Feyerabend and Science as ‘Myth’

Sage digs up an interesting view on science from Paul Feyerabend.

I recently came across an article from 1963 entitled ‘How to be a Good Empiricist – A Plea for Tolerance in Matters Epistemological’ by Paul Feyerabend, the well-known philosopher of science. In this paper, Feyerabend was writing a criticism of the thinking of the Logical Positivists, in particular Thomas Nagel.


Paul Feyerabend (Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend [attribution] via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the lengthy extract below, he was arguing strongly for tolerance in scientific work – on the not unreasonable sounding basis that allowing a multiplicity of alternate ideas is the best way to test and evaluate current scientific theories – rather than to dogmatically accept the prevailing ones. This is, basically, a similar argument to that John Stuart Mill uses in ‘On Liberty’ in defence of freedom of speech and belief. It’s clear that Feyerabend was heavily influenced by Thomas Khun here, in describing what he believes scientists actually do, which Feyerabend compares to what they should do. It’s a pretty polemical section, and isn’t particularly ‘philosophical’, at least when read out of context as here, but what it says sounded so familiar to me, I thought I’d draw attention to it.

I have transcribed most of section 6 of the paper. In doing so, I’ve removed certain words and phrases that identify which particular aspect of physical science Feyerabend was using as his example. I’ve replaced these, where still required for sense, with non-discipline specific words, and these are shown in square brackets.

Does any branch of present-day science fit Feyerabend’s description?

The Self-Deception Involved in All Uniformity[i]

“It is worthwhile to examine this apparently empirical defence of a dogmatic point of view in somewhat greater detail. Assume that [scientists] have adopted, either consciously or unconsciously, the idea of [some hypothesis relevant to their area of study] and that they therefore elaborate the orthodox point of view and refuse to consider alternatives. In the beginning such a procedure may be quite harmless. After all, a man can do only so many things at a time and it is better when he pursues a theory in which he is interested rather than a theory he finds boring. Now assume that the pursuit of the theory he chose has led to successes and that the theory has explained in a satisfactory manner circumstances that had been unintelligible for quite some time. This gives empirical support to an idea which to start with seem to possess only this advantage: it was interesting and intriguing. The concentration upon the theory will now be reinforced, the attitude towards alternatives will become less tolerant. Now if it is true, as has been argued in the last section, that many facts become available only with the help of such alternatives, then the refusal to consider them will result in the elimination of potentially refuting facts. More especially, it will eliminate facts whose discovery would show the complete and irreparable inadequacy of the theory. Such facts having been made inaccessible, the theory will appear to be free from blemish… This will further reinforce the belief in the uniqueness of the current theory and the complete futility of any account of the proceeds in a different manner. Being now very firmly convinced that there is only one good [theory or hypothesis], the [scientists] will try to explain even adverse facts in its terms, and they will not mind when such explanations are sometimes a little clumsy. By now the success of the theory has become public news. Popular science books (and this includes a good many books on the philosophy of science) will spread the basic postulates of the theory; applications will be made in distant fields. More than ever the theory will appear to possess tremendous empirical support. The chances for the consideration of alternatives are now very slight indeed. The final success of the fundamental assumptions of the [theory and its main postulate] will seem to be assured.

At the same time, it is evident, on the basis of the considerations in the last section, that this appearance of success cannot in the least be regarded as a sign of truth and correspondence with nature. Quite the contrary, the suspicion arises that the absence of major difficulties is a result of the decrease of empirical content brought about by the elimination of alternatives, and of facts that can be discovered with the help of these alternatives only. In other words, the suspicion arises that this alleged success is due to the fact that in the process of application to new domains the theory has been turned into a metaphysical system. Such a system will of course be very ‘successful’ not, however, because it agrees so well with the facts, but because no facts have been specified that would constitute a test and because some facts have even been removed. It’s ‘success’ is entirely man-made. It was decided to stick to some ideas and the result was, quite naturally, the survival of these ideas. If now the initial decision is forgotten, or made only implicitly, then the survival will seem to constitute independent support, it will reinforce the decision, or turn it into an explicit one, and in this way close the circle. This is how empirical ‘evidence’ may be created by a procedure which quotes as its justification the very same evidence it has produced in the first place.

At this point an ‘empirical’ theory of the kind described… become almost indistinguishable from a myth. In order to realise this, we need only consider that on account of its all-pervasive character a myth such as the myth of witchcraft and that demonic possession will possess a high degree of confirmation on the basis of observation. Such a myth has been taught for a long time; its content is enforced by fear, prejudice, and ignorance as well as by a jealous and cruel priesthood. It penetrates the most common idiom, infects all modes of thinking and many decisions which mean a great deal in human life. It provides models for the explanation of any conceivable event, conceivable, that is, those who have accepted it. This being the case, its key terms will be fixed in an unambiguous manner and the idea (which may have led to such a procedure in the first place) that they are copies of unchanging entities and that change of meaning, if it should happen, is due to human mistake – this idea will now be very plausible. Such plausibility reinforces all the manoeuvres which are used for the preservation of the myth (elimination of opponents included). The conceptual apparatus of the theory and the emotions connected with its application having penetrated all means of communication, all actions, and indeed the whole life of the community, such methods as transcendental deduction, analysis of usage, phenomenological analysis which are means for further solidifying the myth will be extremely successful (which shows, by the way, that all these methods which have been the trademark of various philosophical schools old and new, have one thing in common: They tend to preserve the status quo of the intellectual life). Observational results too, will speak in favour of the theory as they are formulated in its terms. It will seem that at last the truth has been arrived at. At the same time, it is evident that all contact with the world has been lost and that the stability achieved, the semblance of absolute truth, is nothing but the result of an absolute conformism. How can we possibly test, or improve upon, the truth of a theory if it is built in such a manner that any conceivable event can be described, and explained, in terms of its principles? The only way of investigating such all-embracing principles is to compare them with a different set of equally all-embracing principles – but this way has been excluded from the very beginning. The myth is therefore of no objective relevance, it continues to exist solely as the result of the efforts of the community of believers and of their leaders, be these now priests or Nobel Prize winners. Its success is entirely man-made. This I think, is the most decisive argument against any method that encourages uniformity, be it now empirical or not. Any such method is in the last resort a method of deception. It enforces an unenlightened conformism, and speaks of truth; it leads to a deterioration of intellectual capabilities, of the power of the imagination, and speaks of deep insight; it destroys the most precious gift of the young, their tremendous power of imagination, and speaks of education.

To sum up: Unanimity of opinion may be fitting for a church, for the crime victims of some (ancient, or modern) myth, or for the weak and willing followers of some tyrant; variety of opinion is a feature necessary for objective knowledge; and a method that encourages a variety is also the only method that is compatible with a humanitarian outlook. To the extent to which the consistency condition (and, as will emerge, the condition of meaning invariance) delimits variety, it contains a theological element (which lies, of course, in the worship of ‘facts’ so characteristic for nearly all empiricism).”

It does sound a bit like…

The Anthropogenic Climate Change (or AGW) hypothesis ticks all the boxes, doesn’t it? Refusal to consider alternatives? Tick. Requirement for conformism amongst its practitioners? Tick. Untestable? Tick. Explaining even adverse results in terms that appear to support the theory? Tick. Application into other fields of study? Tick. ‘Mythical’ content that “is enforced by fear, prejudice, and ignorance as well as by a jealous and cruel priesthood”? Tick.

You could make your own list of comparisons!

But it actually is…Quantum Complementarity

Feyerabend was writing about quantum mechanics and specifically about quantum complementarity: that is the idea that objects can have properties that cannot all be measured at the same time. For example, it is possible to consider an electron as acting as a wave, or as a particle, but not both at once. I’ve no intention of discussing quantum mechanics in any further depth here. The point is, if we are to take Feyerabend’s criticism as applying to the present ‘received opinion’ on AGW, we must accept its application to quantum mechanics as Feyerabend actually meant, and like as not to other scientific disciplines too. We shouldn’t then cherry pick and say, for instance, that we ‘believe’ in quantum mechanics and therefore reject Feyerabend on that while happily accepting the critique when applied to AGW which we don’t ‘believe’ in. Or vice versa.

So what?

The AGW hypothesis, correct or not, is a whole bigger problem than quantum mechanics. While a better understanding of quantum mechanics will undoubtedly lead to great technological improvements over the coming years, quantum complementarity is hardly a major talking point on the Clapham Omnibus or down the Dog & Duck. It may take up a lot of scientific research money, but I’d be amazed if its anything like the cash available for AGW research.

It certainly doesn’t get the sort of money doled out to subsidise ‘green energy’ or fund R&D in that area. In terms of public policy, and people’s standards of living, the AGW hypothesis is much more serious in its implications than quantum mechanics. As such, AGW scientists should perhaps be held to a higher standard than most scientists.

I’ve no doubt, that a ‘plea for tolerance’ of AGW sceptics both in and out of the discipline, as a means to rapidly improve understanding of the climate in the context of increasing levels of CO2, is much more urgent and necessary than academic freedom to dissent is in quantum mechanics.


[i] Feyerabend, Paul K. Section 6 of “How to be a Good Empiricist – A Plea for Tolerance in Matters Epistemological (1963).” In Philosophy of Science: the central issues, by Martin & Cover, JA Curd, 922-949. London: WW Norton & Company Ltd. (Italics are Feyerabend’s emphases. While I have checked the transcription, minor errors may have occurred. My spell-checker has changed the spelling into UK English.


Psychology, Philosophy and Confirmation Bias: Evolutionary Denial?

Is there anything in our evolutionary history that makes us more likely to accept or reject the Anthropogenic Global Warming Hypothesis? Paul Biegler thinks so, and so does Sage (a bit), but for some evolutionary reason they have different interpretations…

It is a bit late in the day, but I’m raising a few points regarding “Climate of Disbelief” an article by Paul Biegler in the July/August edition of ‘Philosophy Now’ (£).

Biegler, a bioethicist at Monash University, Melbourne, applies some psychological ideas to the issue of the rejection of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis by many members of the public.

A Big Assumption

Biegler assumes at the outset that those people who do not agree that global warming is happening, or that it is anthropogenic in origin (he doesn’t distinguish, but we know what he means), do not do so because of scientific evidence. He believes that there is an “overrepresented toehold [for scepticism] in the popular media”, which he suggests means that non-specialists have a misguided view of “the science”. While he concedes that the climate experts are themselves still somewhat baffled on the details, it is clear that he himself has little doubt. His argument is therefore premised on the “truth”, in the general sense, of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) hypothesis. In other words, he believes that human-generated atmospheric carbon dioxide is/will be the cause of catastrophic damage to the world’s climate, and all that is said to entail. As a result, his argument is constructed very much in one direction. Assuming the sceptics are wrong, he seeks to find out why they should ‘want’ to be wrong. For Biegler, this is the only possible reason why sceptics should reject the views of scientific authorities – such as Prof Stephen Hawking who he cites as an example[i].

Make a Wish!

Basically, Biegler believes that “there is another candidate to explain our reticence to embrace the painful but credible truth of a warming planet. The idea of wishful thinking.” By starting with such a stance, he almost completely fails to see the converse to his argument – it could equally well apply in its entirety to proponents of anthropogenic climate change.

Using the ‘thought experiment’ of bad news from the doctor, he says we generally tend – initially at least – to deny worrying information. This is “a famous type of motivated reasoning: confirmation bias.” That is people prefer their own view of the world, and tend to reject or “discount data that contradict it”. Further, Biegler cites John Cook (Queensland) in “The Conversation” (06/09/12). In that article a survey showed that there was a Republican/Democrat split in belief in AGW. Biegler does accept here that this argument cuts both ways. “Those with left political leanings, are keen to see big entities pay, will be partial to warming data”, but excuses this as “the tiebreaker is that warming predictions are backed by good scientific pedigree”. Again, his own confirmation bias shows!

A Peer Review Proves What Exactly? And a Misrepresentation.

Biegler asserts that the peer-review process acts as a check on scientists’ own bias. Mischievously, he even cites Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal as saying “Most scientists do not try to disprove their ideas; rivals do it for them. Only when those rivals fail is the theory bomb proof” (July 27, 2012). Biegler takes the Ridley quote totally out of context. Ridley was not talking about the peer review process here. He was suggesting that science progresses when one scientist challenges the work – and sometimes the preconceptions of – another scientist or scientists. This is done by repeating experiments or observation; by framing and performing other experiments or observations that might confirm or deny the first scientist’s work. This is not the purpose of peer review. Peer review is, or should be, a sense-check on the research to be published. It is meant to ensure that other published work on the same subject is addressed, where appropriate, and to check that the underlying research methodology is basically sound. It should not be (though some may say it is) a way of disagreeing scientists to prevent publication of a competitor’s work. I wonder if Biegler understands the peer review system, or is being disingenuous? I certainly hope he doesn’t do any peer reviews himself.

Those who haven’t read the Matt Ridley piece may not be aware that it was also part of a series about confirmation bias in science generally, although he does refer to climate scientists too. Ridley was arguing for more challenge, suggesting that scientists do not challenge each other enough, either in general or specifically in climate change research. Indeed, it took pretty much the opposite line, with respect to scientists, that Biegler takes in Philosophy Now.[ii]

Where Does Wishful Thinking Come From?

Paul Biegler then proceeds to explain how such ‘wishful thinking’ arises.

First, he answers the question how does wishful thinking work? He suggests that: “the logic is as follows. Imagining that our cherished projects will actually materialised makes us feel good. When someone suggests the contrary… [this] makes us feel bad. We are left with two options. We can give up our aspirations, which is a big ask. Far better to downgrade the credibility of the objector.” Biegler’s lack of awareness that this applies to both ‘warmists’ and ‘sceptics’ is extraordinary enough. That he doesn’t notice that it applies a fortiori to those activist climate scientists, whose reputation is at stake, is unforgivable. It is those such as Michael Mann, Kevin Trenberth, and many others in the ‘warmist’ sphere who have the “cherished projects” that are under threat. And they do “downgrade the credibility of the objector” too.

Darwin, Stone Age Man and Actions

But why do we as human beings react this way at all? But why do we use feelings rather than evidence for belief? Biegler recognises that there are competing “theories” (he means hypotheses, of course).

Biegler cites two “time honoured neo-Darwinist lines” to explain “why would we use our feelings rather than, say, the evidence as a basis for belief?” Biegler takes an evolutionary approach. In the state of nature (my phrase) what made us feel good was, usually, actually good for us. “Your emotions are your genes’ insurance that your behaviour tilts in their favour”, and as emotions precede, in evolutionary terms, the intellect, we decide stuff on emotional level, then rationalise. We use emotions as decision-making shortcuts, and usually, says Biegler, they work.

So the first argument is that it’s just ‘common sense’ to run away from a charging rhino, using ‘state of nature’ argument again. Clearly, there’s an evolutionary advantage in running away, or dodging the rhino. To pretend it’s not charging won’t work. So emotionally generated beliefs shouldn’t be ignored. However, I would argue that avoiding injury is not the same as “reward, and so feeling good” which Biegler suggests. Anyone who has ever run away from a dangerous situation, like the charging rhino, will know that there’s no good feeling about it. The sense of relief comes after the escape is complete, not when one starts to run away.

Out of date thinking

But now, citing George Ainslie (Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 32, 2009) he states that “how our beliefs feel is no longer a consistent guide to their accuracy” since there “was an increasing disconnect between beliefs and survival outcomes”, especially where it is only possible to see if belief is true or false at some time in the future. “Good feelings were a reward for beliefs whose falsity might never be exposed on the battlefield of natural selection”. I am reminded how so much of the warnings about the future bad consequences of ‘global warming’ are set so far in the future that the scientist or journalist, and most likely the reader, will be dead before ‘the truth’ really comes out. In 50 to 200 years?

Always Look on the Brightside of Life…

The above argument, Biegler denotes as the “‘by-product theory”. Biegler then looks at another idea: looking on the ‘the bright-side’ might not just make us feel fuzzy and warm. It might actually be good for us too. As he is a medical person, it is no surprise that Biegler mentions that lower stress of the optimist – or in this case someone who contemplates “a palatable rather than perilous future” – is better in health terms than the ‘chronic stress’ of the worrier.

It is true that some believers in the AGW hypothesis do worry. I can often detect feelings of abject despair in George Monbiot’s writing on the subject, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. As a sceptic, I can also get myself quite upset and annoyed when I read just how much money governments, including the EU spend on simply propagandising the AGW hypothesis, or subsidising wind farms. It doesn’t do my blood pressure much good, I can tell you.

The New Stone Age

Biegler suggests that a Neolithic optimist may therefore have survived better than his pessimistic brethren in the prehistoric past. Those who are optimistic in other situations do seem to do better than pessimists he says. He cites ‘optimistic’ HIV-positive men living longer than more pessimistic victims of AIDS. Of course, if optimism is significantly better than pessimism as a survival strategy, why are there any pessimists left nowadays? Perhaps there’s no difference in survival to the point of reproduction between optimists and pessimists in which case natural selection can’t work, and the argument must fail. Or more likely, it’s a very weak selective force.

Optimism, Pessimism, and the Future

Anyway, given either or both of these reasons for an evolutionary ‘preference’ for optimism, then Biegler suggests that “the somewhat startling upshot is that motivated reasoning [wishful thinking] may confer advantage upon those it drives to reject the climate science conclusions”. Also, outside the immediate future, we still look forward to good, not bad, things. He says we “project our feelings into the future”, such that we seek “outcomes that earn positive sentiments…”, and that we also attach feelings to beliefs.”…we embrace those [beliefs] imbued with positive feeling, and shun those that accrue disdain”. So thoughts about the future are as affected by our ‘emotions’ as thoughts about the present.

I agree with the general observation that human beings do, generally, discount the long term too much, preferring jam today. This is most obvious when the long term is beyond a lifetime. But Biegler says that nowadays humans can reasonably foresee certain events in the longer term, and given this we should react accordingly. He suggests that we don’t take action over anthropogenic climate change because the future is perceived to be uncertain.

But Biegler – again injecting his own wishful thinking – says “but concerning climate change, our prospects are increasingly certain”, and we (as a species) should “act now”. Of course, as Biegler says, “feeling good about beliefs say little about their veracity…”. This is easily restated as “feeling bad about beliefs say little about their veracity…”. I could be terrified by a firmly held belief that one day the zombies will come and get me. It doesn’t make it true either[iii].


Biegler are now turns from psychology and epistemology to ask the political question “how then to persuade the dissenters?” I won’t spend much electronic ink here. Basically he suggests that “climate communicators must appeal to emotion”, citing Hume (I think out of context, but I’m not going to quibble here) by saying that reason becomes slave to the passions. Basically, the argument is that ‘warmist’ propaganda should set out to appeal more than it does to the ‘Republican’ worldview. For example, advocating nuclear power as a low carbon energy source rather than ‘green’ solutions like windmills; or adopting pro-business solutions rather than socialist ones. I’ll leave that to US commentators to discuss.


In summary, Biegler says that those that ignore climate change because we have “a hardwired predilection for good news even if it departs from the facts”. Clearly, it can’t be ‘hard wired’, or there wouldn’t be a debate, if that was all there was to it. It wouldn’t matter what scientists said, if it was ‘bad news’, and not in-front-of-your-face obvious, like the charging rhino. At best, Biegler should only be saying that there was a proclivity to reject the bad – which I would accept. He should not imply there’s no alternative. It is not an either/or dichotomy.

Even if ‘good news’ dominates ‘bad’, what is good news? No one could argue that if polar bears were becoming extinct due to AGW (or any other reason)[iv] that it would be good news. As a climate scientist, losing one’s grant funding would be bad news. Having one’s pet project, promoting belief in AGW, shown to be based on mistaken science, would not be wishful thinking. Losing an opportunity to lambast ‘big oil’; and the Koch Brothers; and Capitalism: that might be bad news too, for some folks.

Biegler brings his own bias to the debate. It works both ways.

Who Cares? Another Bias.

Speaking for myself, I am a sceptic on the AGW front. This is based on my studies of Earth sciences and especially the way the world has behaved in response to warmer conditions in the geological past. However, if I’m wrong, it doesn’t really matter to me. I have no children, no scientific reputation other than a blog that few people read. So why should I be ‘wishful thinking’ in dismissing the AGW hypothesis? Yes, I will get a ‘warm feeling’ if AGW is sometime proved wrong, or climate change is shown to be so minimal as to be irrelevant, sure, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me (so to speak) as I will be dead anyway in 70 years (on the very optimistic side – I’d be a record holder by today’s standard! Wishful thinking again?). No, it’s the ‘warmists’, proved wrong in their predictions time and time again, who have got it all to lose. No wonder they’re so stressed out!

Or is this my own confirmation bias speaking for me? Who can say?

Authors Note

It should be noted that the above was written before I saw any letters or any other reaction to Paul Biegler’s article that might be published in the Sept/Oct 2014 edition of ‘Philosophy Now’. If you have written a letter to the magazine and it sounds like any of the above, I truly haven’t read it, and I’m not plagiarising.

I may return to any matters raised in those letters, if there are any.

Sage Vals 07 September 2014

[i] I’m tempted to get into the argument from authority debate, which is fascinating – can’t do with it, can’t do without it – but not today.

[ii] You can see the other Matt Ridley articles on the subject here http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog.aspx?filterby=wall-street-journal Look for July 2012 posts down the page.

[iii] A potentially controversial footnote! As well as not paying so much attention to a possible future, could someone refuse to believe some well documented incident in the near-historical past just because it’s too horrible to contemplate?

[iv] They aren’t currently endangered. See http://polarbearscience.com/. I suppose some Alaskans might take a different view about polar bear extinction, so might those hurt by the polar bears, or the relatives of those killed by bears. I’m generalising, I don’t mean any offense.