradigm makes its own world. It's easy to see why such views raise questions about the end of science. If there is no truth with a capital "T," then, of course, it makes no sense to say that scientists have a monopoly on it.
To determine whether we should we accept this view of science, we need to examine its implications.
If what we perceive is determined by the paradigm we accept, then it should be impossible to perceive anything that doesn't fit our paradigm. But if it's impossible to perceive anything that doesn't fit our paradigm, it's impossible for there to be any anomalies. And if it's impossible for there to be any anomalies, it's impossible for there to be any paradigm shifts. So if we accept Kuhn and Feyerabend's theory of perception, we must reject their history of science.
Moreover, recent neurophysiological research has shown that all perception does not involve conceptualization. Psychologist Edward Hundert explains:
If someone loses the primary visual cortex (say, because of a tumor), they lose their vision; they go almost totally blind. But if they just lose the secondary or tertiary visual cortex, they manifest an unusual condition called visual agnosia. In this condition, visual acuity is normal (the person could correctly identify the orientation of the "E's" on an eye chart). But they lose the ability to identify, name, or match even simple objects in any part of their visual field...This model can be translated into psychological terms as endorsing a functional distinction between "perception" (input analysis) and "cognition" (central processing)...
It is easy to see the evolutionary advantage of this whole scheme, with its "upward" input analysis: if our transducers were hooked directly to our central systems, we would spend most of our time seeing (hearing, etc.) the world the way we remember, believe, or expect the world to be. The recognition of novelty - of unexpected stimuli - has extremely obvious evolutionary advantage, and is made possible only by the separation of transducers and central systems by "dumb" input analyzers. (Hundert 1987, 413, 420-21)
Neurophysiological research suggests that not all observation is theory-laden, for there are two types of observation: discrimination and recognition. Recognition may involve the use of concepts, but discrimination does not. For if it did, we could never perceive anything new.
Finally, if all research is conducted within a paradigm, then Kuhn's and Feyerabend's research itself must have been conducted within a paradigm. But if their research was conducted within a paradigm, its results cannot be considered to be universally true. We can say of Kuhn's findings, then, what Feyerabend says of science in general, namely, that "it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology." The proper response to a Kuhnian or a Feyerabendian, then, is the one that philosopher Alan Garfinkle gives to the relativists in his philosophy classes: "You may not be coming from where I'm coming from, but I know relativism isn't true for me" (quoted in Putnam 1981, 119).
Much more could be said on this topic. But it's important to realize that scientists need not recite a catechism when faced with claims of the sort made by Kuhn and Feyerabend.
Science, Justification, and Belief
Can science be shown to be a superior means of acquiring knowledge? Yes it can, but only by showing that it is more likely to yield justified beliefs than any other methodology. Thus the real issue is not whether a belief is scientific or pseudoscientific but whether it is justified or unjustified.
We are justified in believing something to be true when it provides the best explanation of the evidence. Science is superior to other methods of inquiry because it usually provides better explanations than they do. The goodness of an explanation is determined by the amount of understanding it produces, and the amount of understanding an explanation produces is determined by how much it systematizes and unifies our knowledge. The extent to which an explanation does this can be determined by appealing to various criteria of adequacy such as simplicity, scope, conservatism, and fruitfulness. No one wants to hold unjustified beliefs. The problem is that most people never learn the difference between a good explanation and a bad one. Consequently they come to believe all sorts of weird things for no good reason.
Must science come to an end? Not necessarily. But unless scientists become more philosophically sophisticated, their apologetics will continue to ring hollow. And unless our educational system focuses more on teaching students how to think than on what to think, our populace will become increasingly credulous. Scientists and educators alike need to realize that the educated person is not the person who can answer the questions, but the person who can question the answers. In our age of rapidly changing information, knowing how to distinguish truth from falsity is more important than knowing what was once considered true and false. Only a person who knows the difference between a justified and an unjustified belief can truly appreciate the value of scientific inquiry.
Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. Against Method. London: Verso.
Glashow, Sheldon. 1989. We believe that the world is knowable. New York Times, October 22.
Horgan, John. 1996. The End of Science. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Hundert, Edward. 1987. Can neuroscience contribute to philosophy? In Mindwaves, edited by Colin Blakemore and Susan Greenfield. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Popper, Karl. 1965. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
-----. 1990. Science: conjectures and refutations. In Philosophy of Science and the Occult, edited by Patrick Grim. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Putnam, Hilary. 1981. Reason, Truth, and History Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Theocharis, T. and M. Psimopoulos. 1987. Where science has gone wrong. Nature 329 (October).
Theodore Schick Jr. is a professor of philosophy at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA 18104, and co-author (with Lewis Vaughn) of How To Think About Weird Things. He received his B.A. from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Brown University. He has published numerous articles on epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and ethics in such journals as Skeptic, International Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Idealistic Studies, Thought, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, and Dialog.