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Scientific suppression of disagreement


Beyond Method: engaging opposition in psycho-social organization (Part #3)


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1. It is the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend who hap recently drawn attention, dramatically to the manner in which science-as-practised suppresses disagreement in a somewhat desperate search for the single method and the ultimate theory (4). He argues that this bears a relation to how science advances (when it advances) and that this confusion Is dangerous for society.

2. Feyerabend argues that:

'Such a field study of science reveals that, while some scientists may proceed as described, the great majority follow a different path. Scepticism is at a minimum it is directed against the view of the oppositio and against minor ramifications of one's own basic ideas, never against the basic ideas themselves. Attacking the basic ideas evokes taboo reactions which are no weaker than are the taboo reactions in so-called primitive societies. Basic beliefs are protected by this reaction as well as by secondary elaborations, as we have seen, and whatever fails to fit into the established category system or is said to be incompatible with this system is either viewed as something quite horrifying or, more frequently, it is simply declared to be non-existent.' (4, p. 298)

He considers that this massive dogmatism is not just a fact but also has a most important function. Science would be ,impossible without it (4, p. 298). Furthermore:

'In the preceding chapters, which are rough sketches of an anthropological study of particular episodes, it has emerged that science is always full of lacunae and contradictions, that ignorance, pigheadedness, reliance on prejudice, lying, far from impeding the forward march of knowledge are essential presuppositions of it and that the traditional virtues of precision, consistency, "honesty", respect for facts, maximum knowledge under given circumstances, if practised with determination, may bring it to a standstill. It has also emerged that logical principles not only play a much smaller role in the (argumentative and non-argumentative) moves that advance science, but that attempt to enforce them universally would seriously impede science.' (4, p. 260)

3. He considers that the belief that science has found some special method is simply a fairy-tale.

'But the fairy-tale is false, as we have seen. There is no special method that guarantees success or makes it probable. Scientists do not solve problems because they possess a magic want-methodology, or a theory of rationality - but because they have studied a problem for a lone, time, because they know the situation fairly well, because they are not too dumb (though that is rather doubtful nowadays when almost anyone can become a scientist), and because the excesses of one scientific school are almost always balanced by the excesses of Some other school. (Besides, scientists only rarely solve their problems, they make lots of mistakes, and many of their solutions are quite useless)'. (4, p. 302)

4. Feyerabend then points out that:

'Basically there is hardly any difference between the process that leads to the announcement of a new scientific law and the process preceding passage of a new law in society: one informs either all citizens or those immediately concerned, one collects 'facts' and prejudices, one discusses the matter, and one finally votes. But while a democracy makes some effort to explain the process so that everyone can understand it, scientists either conceal it, or bend it, to make it fit their sectarian interests.' (4, p. 304)

5. Disagreement amongst sciences is in practice resolved by vote contrary to what is normally claimed:

"No scientist will admit that voting plays a role in his subject. Facts, logic, and methodology alone decide this is what the fairy-tale tells us. But how do facts decide? What is their function in the advancement of knowledge? We cannot derive our theories from them. We cannot give a negative criterion by saying, for example, that good theories are theories which can be refuted, but which are not yet contradicted by any fact... Lawyers show again and again that an expert does not know what he is talking about. Scientists, especially physicians, frequently come to different results so that it is up to the relatives of the sick person (or the inhabitants of a certain area) to decide by vote about the procedure to be adopted. How often is science improved, and turned into new directions by non-scientific influences.' (4, pp. 306-307)

6. The unity of science is itself a myth:

'Science is split into numerous disciplines, each of which may adopt a different attitude towards a given theory and single disciplines are further split into schools. Whatever unity remains is dissolved during (scientific) revolutions, when no principle remains unchallenged, no method unviolated. Even individual scientists arrive at different judgements about a proposed theory.' (4, p. 202)

7. Given this situation, the danger lies in the generalization of this myth in disguise:

'Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of scientific method, they went to universalize these rules, they want them to become part of society at large and they use every means at their disposal - argument, propaganda, pres- tactics, intimidation, lobbying - to achieve their aims.' (4, p. 220)

'A society that is based on a set of well-defined and restrictive rules so that being a man becomes synonymous with obeying these rules, forces the dissenter into a no-man's-land of no rules at all and thus robs him of his humanity.' (4, p. 218)

8. It is ironical that, the avoidance by scientists disagreement, as described above, and the scientific dedication to the elimination of discrepancies in theory, are complemented by the deep disagreement amongst philosophers of science concerning the nature of the scientific process itself.


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