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Book Review/Science in the Media

Rethinking Feyerabend: The ‘‘Worst Enemy of Science’’?


Ian James Kidd*
Department of Philosophy, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom

The relationship between science and cultural critics, but with the dangers which
the philosophy of science is likely to be arose when people fail to understand and
judged a contested one. Certainly many appreciate science. Back in the 1960s and
philosophical debates may seem oblique to early 1970s, Feyerabend urged philoso-
the uninitiated (and even then, perhaps phers of science to take seriously both the
still!), whilst recent intellectual debacles history of science and scientific practice—
have tended to portray philosophers of he was a trained physicist himself—and
science in a poor light. During the 1990s, warned his peers that mere abstract
for example, the ‘‘Science Wars’’ erupted reflection on the sciences would produce
over the question of whether scientific only idealised fantasies of science, rather
theories provided true, objective descrip- than workable models of it. Although
tions of reality, or whether they were subsequent generations of philosophers of
simply arbitrary ‘‘constructions,’’ mere science took him seriously, many at the
mythologies on a par with ancient Greek time took his claim as a personal attack—
theogony or medieval magic [1]. There is hence the ‘‘bad reputation.’’
some truth to such charges, some of it Into the 1980s, Feyerabend began to
certainly attributable to an unhealthy expand the scope of his ideas. By the
certain intoxication with trendy theories beginning of the 1980s, the philosophy of
(like ‘‘relativism’’ and ‘‘constructionism’’). science was a richer discipline, so Feyer-
Yet even if those charges are not always abend moved onto new issues. It struck
justified, and even if the majority of the him that public confidence in the sciences
philosophy of science is informed and was beginning to change into the 1980s.
responsible, it remains true that philoso- The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and
phers of science who pitch into debates Three Mile Island, waning interest in the
space program, and ambitious new claims Feyerabend P (2011) The Tyranny of
about the sciences beyond their own
on behalf of genetics were beginning to Science. Oberheim E, editor. Cam-
professional boundaries must take extra bridge: Polity Press. 180 p. ISBN-13:
care before letting loose their ideas. affect public faith in the sciences. Feyer- 978-0745651897 (hardcover). US$54.95
With that proviso in mind, the title of abend was not opposed to such public doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001166.g001
Paul Feyerabend’s book, The Tyranny of doubts, but he did worry that the public
Science, should set off alarm bells, especially concerns, although sincere, were too often
since the cover of the book depicts blood- ill-informed. Worse still, those worries conspiracy to disempower indigenous cul-
red atomic bombs falling from above onto were often amplified by overzealous phi- tures—indeed, Feyerabend himself suc-
a desolate city. Indeed, the author himself, losophers who, to his mind, were failing in cumbed to such alluring polemics for a
who was professor of philosophy at their job of clarifying concepts, scrutinising time, which partly explains his hostile
Berkeley and Zurich until his death in arguments, and helping people to articu- reaction to them later in his career [3].
1993, has a ‘‘bad reputation’’ both within late and develop their ideas. By the late Feyerabend’s issues with public concerns
and beyond the philosophy of science. 1980s, Feyerabend began to take special about science and his worries about philos-
Feyerabend was famously dubbed ‘‘the issue with philosophers who actively en- ophers’ role in the subsequent debates laid
worst enemy of science’’ by Science, and couraged such confusions, for instance the foundations for the lectures that became
even today philosophers of science will by announcing that electrons and genes The Tyranny of Science. In fact, the original title
tend to associate his name with anti- were mere ‘‘social constructions,’’ or by of that lecture series was Conflict and Harmony,
science polemics, defences of voodoo and rebranding forms of relativism, or by im- which is a much better title because it
astrology, and more besides [2]. plicating ‘‘Western Science’’ in a powerful indicates that public engagement with
Fortunately, Feyerabend is far more
sensible than the title and cover of this Citation: Kidd IJ (2011) Rethinking Feyerabend: The ‘‘Worst Enemy of Science’’? PLoS Biol 9(10): e1001166.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001166
book and his bad reputation suggest.
Although he is reputed as a critic of Published October 4, 2011
science, he is not. Feyerabend is critical Copyright: ß 2011 Ian James Kidd. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
not of science itself, but of false and Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original author and source are credited.
misleading images of the sciences. The
Funding: No funding was received for this article.
‘‘tyranny’’ of the title refers not to an
encroaching and disenchanting ‘‘scientific Competing Interests: The author has declared that no competing interests exist.
worldview,’’ of the sort popular with some * E-mail: i.j.kidd@durham.ac.uk

PLoS Biology | www.plosbiology.org 1 October 2011 | Volume 9 | Issue 10 | e1001166


science is dynamic and complex—periods of rhetoric in the popular press concerning engagement with science—and today, few
‘‘conflict’’ and ‘‘harmony,’’ with scientists, ‘‘designer babies,’’ GM crops, ‘‘astrological sciences arouse more fascination, hope,
policymakers, philosophers, and other in- genetics,’’ and a host of other concerns, and alarm than the biological sciences [6].
volved groups trying to balance the tensions. each centring upon an implicit worry that Feyerabend clearly sets himself a broad
Feyerabend’s claim here is that many of the the powers of genetic science are too remit and an ambitious aim. Public concern
conflicts concerning science are based upon dangerous to be controlled, or that they with the sciences is a persistent and perhaps
confusions about and misperceptions of will be abused. Despite consistent assur- increasing feature of modern societies. For
science—for example, the idea that science ances, for instance on the part of the British sure, some of that concern is justified, but
is ‘‘value-free.’’ That claim clearly cannot be Government, that genetic research is in- much of it is not, for instance because it rests
true, if only because science is necessarily tensely regulated, public doubts persist. upon false ideas, misperceptions of the
motivated by cognitive and practical values, Indeed, the very fact that such doubts exist science, or because the public imagination
yet it still features within public and policy may frustrate researchers who consider has been warped by charged rhetoric and
debates. Feyerabend’s aim in these lectures their work to be both morally scrupulous imagery. Feyerabend regretted such misun-
was to try to demonstrate the science is and of clear cognitive and practical value. It derstandings and thought that philosophers
much more complex than people tend to may be difficult for those researchers to had an important role to play in helping the
imagine, and that our thinking about it must make willing concessions to public doubts public make sense of its concerns. If that
be correspondingly complex if we are to where those doubts are regarded not only sounds paternalistic, it should not—for one
make sense of it. Science is only a ‘‘tyrant’’ if as ill-founded, but also as likely to result in thing, philosophers often share those same
we fail to do it justice, and attribute to it further unduly onerous regulation, or even worries, and for another, philosophers can
exalted characteristics—such as ‘‘value-neu- the termination of research projects. lay legitimate claim to intellectual skills well-
trality’’ or isolation from society—which it Feyerabend sees a role for philosophers suited to the task of making sense of
lacks. to contribute here. Many worries about concerns of science. Feyerabend does not
Throughout his career, Feyerabend genetic research rely upon inarticulate propose that philosophers will pontificate to
defended the claim that there is, in fact, moral or aesthetic concerns—the so-called the public, because he was alert to the fact
no one thing called ‘‘Science,’’ where that ‘‘yuk factor’’ which arises at the sight of that philosophers can become ‘‘tyrannous’’
term is understood to refer to something ‘‘Frankenstein’’ organisms like the famous if they, too, cease being engaged with, and
singular and formalised, with uniformly OncoMouse. In such cases, philosophers responsive to, the concerns and curiosities of
shared methods, theories, and concepts can help the public to articulate those the public.
[4]. ‘‘Science’’ as so defined does not exist, concerns and to refine them through The Tyranny of Science should therefore be
even though the idea of it is a powerful argumentation [5]. Often, the worries interpreted as Feyerabend’s attempts to
one. In its place, urged Feyerabend, we dissolve upon analysis, and sometimes, of dissolve conflicts and establish harmony
should think and talk about multiple course, are reinforced, but in each case, between science, society, and philosophy,
sciences—diverse in their methods and progress is being made. Feyerabend there- on the one hand, and between scientists,
aims, held together by some common fore stressed the need for scientific literacy, philosophers, and the public, on the other.
values perhaps, but otherwise more an philosophical competence, and historical The concerns and alarms that concerned
aggregate than the monolith that some awareness as essential components of Feyerabend are not the exclusive preserve of
writers presume. In order to bring about informed public engagement with science. any of those domains—scientific, public, or
this reconception of philosophy, Feyera-
Of course, philosophers do not assume a philosophical—and to properly understand
bend urged us to reach out to all the
guiding role here; Feyerabend was no fan and address them each must cooperate with
resources at our disposal, a fact evidenced
of the pretensions of some philosophers to the other. Tyranny only arises when one of
in the eclecticism and immense learning
resume their ancient, privileged position, those would try to dominate the others, and
obvious in Tyranny. Feyerabend leaps from
but he did consider that their critical Feyerabend’s book offers an engaging and
contemporary social events to the history
sensibilities could be valuable to those entertaining case against such tyranny.
of geometry, ancient Greek poetry to
wider debates. And since public concerns Editors’ note: Does the cultural
modern biology, and from the arts to
about the sciences invoke not only scien- divide between science and the humani-
philosophy. The purpose of such intellec-
tific facts, but also philosophical judge- ties, first articulated by C. P. Snow over 50
tual pyrotechnics is not simply to enter-
ments about value, purpose, and meaning years ago, still exist between biology and
tain, but to demonstrate just how richly
(the idea of the ‘‘sanctity of life,’’ for philosophy? In a mini experiment to find
and powerfully the sciences are interlinked
instance, demands philosophical input, if out, we asked a philosopher and biologist
with modern human life. For Feyerabend,
only because most of the persons who to review the recent English translation of
understanding and appreciation should
come as a pair so that, by the end of the invoke it are not generally after a biolog- Tyranny of Science, by 20th century philos-
lectures, the sciences cease to be the ical formulation of it). As long as philos- opher Paul Feyerabend, perhaps best
tyrants which contemporary concerns ophers remain informed about the scienc- known for rejecting the claim that science
suggest they may be, and which some es they engage with, they can be valuable is a singular discipline unified by common
critics insist they must be. aids to the project of facilitating public methods and concepts.
A key example of the sorts of public
worries about science that Feyerabend had About the Author
in mind concerns genetics. Although hu-
man genetic research is conceded to afford Ian James Kidd is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Durham and works
wonderful possibilities—for medicine and mainly in the history and philosophy of science. His recent research explores the
agriculture, say—there are also corre- role of contingency, pluralism, and epistemic virtues in scientific enquiry and has
sponding concerns about the abuse of those been published in a range of journals in the philosophy of science. Further
powers. In the UK, there is a common information can be found on his website at http://www.dur.ac.uk/i.j.kidd/.

PLoS Biology | www.plosbiology.org 2 October 2011 | Volume 9 | Issue 10 | e1001166


References
1. Gould SJ (2000) Deconstructing the ‘‘science 3. Feyerabend P (1987) Farewell to reason. London: 6. Barnes B, Dupré J (2008) Genomes and what to
wars’’ by reconstructing an old mold. Science Verso. make of them. Chicago: University of Chicago
287: 253–261. 4. Feyerabend P (1993) Against method. Third Press.
2. Preston J, Munévar G, Lamb D (2000) The worst edition. London: Verso.
enemy of science: essays in memory of Paul 5. Midgley M (2001) Science and poetry. London:
Feyerabend. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Routledge.

PLoS Biology | www.plosbiology.org 3 October 2011 | Volume 9 | Issue 10 | e1001166