‘“What’s So Great About Science?” Feyerabend on the Ideological Use and Abuse of Science

In Elena Aronova & Simone Turchetti (eds.), The Politics of Science Studies. pp. 55-76 (2016)
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It is very well known that from the late-1960s onwards Feyerabend began to radically challenge some deeply-held ideas about the history and methodology of the sciences. It is equally well known that, from around the same period, he also began to radically challenge wider claims about the value and place of the sciences within modern societies, for instance by calling for the separation of science and the state and by questioning the idea that the sciences served to liberate and ameliorate human societies. But what is less known is how, if at all, these two sets of challenges were connected, and why Feyerabend felt it important to raise them at all. In this chapter, my aim is to explore these issues by considering why Feyerabend used radical strategies to challenge the authority of science, and what purpose, if any, they were supposed to serve. Why, for instance, did Feyerabend defend alternative medicine, psychical abilities, astrology, magic and witchcraft and why did he argue that ‘Western science’ is complicit in environmental destruction, intellectual imperialism, social oppression, and spiritual destitution. Located in their historical and political context, such defences and arguments seem peculiar, not least because science was recognised not only as a central site of the intellectual and ideological competition between the West and the Soviet Union, but also because Western victory in that site was considered inevitable. What, then, did Feyerabend think he was trying to achieve by raising radical challenges to a central component of the cultural and intellectual prestige of the Western world grounded in appeals to practices and traditions which most would regard as eccentric at best and absurd at worst? My suggestion is that Feyerabend was making a subtler point than one might suppose. For the purpose of these radical challenges was to determine if the members of Western societies would in fact honour the epistemic standards – of tolerance, critical enquiry – which were identified as being characteristic of science and definitive of the social and political values of Western liberal democracy. I suggest that Feyerabend was trying to demonstrate that scientists were, too often, guilty of the same intolerant and dogmatic attitudes which were, according to prevailing propaganda, the property of illiberal totalitarian societies. Science does not reflect the superior epistemic and political values of Western societies but are, in fact, reflective of the same vices ascribed to the Soviet Union. If that is the case, then the sciences are not symbols of our epistemic and political values, but quite the reverse, hence Feyerabend’s talk of the ‘dogmatic’, ‘totalitarian’, ‘ratiofascist’ nature of modern science. But there is a positive upshot to Feyerabend’s challenge. For even if the sciences do not yet reflect the epistemic and political values of liberal democratic Western societies, they might yet be reformed so that they are. And there is a parallel between Feyerabend’s strategy and that of many of the other radicals of the time – student activists, environmentalists, and pacifists – namely to test the commitment to tolerance and deliberative debate of the establishment by asking it to seriously engage with ideas and convictions opposed to its own. For both science and society can become ‘tyrannical’ through the same means: by exempting themselves from critical scrutiny, by promoting self-serving ‘myths’ about themselves, and by derogating and excluding alternatives, including the ‘outsider’ perspectives they offer. The chapter concludes by suggesting that Feyerabend is distinctive in virtue of his willingness to offer radical criticisms of the authority of science such that it can fulfil its legitimate ideological role – namely, of symbolising and instantiating our core epistemic and political values – such that we can offer a sincere and meaningful answer to Feyerabend’s question ‘what’s so great about science?’.

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Ian James Kidd
Nottingham University


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