Rick Perry: Scientific Relativist?

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On the topic of Galileo, the Texas governor might find support from Paul Feyerabend, a left-wing 20th century thinker and self-avowed "epistemological anarchist"perry and f.jpg

Wikimedia Commons, Reuters

Historians of science have weighed in on Texas Governor Rick Perry's invocation of Galileo to support his skepticism of the scientific majority opinion on climate change, as reported in the New York Times. And the scholars cited correctly observe that Galileo, like the theorists of global warming, had the majority of contemporary scientists behind him.


But the Times and other commentaries ignore a great philosopher of science who objected not to Galileo's ideas, but to the dismissal of theological and other objections to his theories. (A few blog comments, like one on a Village Voice post, are exceptions.)

The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) proudly called himself an "epistemological anarchist." According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Because his health was poor, [in 1974] Feyerabend started seeing a healer who had been recommended to him. The treatment was successful, and thenceforth Feyerabend used to refer to his own case as an example of both the failures of orthodox medicine and the largely unexplored possibilities of "alternative" or traditional remedies...

Feyerabend put together his tour de force Against Method (London: New Left Books, 1975), which he sometimes conceived of as a letter to [his colleague Imre] Lakatos (to whom the book is dedicated)...  [W]hereas he had previously been arguing in favour of methodology (a "pluralistic" methodology, that is), he had now become dissatisfied with any methodology. He emphasised that older scientific theories, like Aristotle's theory of motion, had powerful empirical and argumentative support, and stressed, correlatively, that the heroes of the scientific revolution, such as Galileo, were not as scrupulous as they were sometimes represented to be. He portrayed Galileo as making full use of rhetoric, propaganda, and various epistemological tricks in order to support the heliocentric position. The Galileo case is crucial for Feyerabend, since the "scientific revolution" is his paradigm of scientific progress and of radical conceptual change, and Galileo is his hero of the scientific revolution. He also sought further to downgrade the importance of empirical arguments by suggesting that aesthetic criteria, personal whims and social factors have a far more decisive role in the history of science than rationalist or empiricist historiography would indicate.

Of course Feyerabend's position is high on the list of targets of conservative (and traditional leftist) critics of postmodernist relativism. The Stanford article goes on to observe:

Feyerabend came to be seen as a leading cultural relativist, not just because he stressed that some theories are incommensurable, but also because he defended relativism in politics as well as in epistemology. His denunciations of aggressive Western imperialism, his critique of science itself, his conclusion that "objectively" there may be nothing to choose between the claims of science and those of astrology, voodoo, and alternative medicine, as well as his concern for environmental issues ensured that he was a hero of the anti-technological counter-culture.

Rick Perry and New Left Books! And who knows what Feyerabend, who rejected all rigid systems, would have thought about Perry and other Republican candidates. Maybe he would have apologized to Galileo. For in defending the lay person's right to choose minority views in science (including alternative medicine), and in asserting the rights of non-scientific belief systems vis-à-vis laboratory science, Perry was unintentionally joining the philosophical left.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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