Skip to main content
Menu

Book

A provocative 1975 call to leave behind dogmatic thinking could help scientists strengthen ties with the public

Against Method

Paul Feyerabend
New Left Books
1975
339 pp.
Purchase this item now

Amid the turbulence of the 20th century’s civil rights movement and sexual revolution, the philosophy of science was undergoing its own radical transformation. Suspecting that the scientific method was less straightforward than scientists claimed, philosophers had started challenging the idea that deductive logic was the best way to reveal truths about the world. Against Method (1975), by philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, played a key role in bringing such arguments to maturity. Forty-five years after its publication, the book continues to offer valuable insights to scientists confused by the public’s ambivalence toward hard scientific truths.

Most modern scientists would agree that the scientific method provides the best route toward an ever more cohesive understanding of the world around us. Feyerabend did not think it was so simple. He believed that within the landscape of all discoverable knowledge, the scientific method offers a path leading to only a fraction of all knowable facts. This is because it encourages researchers to begin where well-established theories leave off, keeping them aligned with existing scientific paradigms. A path set forward by classical physics, he argued, will not lead to quantum mechanics.

Feyerabend thought that new scientific paradigms could only be reached by radical methods. Indeed, given that new paradigms sit outside existing knowledge structures, there cannot be a predefined method on how to discover them. Anarchistic thinking, spiritualism, irrationality—all must remain on the table.

As proof of principle, Feyerabend elegantly demonstrated that a strict adherence to the scientific method would have forced Galileo to give up his hypothesis that Earth orbits the Sun. Not only did the existing evidence support the idea that Earth was stationary, the practice of science in the 17th century was largely entrusted to human perception. This meant that not being able to feel Earth moving would have been considered by many to be sufficient to falsify Galileo’s theory. Feyerabend asserted that Galileo needed to break the existing scientific paradigm by presenting a new one and that he only succeeded in doing so by going beyond what rational argument allowed, drawing upon, for example, ad hoc hypotheses and emotional language.

Against Method was divisive. After publication, Feyerabend was called the “worst enemy of science” in Nature (1) and a “breath of fresh air” in Science (2). Many scientists thought that the book presented a type of philosophy that could be easily weaponized (3), not least because it provided a shield for nonexperts promoting unsubstantiated or malicious arguments. Some also worried that by weakening the boundaries of what counts as bona fide scientific research, science itself might come to be considered just another type of cultural practice.

But this is not quite what Feyerabend sought to inspire. Instead, he wanted to generate curiosity about what happens when we try to live within the rules of our current scientific paradigm. Is it always desirable, for example, to treat mathematical harmonies and statistical abstractions as the best reflections of reality? Consider empirical research on the state of American democracy, which largely relies on random sampling and quantitative metrics. By discounting narratives of police injustice as anecdotal, some have argued that political scientists long remained blind to the extent of racial authoritarianism (4).

Against Method hints that there must be a middle ground between one extreme, in which all views are equally valued, and the other, in which the limits of current scientific paradigm are never tested. This casts the role of today’s scientist as more ambiguous than perhaps many would like, but such ambiguity could help scientists strengthen their relationship with the public. By loosening the framework within which scientists may operate, Feyerabend gives them permission to enter the political arena, a realm that many researchers have historically deemed outside their jurisdiction, but one in which their participation is sorely needed.

References and Notes
1. T. Theocharis, M. Psimopoulos, Nature 329, 595 (1987).
2. W. J. Broad, Science 206, 534 (1979).
3. M. Kuntz, EMBO Rep. 13, 885 (2012).
4. V. M. Weaver, G. Prowse, Science 369, 1176 (2020).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA.