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Kuhn and the truth about paradigm shifts

Kuhn and Feyerabend on progress and expertise

20 07 22.preston.ata

Do experts drive progress forward or hold it back? Thomas Kuhn popularised the notion of of scientific revolutions as paradigm shifting moments in which a new world emerges. But would he have shared his colleague Paul Feyerabend's scathing opinions of experts? Possibly not, writes John Preston. 

HTLGIPhilosopherheader5 Leading philosophers at HowTheLightGetsIn Global Read more Maverick philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend is now best known for his 1975 book Against Method, in which he tried to alter our perception of science and the lessons we should learn from it. On the basis of an historical case-study of Galileo, he argued that there is no such thing as scientific method, since great scientists are methodological opportunists who use any strategies they can in order to promote their preferred theories.

He didn’t talk much about scientific experts in that book, but in other work he published during that decade he had quite a lot to say about them, and what he said bears even more investigation nowadays, when we rely on experts for their views on climate-change, COVID-19, vaccination, etc.

Most of what Feyerabend said about experts fell somewhere between the sceptical and the scathing. He took delight in pointing out that ‘obstinate and conceited’ experts can be outsmarted by laypeople.

Most of what Feyerabend said about experts fell somewhere between the sceptical and the scathing. So, for example, he took delight in pointing out that ‘obstinate and conceited’ experts can be outsmarted by laypeople (notably, by lawyers), that experts often disagree with one another, that their judgments can legitimately be challenged by non-experts, that they can legitimately be overruled by political interference, and he was happy to refer to them as ‘know-it-alls’.

Feyerabend also rarely said anything positive about the people he thought of as scientific experts. However, going somewhat against his popular reputation, he was capable of saying very positive things about science. How could this be?

The answer lies in Feyerabend’s main paper on the subject of experts, ‘Experts in a Free Society’, published not in an academic journal but in a magazine during 1970. He prefaced this article with a ‘confession’ explaining that it was written ‘in a fit of anger and self-righteousness caused by what I thought were certain disastrous developments in the sciences’. The key lies in his view that experts are the problem with science, rather than its lifeblood:

“I think very highly of science, but I think very little of experts, although experts form about 95% or more of science today. It is my belief that science was advanced, and is still being advanced by dilettantes and that experts are liable to bring it to a standstill” (‘Experts in a Free Society’ as reprinted in his Knowledge, Science and Relativism: Philosophical Papers volume 3 (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.112).

Feyerabend’s scientific heroes (including Galileo, Ernst Mach, Ludwig Boltzmann, Albert Einstein, Max Born, and Niels Bohr) were, he thought, dilettantes, by which he seems to have meant non-specialists, thinkers who did not limit their thought to any single area. And his scientific villains certainly included Isaac Newton (‘The awful Newton, who more than anyone else is responsible for the plague of professionalism from which we suffer today’), but also a host of minor figures – almost all scientists, in fact.

Kuhn would insist that most science is not and cannot possibly be a matter of revolutionary thinking.

This contrast between experts and dilettantes, though, is problematic. For one thing, Feyerabend’s heroes are dilettantes only in certain respects. (Elsewhere he describes Mach, for example, as ‘an expert in physics, psychology, physiology, the history of science and the general history of ideas’).

But there is a deeper issue: what are we to make of Feyerabend’s picture of how science advances? His perspective on this is worth comparing with that of his friend and contemporary Thomas Kuhn. It was Kuhn who popularised the notion of scientific revolutions (that is, relatively swift and wholesale revisions of the basic assumptions of a given scientific field) in his famous 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn would insist that most science is not and cannot possibly be a matter of revolutionary thinking. For Kuhn, most science takes place under the auspices of a ‘paradigm’, a set of deep assumptions about the domain in question, the sort of assumptions which science students learn when they are being educated into the field, and which cannot be the subject of constant questioning. Science advances, though, during these periods of ‘normal science’, just as surely as it does in ‘scientific revolutions’. The kind of change in question is cumulative, rather than revolutionary, but it is just as real. And this kind of science, normal science, is the playing-field of the expert.

I suspect that Kuhn would also insist that those who bring about scientific change don’t so because they are dilettantes. For Kuhn, scientific revolutionaries are, as it were, scientific conservatives who are at the end of their rope. In no way are they trying to be revolutionary – his perspective would scorn efforts to deliberately ‘revolutionise’ scientific thinking. Those who initiate scientific revolutions, for Kuhn, are scientific experts who are trying to defend their existing paradigm, a paradigm which is in a serious state of crisis, by reinterpreting or re-jigging it in various ways. If that results in a scientific revolution, that is very much the unintended effect of their non-revolutionary activities.

For Kuhn, scientific revolutionaries are, as it were, scientific conservatives who are at the end of their rope.

Kuhn’s picture may not be right. Maybe it fits only some of those who initiated scientific revolutions (like Charles Darwin, or Max Planck, who Feyerabend thought of as a dogmatist), and not others (such as Einstein). In addition, though, we might ask Feyerabend: why, when it comes to expert opinion, should we think that it is only the ‘advancement’ of science that matters? Even if some particular science had stagnated, a situation which would appall Feyerabend, might it still not give the best answers to questions about the domain in question? Feyerabend didn’t much care about the periods of stability between scientific revolutions, and most of his scientific heroes were people who presaged or brought about such revolutions. But why, when it comes to knowledge and the expert advice that should be based upon it, should we think that only change counts? Might not good expert advice be based upon scientific theorising which is (at that time) stable? In fact, isn’t that what we generally expect?

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