Notes on Science in a Free Society
What a weird book. Basically sums up to:
- So called “experts” are fallible.
- There is no such thing as a single, unique “scientific method”: this has changed in the past and might as well change in the future (the classic demarcation problem.
- There are no such things as “scientific results”: they come back and forth in History, and there are basically no contenders to the hegemonic role of science and the net of interests around it. Even in terms of other knowledge systems, such as those of colonized civilizations, the final result was an imposition of a western scientific framework not by virtue of fair assessment of the best methods and ontologies but via colonial supression and violence (fair enough!). Ie: science is a reflection of political, institutional, and militar pressures.
- In fair competence, non-scientific systems of knowledge can reveal deficiencies in hegemonic visions, and even outperform them in some cases.
- He really has a weird fixation with archaeo-astronomy and traditional chinese medicine that I really don’t get. I can get the second, but the first is a totally foreign fascination to me.
- “The best philosophy of ecology was born in the Stone Age”: amen! Turns out we were never modern (Latour pun fully intended). Even claims of “cognitive modernity” in Homo sapiens are a bit ridiculous.
- Science (ej: medicine) is enriched by a-scientific methods (like pre-scientific herbology knowledge). I’m, in general, ok with most of these claims.
Now, as per the special status of science in society…
- It’s clear Feyerabend never saw Twitter evolve into the current public cesspool. You can’t let knowledge ideologies compete “in fair conditions” when the success metric of those actively harmful is how much they get extended. Weaponizing knowledge systems is the root of all turf cultural wars of the right.
For example: imagine I’m a grifter that manages to build an important business around not vaccinating, cause the deaths of thousand of people. Under epistemological anarchism or (dare I say!) relativism I’m not different from any other harmful ideology that was at some point backed by the idea of science (think the monstruous distortions of early anthropology and eugenics) .
“This argumentation [that Feyerabend ignores the potentially harmful consequences of his famous “anything goes”] would be acceptable if we were able to be sure that rationalism is exent of these risks. But it isn’t”. (Letter to Prof. Agassi, footnote 3)
But two wrongs don’t do a right! I’m sorry, but this reeks of fallacy. I get the reductio at absurdum, but come on.
Letting ideas compete fairly only works as far as they are detached from sociological reality - or, rather, yes, it assumes all knowledge is attached to a sociological reality, which is a fair point for science… but also for all other competing knowledge systems.
Precissely because of that they don’t work with the same goals, sadly. I’m reminded of Carl Bergstrom, who doesn’t really work in the same line as Feyerabend, but has published lots of work on the bullshit around Capital S Science:
As costs to inaccuracy decrease, individuals and institutions are better able to reap ideological and political benefits from outright lies (109). Portions of the society or networks repeatedly exposed to falsehood may normalize it or lack access to an information environment capable of sorting fact from fiction (107, 111, 112). The removal of filters that may have favored high-quality information, combined with rapid distribution of falsehood, may present one of the larger threats to human wellbeing when it comes to issues such as climate denial, vaccine refusal, treatment of minorities, and unfounded fears regarding the safety of genetically modified food. (Refererence here).
Note the loaded realist language (
fact from fiction etc). Still, it turns out there are no limits to the bullshit one can spew nowadays, even if it causes harm to someone! Doesn’t really sound like a free society, does it?
Aso Feyerabend: so-called experts extend judgement to areas outside their knowledge, and condemn all ideas that are crazy as dogmatically as in a Church. This is a danger for democracy, as no alternative worldview can thrive in a repressing education where dissent is anulated. And that is, still, fair enough!! But…
It turns out that the dangers for democracy are closer to antiscientific postures like climate denial than to the repression of alternating worldviews. I mean, if the general public has decided that we must all burn that’s ok, but don’t claim that that is a posture that comes from nowhere: it doesn’t exist in a sociological and ideological vacuum where knowledge systems compete in fairness.
Anyway, a good preamble for the shitshow of the science wars in the 90’s.
Also, doesn’t this whole epistemologic relativism sounds like a backdoor for…?
The documentation presented here, in particular in Sect. 3, provides strong indications that academic epistemic relativists have contributed to climate science denialism 1
Well well well, surprise! Who could have guessed that a free-for-all-everything-is-valid don’t-censor-me understanding of science gives rise to actively harmful ideologies backed by awful economic pressures?
But no, that’s ok, let’s separate state and Science. Remember what happend last time the USA did that?
One of the very first things that Newt Gingrich’s Republicans passed was to wind back, almost to the point of non-existence, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which had been set up to provide non-partisan scientific advice to the Congress. This then enabled them to start a campaign of science denial. Issues that they ran this line included the etiology of AIDS, denying that HIV was the cause in favour of claiming that the bad lifestyle of gays’ use of drugs caused AIDS; and opposition to the increasing consensus on global warming, claiming that, first, it wasn’t happening, and then when it became obvious that it was, that this was just a “normal” fluctuation rather than being caused by human industry, and then, when it became clear that it was caused by human activities, denying that it could be stopped now. From How to not Feyerabend
… among many other issues in the current GOP climate.
I have yet to read Latour’s We were never modern, but there is a snippet from Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern that I really enjoyed:
Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue”. But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument — or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
At least Latour had the decency of acknowledging his research was used for harm - or maybe he lived enough to see the very real consequences of playing with epistemological fire. Next time consult your favourite archeoastronomer, I guess.