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Against Method (wikipedia.org)
133 points by MichaelAO on Sept 27, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

I love Paul Feyerabend. I believe that the titel "Against Method" was mainly supposed to be provocative. His main point really is to remind us that Popper's view of science is an idealization and that the process of scientific discovery is much more messy in reality. In other words, he is mainly stating facts about the history of science. Very interesting read with great examples. I also highly recommend his book (actually a set of lecture notes) "Science as an Art" in which he dicusses the similarities and the shared history of science and art.

It has always surprised me that the scientific method begins only after a hypothesis is chosen. Forming a hypothesis is often based on inference, even instinct, that has little science behind it. The work of Barbara McClintock comes to mind.

Also worth reading Peter Lipton's "Inference To The Best Explanation" [1] then :)

Peter Lipton was my advisor for an undergraduate thesis in HPS at Cambridge, sadly he died quite young

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Inference-Explanation-International-Li...

I did Philosophy of Science as a 2nd and 3rd year option in the late 80s at Cambridge. I remember Redwood, but not Lipton. When did you do your thesis?

I graduated in '93 - I loved the course, but definitely butted heads (to the detriment of grades) with the Marxist tendency of the faculty

I have found the History and Philosophy of Science, to be s great preparation for a career as a developer, unfortunately the US CIS trends to disagree making visa/green-card stuff harder than it should have been

Which is neatly surmised in epigram 102.: One can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means. -- Alan Perlis, ``Epigrams in Programming''


I too love Feyerabend, and would recommend his autobiography "Killing Time"[1], apart from his great writing, it also puts a great deal of context onto his work, and especially onto his relationships with his contemporaries; most particularly Imre Lakatos

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Time-Autobiography-Paul-Feyera...

It's ok to mention Popper, but the book was more of an argument with Imre Lakatos, as I remember it.

I remember taking a class from Feyerabend years ago. Similar to what Wikipedia describes, his basic argument, his only argument really, was starting with a certain form of rationalism and showing that it didn't work or couldn't exist.

I felt like his entire deal was supremely boring. Take anything interesting, whether a scientific theory, a poem, a piece of music or a religious text. The interestingness of any of these things comes from there being layers of meaning and a structure one has to spend time learning.

If someone's only activity is putting together a straw version of science and knocking it down, again and again and again, there's nothing interesting (even if the rationalism isn't entirely "straw" in the sense that some philosophers of science have pretty rigid schemas, the process of merely saying "no that wrong" remains dull).

People compared Thomas Kuhn's work to Feyerabend and I think that's a disservice to Kuhn. Kuhn's work, correct or incorrect, involved a broad effort to draw a picture of what actually scientists actually does. Feyerabend's work seemed to me to be little more than a sort of act of petty vengeance, endless effort to tell STEM people "ha, you're not so smart after all".

As you say, the straw version of science doesn't come from Feyerabend, it comes from the scientists and philosophers of science who he's criticizing. It's true that the observation that there is no such thing as the scientific method is boring in and of itself (probably about as interesting as the observation that there's no single method for writing a novel or composing a symphony). However, I think there's a bit more to Feyerabend's critique than that. It's ultimately a challenge to the prestige and power currently enjoyed by the scientific establishment. Feyerabend is attempting to show not merely that this or that conception of the scientific method is flawed, but to establish the much more discomfiting conclusion that scientific progress has frequently been driven by non-rational considerations, so that there is no hope of showing that science is in any sense intellectually superior to competing purported sources of reliable knowledge. This claim might be true or false but it's certainly not boring. If you ask a typical scientist why science ought to get lots of prestige, money and power, the answer will typically depend on the claim that science is in some sense intellectually superior.

It's ultimately a challenge to the prestige and power currently enjoyed by the scientific establishment.

Indeed, it seems to mainly be that. The funny thing was that back in Berkeley circa 1982, philosophy professors had about the level of prestige as chemistry professors, possibly a significant amount more. Chemistry indeed had a bigger building but philosophers seemed to get more invites to the cool parties.

Which is to say that Feyerabend's critique of science was something that resonates with the people wanting to critique this society's values, wanting to critique a society which values what science can accomplish more than say, the activity of carefully contemplating and observing life. But the problem is this approach is really poor and confused place to begin such a critique. We should be directly saying that things that don't advance technology should be valued rather than engaging in "attacking the prestige of science". But of course this kind of irrationalism-as-radicalism has only continued in today world of "call-out culture" and such.

One might call Feyerabend a very early troll of science but with all the weaknesses of trolling-pretending-to-be-politics.

I don't follow you. Perhaps his critique was driven by petty jealousy -- who knows? But if he's right about what has actually driven scientific progress then his point stands.

I've always thought that Kuhn mostly repackaged the works Ludwik Fleck and used a different domain than medicine for the examples. That's a gross oversimplification but Fleck makes for an interesting read. I think Kuhn/Fleck should be required reading for any scientist (with a grain of salt).

There's obviously the issue that Kuhn applied to Kuhn is somewhat problematic.

A detailed discussion of the book at SEP can be found here:


In modern terms I think you could make this critique from a perspective of learning theory and combinatorics. Methodological monism implies that the fitness landscape being explored by science is "well behaved" and can be traversed using a simple stepwise or gradient descent function. We have no reason to believe this, and many reasons to believe that "unjustified leaps" and other heresies may be required to escape local maxima or traverse unconnected regions of state space.

There is probably no deterministic "for(;;) { do X }" formula for learning in complex real-world domains. You could make an anthropic argument here: if there were, life and intelligence would not exist since whatever thermodynamically-favored auto-catalytic processes life does could be replaced by non-living systems of lower entropy and higher probability. The existence of life as the chaotic, ever-changing, evolving system that it is is itself evidence for the non-closed-form nature of evolutionary learning.

I've thought for some time that the slow down in "fundamental invention" that some have observed since roughly the late 1960s to early 1970s is the result of "scientific fundamentalism" and Skepticism. Look into the backgrounds and thoughts of people like Einstein, Tesla, Engelbart, Turing, Edison, or Schrodinger, and you generally will not find them to be fundamentalist-positivist Skeptics.

It seems like the general intellectual trend from roughly 1970 until maybe 2010 or so was the rise of fundamentalism of every kind, both religious and secular... maybe due to an emotional desire for the comfort of absolute certainty in the face of rapid dislocating change.

There also seems to be an economic drive to commoditize humans. If learning can be completely systematized, then science can be rendered into an assembly line process that can be run by bureaucracies, scaled as needed, and in which individual workers can be treated as a 'human resource' commodity. Bureaucracies cannot deal with multi-modality, unpredictable and eccentric 'genius,' etc., so to admit that these things are required for the progress of science is to admit that bureaucracies are inherently limited.

Of course this being startup central, we all know this. If learning could be systematized and bureaucratized, there would be no startups. Big companies, VC funds, and banks would just execute whatever deterministic steps are required to yield progress and maintain 100% ownership of everything.

>There also seems to be an economic drive to commoditize humans. If learning can be completely systematized, then science can be rendered into an assembly line process that can be run by bureaucracies, scaled as needed, and in which individual workers can be treated as a 'human resource' commodity. Bureaucracies cannot deal with multi-modality, unpredictable and eccentric 'genius,' etc., so to admit that these things are required for the progress of science is to admit that bureaucracies are inherently limited.

I think the drive to commoditize everything is probably the bigger issue than a "scientific fundamentalism". There are plenty of crank scientists, and always have been! If it were just a matter of generating sufficiently many sufficiently non-mainstream theories to achieve a paradigm leap in a whole field, you would expect that sufficient production of cranks would produce geniuses by chance.

First of all, I think you're claiming a little too much about science from.

> the fitness landscape being explored by science is "well behaved" and can be traversed using a simple stepwise or gradient descent function

This is false! Non-obvious I know, but it was experimentally shown and holds for a wide class of high dimensional landscapes. It was well explained here (he talks about several novel ideas/insights actually, worth watching):


> There is probably no deterministic "for(;;) { do X }" formula for learning in complex real-world domains

This is true in a rather straightforward manner when limited to mathematics, from the halting problem (and some mild computational assumptions about the universe): if no finite algorithm can solve arbitrary instances of the halting problem, clearly no finite algorithm can solve arbitrary problems (that includes algorithms that try to "self-improve", of course).

I think this bit of scientific realism is indeed very important to those in the field.

> There also seems to be an economic drive to commoditize humans. If learning can be completely systematized, then science can be rendered into an assembly line process...

I tend to think of the opposite; the more we're able to replace humans with machines the more power we get to the whatever we want. We just have to make sure this surplus power is made widely available.

That talk looks fascinating... bookmarked it for a later read. Quite a few people in all kinds of areas would benefit from a study of machine learning theory -- I think some of these findings are philosophically profound.

The idea that simple descent (in this case a modified Newtons Method) works is very simple... the curvature of fitness the across at each point across dimensions are mostly uncorrelated; a local minimum occurs when the curvature across all dimensions are positive, which is exponentially unlikely in the dimension. I hadn't heard of such a simple and useful insight in a while... this is exactly what theory is for! Anyway, that talk is very interesting.

The obvious falsehood in this concept is science is based on idea nullification as such it seeks places where a theory breaks down. In physics for example it often seems that adding yet another decimal to some constant is more or less a waste of time, but precision has broken many theory's and as such it's not 'safe' territory.

PS: Abstractly, gradient descent seems to get you stuck in a local optima, but fractals for example are not 'safe' places. Look to close at the head of a pin and there be dragons.

The two are not mutually exclusive. To say that all scientific progress can't be attained by just following a single scientific method does not imply that following that method is fruitless or wrong. It obviously does work sometimes. The fitness landscape is complex and multifaceted, and different approaches to learning will work to varying degrees at different times.

The danger is in fundamentalism -- in the elevation of a single method or philosophy of science to an absolute One True Way and the (always attendant) purging and blacklisting of anyone who doesn't follow it.

It seems to me that a lot of people, especially CS and math types, are really deeply uncomfortable with the sort of multi-modality I'm talking about. Studying biology deeply made me really comfortable with it. It's really very rational too. If you understand learning, search, combinatorics, and evolutionary theory, the absolute requirement for multi-modality is easy to grasp... even intuitive to visualize. One would not traverse a desert with snowshoes, an ocean with boots, or a mountain with a road bike. Fitness landscapes are also varied and demand a varying set of strategies to cope with different types of terrain. We need an epistemological toolbox with all kinds of different tools in it.

I think you'll find pure mathematicians and CS theorists more amenable to that creativity and flexibility you're speaking of it's the applied ones who have strayed too close to engineering and had their minds burned into a particular mode that I've found are altogether uncomfortable with multi-modality.

You missed my point methods are just another idea that can be falsified. Ex: http://www.nature.com/news/first-results-from-psychology-s-l...

At it's core science is really 3 things. Experiment, book keeping, and continuing after the old guard dies off. That does not mean it's fast, but give it 500 years and phrenology looks like a poor joke.

I'm not sure what you mean by "fundamentalist-determinist" but Evelyn Fox Keller's account of the work of Barbara McClintock might be relevant here.

I can only find the following article online, which is critical of Keller's conclusions. I'd say Feyerabend is more philosophically sophisticated than McClintock.


fundamentalist-positivist Skeptics

This seems to lump several different things together. Could you give us an example of this sort of character?

Not the parent poster, but David Deutsch in "The Fabric of Reality": both outward-looking and utterly married to Popper.

I'm not familiar with that work, but there doesn't seem to be much skepticism to it?

The problem is that "Methodological monism" has never been a real approach of science as Feyerabend shows. It's just an idealized approach one can cull from some philosophy of science theories.

The idea that you can get some more robust idea of truth from fuzzier learning approach is interesting but doesn't have any relationship to Feyerabend and little relation to science as such.

I believe that a field needs crackpots as much as they need fundamentalists for the optima-breaking reasons you outline. I'm not sure if you could institutionalize crackpottery – seems like the kind of thing that when measured, goes away. But I do think that one should take it upon oneself to "take one for the team" and occasionally entertain odd ideas, given that one understands why one is doing so and maintain a high standard of first-order evidence (NOT consistency/coherence/second-order evidence).

The problem is human nature, specifically that we become emotionally attached to our ideas and our methods/tools and form cliques around them. If that weren't the case, a "crackpot" who followed their own peculiar methods and a systematic logical/positivist type could get along just fine and could even be objective about each others ideas. I also blame monotheism. A polytheist culture might have an easier time with the idea that there are multiple ways of thinking that can prove fruitful in different situations.

I've seen people who can pull this off, and it results in profoundly interesting debates. But most people can't. For most people their beliefs equal their identity and their sense of self, and other beliefs are a threat.

I think you might be overestimating the role emotions and identity play in maintaining the integrity of a system of epistemic statements. There are structural reasons beyond simply how much I like my ideas or other incentives to keep my ideas that make scientific reasoning hard. Devoid of emotion and human nature concerns, we still end up with optimization problems which feel fuzzy because they're fuzzy, not because there's anything clouding our vision.

The epicycle models that dominated cosmology's explanations of orbits comes to mind, if only because it's a good example that is obvious enough in hindsight as to be uncontroversial. Epicycles carry such strong descriptive power that it does make sense to add more epicycles if you're merely trying to explain your data. But because epicycles don't require information from gravitation, it feels like crackpottery to introduce such information even if it results in a simple model.

Another example that's more obviously structural is building set theory without any notion of self-reflective statements. Russell's paradox undid the first iteration of set theory despite that system being quite descriptive.

If you built a whole system of thought on a powerful, incorrect statement, you're fooling yourself but it's understandable.

I can't evaluate it well enough to say if it's true, but some crackpots are coming up with models of black whole phenomena without event horizons, based on a similar problem as epicycles might of had. That's all I'll say because I think I've exhausted the controversy I can put into one post. :)

This PBS Idea Channel video discusses some of Feyerabend's ideas in the context of pop culture (specifically "Is Rick from Rick & Morty The Ideal Scientist?") https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZLN1PN3L4I

It's a little hand-wavy for HN and the conclusions can be contrived, but Idea Channel overall is an interesting entry point to a lot of serious topics.

That's interesting, because reading about Feyerabend immediately reminded me of Rick.

"Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don't get that."

One thing that really grates me with the Idea Channel is that they (or he) usually start from conclusions and then work their way back to a one-sided myopic argument instead of truly exploring an issue.

So instead of enjoying the fact that they ask a potentially interesting question and pull out at least some relevant facts, I get worked up at all the trollish handwaving and have given up on it entirely.

For those of us who enjoy both having talking heads in our video window and interesting thoughts: Is there some YouTube or other channel that is similarly well-informed as John Green's "crash course" videos, but with a bit more of the "deconstructing pop culture" theme that underlies Idea Channel's questions (but less handwavy and contrived)?

"For and Against Method" which outlines the discourse between Feyerabend and Lakatos is an excellent book that collects their debates and private correspondence in a well editorialized way. Highly recommended for anyone with the slightest glimmer of interest in science theory. It remains one of my favorite random pickups. It's a very interesting friendship between academics with rather different views.

On a related note, Lakatos is fairly underrated. Everyone knows Popper but Lakatos extended his ideas beautifully.

This isn't the full text. Against Method is a full book; it's rather interesting if you're interested in the philosophy of science.

Some see it differently: http://people.idsia.ch/~juergen/optimalscientist.html

But it would still be anarchic (without the laws of human psychology and social interactions at least). However, it would be an algorithm, and thus, in its broadest sense, a method.

From your link: "Check out the formal theory of creativity (1990-2010) which explains science, art, music, humor, and describes the simple algorithmic principles of artificial scientists & artists."

I think most scientist would agree that science involves method, indeed most science involve multiple, nested methods.

But I think most scientists would be very skeptical of any claim to have fully codified a single scientific method, much less a theory of all creative endeavors.

So your link seems like bending the stick way too far the other way.

That's right, I should've written "diametrically different".

Read this a few days ago since Paper's We Love will have a meetup on this work. A strong element of his critique is the consideration of the psychological aspect of ideation. Since then have been bouncing in the background the idea of validity (or nature) of this thesis in context of (hypothetical) machine intelligence (Strong AI) and discovery.

the critics of string theory need to consider this, instead of just dismissing the theory as un-testable

I agree. The thing that makes me critical of string theory isn't that it's (so far) difficult to test, but that it's been The Thing in certain quarters for a long time and has yet to yield much (unless something's happened I'm not aware of).

It also seems to get more complex over time.

Those interested in the philosophy of science should be aware of Karl Popper[0], and his view that what makes a theory scientific is its falsifiability: If a theory can be false in some way, then you must be able to construct some sort of empirical experiment which could demonstrate its falsehood. This is in contrast to the verificationism that was popular in the Vienna Circle during during his time, which took the view that positive experimental results was evidence towards the truth of a theory. So in his view, science is a process that produce theories that converge on the truth, but never quite get there. For him, "scientific fact" is an oxymoron.

He also famously got into a heated debate with Wittgenstein over the nature of philosophical inquiry. So heated, that Wittgenstein almost beat Poppers ass with a fire poker, or so the story goes[1].

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBmt2sCdd5E

Also of importance in this area is Kuhn's [0] the "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" [1], which not only first coined the term "paradigm shift", but is also probably the best account of how science really works.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Re...

He didn't even believe his theories at the end, outsider's overrate Kuhn's importance imho.

Your comment does not make any sense to me. 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' does not just propose 'theories': it mainly shows how the Popperian and other accounts of 'how science works' are simply wrong, as a close consideration of historical evidence shows that science just does not work that way. It goes on to explain why it would also be impractical if science did work that way. Those parts are all pretty uncontroversial.

The account of how science does work is still being debated. Perhaps Kuhn disavowed his account later, but that doesn't matter with respect to the most important parts of the book.

It's not even close to wrong. Please read Popper and his critics by Joseph Agassi.

It's true that he, along with Kuhn, are probably the two most influential philosophers of science. But in many respects his philosophy of science is ahistorical--naive falsificationism isn't really present in any of the major scientific revolutions. (One might make the tongue-in-cheek remark that his descriptive theories have been decisively falsified.)

His defenders, of course, would claim that that naive falsificationism is a misreading of him.

An alternate way of expressing the same idea is that science is falsehood-finding process and not a truth-finding process. In other words, the results of each new experiment tells you which theories are incorrect. The others are all possibly correct. Occam's razor recommends you should go with the simplest one.

An another comment pointed out, this is extremely obvious from the bayesian point of view.

It's a good approximation but it misses the mark. String Theory is not verifiable but it's still a scientific theory. Bohmian Mechanics is, some say, by definition not verifiably different from Quantum Mechanics but it's a scientific theory. You might call them "speculative" scientific theories to save the idea but at the end of the day the Popperian [sic?] view of science is a bit too simplistic to be useful.

I don't understand why should String Theory be labeled as "scientific". Can you explain? Why cannot we be happy just calling it philosophy?

To me, "scientific" means "uses scientific method", which in turn is a set of tools that are pretty successful in understanding universe. Scientific method is certainly not fixed set of tools - for example, computer simulation became very useful only recently.

Maybe doing whatever string theorists are doing will become useful in the future, and as such their method will become part of scientific method; but since we aren't really sure if string theory itself is true, we can't consider their methodology to be useful (or useless) and so part of scientific method.

It's a good question that I wish I could answer.

For me looking into String Theory's status as scientific/not-scientific is a good way to learn that the Popperian view of falsifiable==scientific is a bit too simplistsic and that classifying things as scientific/not-scientific may not even be a productive activity. It's just not that simple.

In the meantime it's generally best to listen to scientists talk about it to get a feel for its standing: https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/28pzc1/string_t...

A good quote from that thread which may answer your question: "Anyways, my point is that String Theory is not just some whacky idea "what if everything was strings" that exists in a vacuum, but is rather a very natural and conservative extension of Quantum Field Theory to a more general and less arbitrary framework."

And here's a blog post (series of posts) linked from that discussion which may also help: http://profmattstrassler.com/2013/09/23/quantum-field-theory...

This exactly why string theory comes under fire. "Not even wrong" because that would imply falsifiability.

Right, that's exactly why I chose String Theory as an example.

Verificationism is still alive and well, but perhaps not as a basis for empirical science...

Following Gentzen, Dummett, Prawitz and Martin-Löf, verificationism serves as the backbone to modern intuitionistic and constructive meaning theory.

And while your're at it, I suggest taking the Bayesian approach for the criterion of a scientific method, where falsification is a particular (and simplified) case of Bayesian reasoning.

A great introduction may be found at [0], if one is already well versed in Bayes theorom, then an excerpt [1] should be enough.

[0]: http://www.yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes

[1]: http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/oceanography/researchers/francoi...

It should be noted David Miller rejects that falsifiability is related to bayesian reasoning


The fact that in certain times there are popular and less popular areas of study, or topics, has nothing to do with the scientific method.

At any time, anyone, could posit any kind of idea, like "the Moon is made of cheese", and the whole scientific method boils down to basically everyone else demanding "prove it."

The fact that at times people might be afraid or uninterested in testing ideas which seem far-fetched or unpopular in their community, is another thing entirely.

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