Science, nonsense and David Stove
also published as Foreword to
David Stove, Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism, Macleay Press, Sydney, 1998
Science studies has been a feature of academic life in English-speaking countries for more than fifty years. The term "science studies" refers not to science proper or to science as it is practised but to inquiries into the nature of science. People in the field have not been scientists per se but sociologists of science, historians of science, philosophers of scientific method and, most recently, people who engage in cultural studies of science. In other words, rather than a province of the physical sciences themselves, science studies is a domain within the humanities and social sciences. The field began in the 1940s in the United States, Britain and Australia where departments entitled History and Philosophy of Science were established in some of the leading universities. They had three aims: first, to impart some understanding of science to students taking arts degrees whose education would otherwise be confined entirely to the humanities and social sciences; second, to encourage those learning science to reflect on the intellectual and social implications of their field; and third, to establish centres of research for the study of the development and social impact of science, the nature of scientific inquiry and the philosophical rationale of scientific method. In particular, science studies was initiated to help bridge what came to be famously identified by C. P. Snow in 1959 as the "Two Cultures" which divided the Western mind: the literary and the scientific. Snow pointed out that not only the average lay person but many who were otherwise highly educated were ignorant about the facts and laws discovered by science, an ignorance complemented by a widespread dearth of understanding of scientific concepts and its methods of research. In the middle of the twentieth century, he noted, most of those educated in the humanities had yet to properly comprehend the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.
The canonical text of science studies was produced fairly early in the development of the new field. This was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which was published in 1962 and which has since become one of the most influential books of this century, not only in science studies but in the humanities and social sciences as a whole. In the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, a compilation of the references to authors and works made in footnotes to academic papers, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the most cited single book, on any subject, of this century. Kuhn offered a sociological explanation of how dramatic changes in scientific opinion and methods come about. According to Kuhn, the range of techniques, assumptions and theories used by the members of a particular scientific field can be termed a "paradigm". Within a paradigm, researchers practise "normal science", which is characterised by periods of calm and steady development dominated by one accepted set of concepts. However, normal science is often disrupted by scientific revolutions, such as the overthrow of Ptolemaic astronomy by that of Copernicus, or the replacement of Newton's mechanics by Einstein's theory of relativity. These "paradigm shifts" occur because anomalies or observations inconsistent with the dominant perspective produce a crisis that eventually leads the scientific community to lose faith in the existing paradigm. The door is then opened for a scientific revolution to occur to establish a new paradigm which explains both the former body of data and the inconsistencies that the old paradigm could not handle. A new period of normal science then continues until it, again, is subject to its own crisis and revolution.
Kuhn also argues for what he calls the incommensurability of scientific theories. New paradigms may borrow some of the vocabulary and apparatus of the old but they seldom use these borrowed elements in the same way. Different paradigms operate with different concepts, often changing the meaning of old terms, and they have different standards of acceptable evidence, as well as different means of theorising about their subject matter. Einstein's theory of relativity did not add a new increment of knowledge to the secure truth of Newton's theory of gravitation, but overthrew it completely. Moreover, there is no common measure for the merits of competing theories. Hence, there is no way of ranking scientific theories and thus no grounds for arguing that science is progressive. Einstein is not superior to Newton, only different.
One of the reasons for the attention attracted by Kuhn's thesis was his explanation of why scientists came to accept one body of scientific theory against the claims of another. Kuhn insists that, although a paradigm has to be supported by compelling evidence and arguments in its favour, it is never accepted for purely objective reasons but rather it gains its acceptance because a consensus of opinion within a scientific community agrees to use it. He says the issue is not decided by purely logical argument but is more like sudden conversion or a "gestalt switch". The factors that lead scientists to change their allegiance to paradigms, he argues, need to be explained in terms of their values and the personal relations within a scientific community. "As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice-there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community
Even the nationality and prior reputation of the innovator and his teachers can sometimes play a significant role."
Following these developments, a bevy of social scientists entered the field to take up what they saw as one consequence of Kuhn's position: that what is believed in science is determined by custom and power relations. One of the best known of these observers, David Bloor, has argued that the nature of science can be explained through the methods of the sociology of knowledge. Scientists accept scientific laws, he argued, primarily for reasons of justification, legitimation and control. Another frequently cited contribution is the book Laboratory Life by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, which purports to provide an anthropological study of the "internal workings of scientific activity". Its subtitle, "The Social Construction of Scientific Facts", plus its conclusion that all of science is merely the "construction of fictions", led to this position becoming known as constructivism. The sociologist, H. M. Collins, has produced a similar study that claims scientific experiments never amount to independent evidence for scientific theories. The theories themselves, Collins says, determine what counts as an effective experiment and so there are no objective criteria to separate the outcome of an experiment from the theory it was designed to test. A scientist who accepts another's experimental results, Collins argues, usually does so because of the prestige, nationality and reputation of the experimenter. Hence science is less about discovering the nature of the world than about imposing on the world the institutional relations of the scientific community.
The most radical of those who followed Kuhn was the philosopher Paul Feyerabend who took Kuhn's notion of the incommensurability of scientific theories and used it to argue some notorious conclusions. In his book Against Method, Feyerabend applies incommensurability not only to rival theories within science but to the whole of science itself compared to other fields that claim to know the world. Because they, too, are incommensurable, he argues there can be no argument in favour of science over other forms of understanding. He compares science with astrology and voodoo and claims that there is no general criterion that gives scientific knowledge priority over the latter. Hence, he argues, it is wrong to teach science to school children as if it had a monopoly on wisdom. The grip that the ideology of science has on government policy deserves to be broken, he says, in the same way that secular educationalists last century broke the nexus between Church and state. This would clear the way for other approaches, such as magic, to be taught instead of science. "Thus, while an American can now choose the religion he likes, he is still not permitted to demand that his children learn magic rather than science at school. There is a separation between state and Church, there is no separation between state and science." In Feyerabend's view, science should be studied not as some holy writ but as a historical phenomenon "together with other fairy tales such as the myths of 'primitive' societies." Consistent with this line, Feyerabend has defended Christian fundamentalists who want the Biblical version of creation taught in American schools alongside Darwin's theory of evolution. He was not only aware of the logical implications of his case but, borrowing a line from Cole Porter, he jauntily recommended them: "Anything goes."
Despite its academic acclaim, Kuhn's thesis attracted a body of critics who pointed out that one of its consequences was that it deprived scientists of the claim to be discovering final truths about the world. Instead, scientific knowledge -- that is, empirical, factual knowledge -- had to be regarded as relative to the theory or paradigm the scientist inhabited. Kuhn himself dismissed the charge of relativism but his own writings made his rejection unconvincing. If paradigms are gestalts then scientists on different sides of a Kuhnian revolution will, as he put it himself, live in different worlds. Pre-revolutionary theories will be substantiated by pre-revolutionary evidence and facts, and post-revolutionary theories would be supported by their own post-revolutionary facts.
Consider ... the men who called Copernicus mad because he proclaimed that the earth moved. They were not either just wrong or quite wrong. Part of what they meant by "earth" was fixed position. Their earth, at least, could not be moved.
If this were true, then Feyerabend's challenge to the rationality of science, including his denial of its special status in determining the truth about the world, would be hard to deny.
However, relativism is a position that most defenders of scientific investigation want to reject. It means that science can no longer be regarded as a universal method for discovering truths. Moreover, it means that any reasonably coherent doctrine or body of beliefs can produce "truths" of its own. Science is thus reduced to one belief system among many. While the defenders of science may find this distasteful, the 1990s has witnessed the emergence of a group of science critics who actually welcome the news. Academics in the field of cultural studies are now arguing that, rather than a method with universal application, science should be regarded as something that is both culturally and historically limited. It is the product of Western Europe between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Other cultures and other times have equally acceptable claims for the product of their intellectual labours. As one of Australia's leading academic sociologists, R. W. Connell, has put it:
The idea that Western rationality must produce universally valid knowledge increasingly appears doubtful. It is, on the face of it, ethnocentric. Certain Muslim philosophers point to the possibility of grounding science in different assumptions about the world, specifically those made by Islam, and thus develop the concept of Islamic science.
The defenders of science usually respond to claims of this kind by arguing that accepting them is no different from supporting some of the more grotesque historical examples of relativism in science: for instance, the conflict between "Aryan" and "Jewish physics" which set back German science under the Nazi regime, and the claims by the Marxist plant geneticist, T. D. Lysenko, to have developed a "proletarian" approach to science in opposition to "bourgeois" science. The application of Lysenko's methods to agriculture not only produced a series of disastrous crop failures in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s, but was partly responsible for the Chinese famine of 1958-62, the worst in human history, which caused the deaths of between thirty and forty million people during the so-called Great Leap Forward.
While arguments like this drawn from anecdote and analogy might appear persuasive to the average lay observer and to most scientists themselves, within the field of science studies they have largely fallen on deaf ears. This is because the case for relativism has proven stubbornly resistant to attack at the level of philosophy and, especially, from the dominant tendency within the philosophy of scientific method. The sociology of science and the philosophy of scientific method are two quite distinct fields. Within the latter, the most influential theorist at the time Kuhn produced his thesis was Karl Popper whose major work on the subject, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, was published in English in 1959. Popper was one of the most honoured British philosophers of this century. He was knighted in 1962, made a Companion of Honour in 1982 and had the rare distinction of election as a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the British Academy. He is best-known for his political writing, especially The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism, both critiques of the history of ideas that produced fascism and communism. In the philosophy of science Popper made his reputation as a critic of the school of logical positivism. This was an approach produced by the group known as the Vienna Circle, led by Rudolph Carnap and Carl Hempel, who fled Austria for the USA in the 1930s when their homeland came under Nazi control. By the late 1950s, logical positivism had produced the then most widely-accepted account of science that defended its traditional empirical methodology and its claim to establish universally valid knowledge.
Though he also originated from Vienna, Popper had himself long been a critic of the Vienna Circle. The first version of The Logic of Scientific Discovery had been published in Austria 1934 as Logik der Forschung and was an explicit attack on logical positivism.
The logical positivist school had argued for the view accepted by most scientists that evidence was used to verify scientific theories. Traditional scientific method had held since the seventeenth century that we gained scientific knowledge by generalising from our observations, that is, through a process of induction. Popper claimed, however, that the proper role of evidence was to falsify scientific conjectures. Thus, instead of the traditional view that a scientific theory was verifiable by observation, Popper contended that a scientific theory is one that is falsifiable. Theories, Popper said, were not the kind of things that could be established as being conclusively true in light of observation or experiment. Inductive arguments were invalid. Instead, theories were speculations, guesses or conjectures about some aspect of the world or the cosmos. The role of observation and experiment was to rigorously test these theoretical conjectures and to eliminate those that failed to stand up to the tests that were applied. Science advanced by trial and error, with observation and experiment progressively eliminating unsound theories so that only the fittest survived. As the title of one of Popper's best known books described it, scientific method was a process of "conjectures and refutations" in which we learned not by our experience but by our mistakes. Some of Popper's allies took the critique of logical positivism further by questioning its picture of scientific theories emerging from evidence that is composed of raw, empirically given, neutral data. Perception, they argued, is always conditioned by the pre-existing beliefs, desires and culture of the observer, so there can be no such thing as "raw" data. All observation, they claimed, is theory-laden.
Popper regarded himself as a defender of science and, like most scientists, he was contemptuous of the notion that science was relative to culture. He became a major critic of Kuhn and his thesis for this very reason. The debate between the two dominated discussion in the 1960s and 1970s. Kuhn replied that Popper's own approach was little different to the verification theory it was designed to replace and that Popper's falsificationism did not accord with scientific practice since outright falsifications were rarely found. One of Popper's students, and his successor as Professor of Logic and Scientific Method at the University of London, Imre Lakatos, attempted a kind of reconciliation between the two approaches by introducing the notion of a scientific "research program", which had similarities to a Kuhnian paradigm. Instead of falsification by observation, Lakatos substituted the contrast between a research program that was progressing and one that was degenerating. A degenerating (rather than falsified) research program was one which no longer made novel predictions compared to a more progressive rival.
Despite Popper's critique of Kuhnian relativism, Popper's own school has itself long been dogged by the same charge. This is because under the falsifiability principle, no scientific theory can ever be conclusive. The most that a scientific theory can ever attain is the status of a conjecture or a hypothesis. We can never have sufficient grounds for gaining from science anything as concrete as "knowledge" in the usual sense of that word. What this means is that Popper's thesis has great difficulty in explaining why science is superior to any alternative belief system like, say, astrology. A logical positivist could argue that the real difference between astrophysics and astrology is that the findings of the former are established by a large body of evidence while the latter remains merely speculative.
However, because he thinks inductive evidence is powerless to substantiate a scientific theory, Popper is in no position to make this kind of distinction. If he is to avoid the charge of relativism, he has to explain why some speculations are better than others, but his theory of falsification is not designed to do this. Unless it has actually been falsified, a system of contingent belief like astrology must remain for Popper a reasonable conjecture. The claim that all observations are "theory-laden" is in a similar boat. It leads to the conclusion that all observations are necessarily "subjective", so that observable "facts" are relative to observers and dependent upon their psychology, their history or their culture.
In recent years, followers of Popper such as Larry Laudan have made a number of attempts both to avoid the charge of relativism and to distance themselves from the Kuhn thesis, especially the extension of it made by Feyerabend. Their efforts, however, have had little impact within what emerged in the 1990s as the major new field within science studies. This is the cultural studies approach to science which, while drawing its rationale from the arguments of Kuhn, Feyerabend and, in some cases, even Popper himself, also has its origins in French poststructuralist and postmodernist literary theory. Cultural studies is not a neutral, disinterested or objective approach to the study of either culture or science. It regards attempts at "disinterested" or "objective" research to be naïve since it believes all forms of knowledge to be exercises in power, and hence all scholarship to be political. Cultural studies regards itself as providing the intellectual underpinnings for the various "identity group" politics that have emerged in the last three decades, especially those of feminism and multiculturalism.
From this perspective, the charge of relativism aimed at Kuhn and Popper is not something to be avoided but to be advocated. Since science is something made by people working in groups, it is a social activity put together according to agreed principles. Therefore, the proponents of cultural studies assure us, science is a social construction and its findings are social constructions as well. This thesis opens the way to the claim that different groups of people will do science differently and come to different conclusions. Hence there can be feminist science, or indigenous science or, as noted above, Islamic science, all of which can produce their own "knowledges" that are just as valid as what were once regarded as the universally applicable findings of Western science. In 1996, the American cultural studies journal, Social Text, published a now famous article endorsing this whole approach:
But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the facade of "objectivity". It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality", no less than social "reality", is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalised communities.
This is a passage written by the New York University physicist, Alan Sokal, in an article that has since become known as "the Sokal Hoax". The article was a parody of what cultural theorists believe about science, (as well as of the jargon in which they express themselves). It contained a considerable volume of deliberately fallacious claims such as: "the p of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity". Anyone with a familiarity with high school science should have seen the article was a spoof and the assertions so nonsensical that they were self-evidently untrue. The fact that the editors of Social Text failed to recognise it for what it was, and published it in all faith as a serious academic article, demonstrated the paucity of their understanding of the very field of which they had long been critics. Indeed, one of the editors of the journal, Andrew Ross of New York University, had himself published an earlier book called Strange Weather, a critique of modern science and technology, which he audaciously dedicated to "all the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them".
By the mid-1990s, the cultural studies version of science studies had reached the stage where two of its American opponents, Paul Gross, a biologist, and Norman Levitt, a mathematician, were disturbed enough to put together a lengthy collection of its assertions, under the title Higher Superstition, to demonstrate how far removed from the real world the whole movement had become. Among their targets were:
- Feminist theorists like Sandra Harding who, in The Science Question in Feminism, calls Newton's Principia Mathematica a "rape manual". Harding propounds a doctrine she calls "strong objectivity" which argues for quotas of purportedly disadvantaged groups to be applied to research teams and chairs in science on the grounds that, once more women, blacks, gays and lesbians join the ranks, science will become more open and inventive.
- Marxists such as Stanley Aronowitz, whose book Science as Power claims that since science and technology are key elements in the authority and dominance of modern capitalism the duty of a social critic is to demystify science and to topple it from its position of authority.
- The postmodernist philosopher Steven Best, who calls for the development of "postmodern science" to counter the "inherently repressive" nature of modern science. "Postmodern science," he argues, would be "ethically sensitive, spiritually aware, and ecologically sane" compared to traditional science's support for the Western ethos of conquest, domination and objectification.
- The demand for the introduction of "feminist algebra", justified on the grounds that mathematics at present "is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other." The authors of this recommendation want the whole field of mathematics reappraised so that masculinist failings can be rectified and it can become a discipline fit for women to enter.
- Textbooks written for the US African-American high school and university systems that claim, on the most fanciful evidence, that ancient Africans, long before the rise of classical Greece, invented aeronautics and had understanding of quantum physics and gravitational theory.
- Academics like Andrew Ross who promote the notion that New Age mystics and others on the far fringes of science are the leading lights in the struggle against the allegedly omnivorous monster of technoculture.
- In other words, from the point of view of traditional science, many of the ideas on the subject that are now commonly expressed within the humanities are truly appalling. Forty years after Snow's diagnosis, the hope that science studies would help bridge the divide between the "Two Cultures" has been turned on its head. As the Sokal hoax and the evidence produced by Gross and Levitt demonstrate, much of science studies is now a site not of enlightenment about its subject matter but of political demagoguery, theoretical obfuscation and plain ignorance.
The most effective antidote to all this pretension and confusion is the philosophy of David Stove. In the five compact chapters of Anything Goes he demonstrates how extravagant has been the verbiage wasted on this issue and how irrational have been its combatants. Rather than Kuhn and Popper being engaged in debate from the opposite sides of the philosophical divide, Stove shows that they share most of their ground in common. And rather than there being some inscrutable enigma about the justification of the traditional empirical and inductive methods of scientists, Stove argues that the problems have all lain in the reasoning of the critics. As well as the logical mistakes and conceptual elisions made by Kuhn, Popper and their supporters, Stove identifies their collective dependency on a single argument made by the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, and then demonstrates how little potency that argument actually has for destabilising the claims of science.
Yet if Stove actually accomplishes all this, why is it that he is not widely recognised as a major player in this debate? Why are the citations of his writings as sparse as those of Kuhn's are plentiful? Partly it is a matter of timing. Stove began his academic career in the 1950s but by the 1960s, when Kuhn's reputation was being made, Stove found himself increasingly at odds with the emerging zeitgeist. He was a conservative and anti-Communist at a time when academic life was swept, first, by a wave of protest against the war in Vietnam and a revival of Marxist theory, and then, hard on its heels, by the emergence of identity group politics in the form of feminism and ethnic liberation, which found the university campus an accommodating habitat. In an era of ascending radical hegemony, celebrity status went largely to the critics of the status quo, not its defenders. It is also partly a matter of Stove's loathing of self-promotion. As some of his more caustic comments indicate, he was derisive of philosophers whose reputations derived mostly from their ability to market themselves, who took a popular rather than a rigorous line of argument, and especially of those who put catchy titles on their books. Accordingly, he seemed to have chosen the dullest possible title for the first edition of this work which, when originally published in 1982, was called Popper and After. This was almost asking for its readership to be restricted to a small band of cognoscenti. Only the subtitle, Four Modern Irrationalists, gave a clue to the aggressive argumentation inside.
Another of Stove's handicaps was his inability to hide his contempt for fools and his consequent penchant for making enemies. One of his friends, Peter Coleman, wrote in a 1991 review of Stove's The Plato Cult, that although the author was one of Australia's best essayists and polemicists, the book had attracted very few reviewers because it argued that most intellectuals talked nonsense most of the time. So it was not surprising that few scholars and academics were willing to identify themselves with either the author or his work. One reason we can reject, however, is that Stove was handicapped by being located, unnoticed, in the antipodes in the South Pacific. In philosophy, geography today counts for little, as the worldwide reputations won by Australian philosophers as diverse as David Armstrong and Peter Singer demonstrate. Indeed, Stove's Popper and After was written in the immediate aftermath of the considerable international acclaim of another book on the philosophy of science written within his own institution, the University of Sydney. This was What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers who, when it was published in 1976, was an earnest advocate of the theories of Kuhn and Feyerabend. The success of this book, especially the wink and nudge to Cole Porter in its title, was one of the sources that most likely irritated Stove enough to write his own.
David Stove died in 1994 and, as so often and so unfairly happens in intellectual history, his reputation has grown considerably since his death. Long before this, though, he had a small circle of admirers, most of whom were academic philosophers, who appreciated not only his intellectual brilliance and the polish of his unadorned prose, but how very funny he invariably was. For instance, Stephen Stich of Rutgers University wrote: "Stove's essays are elegant, insightful, beautifully crafted and enormously interesting. They are also outrageous, opinionated, occasionally unfair and almost always side-splittingly funny
He says things that need to be said and that others lack the courage -- or foolhardiness -- to say". Michael Levin of the City University of New York said that reading Stove "is like watching Fred Astaire dance. You don't wish you were Fred Astaire; you are just glad to have been around to see him in action."
Since 1994, the circle of insiders has widened to include many people who had not read Stove when he was alive but who, on discovering him, have asked almost incredulously: why didn't I know of his work before? This new recognition has come partly because of the publication in 1995 of a collection of his (mainly) non-philosophical essays under the title Cricket Versus Republicanism, partly because of the standing accorded by his inclusion in 1997 in Imre Salusinszky's Oxford Book of Australian Essays, and partly because of a substantial review of his writings in 1997 by Roger Kimball in the New York literary magazine, The New Criterion. [In 2000, Kimball edited a collection of Stove's essays entitled Against the Idols of the Age, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ.] Moreover, in 1998, Alan Sokal and his physicist colleague, Jean Bricmont, used Stove's arguments as one of the principal supports of their highly publicised critique of French postmodernist theory and relativism in the philosophy of science, Intellectual Impostures.
Stove, then, was a man before his time, providing answers to a problem whose eventual, disastrous dimensions were foreseen by very few others when he wrote. Today, however, he has been joined by some equally effective critics, especially real scientists like Gross and Levitt, and Sokal and Bricmont, who have themselves injected some intellectual acumen into a debate that has otherwise constituted a veritable monument to irrationalism. Hence it makes sense to re-publish his work now at a more appropriate time, and with a more appropriate title, for those readers searching for some enlightenment on the issue.
One of Stove's greatest gifts to intellectual life was his ability both to tell when an emperor had no clothes and to point his finger with deadly accuracy at the offending naked body. Science studies deserves to be exposed in this way and Anything Goes is a book that reveals this more clearly than most. In another context, the American philosopher, David Lewis, commended Stove as the right man for the task. "A none-too-gentle shaking does us good," writes Lewis, "Once it was [G.E.] Moore who did the job. Nowadays it is above all Stove, and he does it with devastating wit. Naked emperors beware."
Notes: References to all quotations and citations are available in the book.
[The newest edition of David Stove's Popper and After/Anything Goes was published by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick NJ, in 2001 under the title Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. Copies of Anything Goes are still available in Australia from the distributors, Wakefield Press, Adelaide www.wakefieldpress.com.au]