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On Feyerabend, or…With AGW Believers Like These, Who Needs Climate Skeptics?

Curious choice of preferred “philosopher of science” for Real Climate’s Gavin Schmidt: Paul Feyerabend.

Who he? According to Schmidt:

Feyerabend had what I consider a better appreciation of how science actually works and the difficulty of trying to assign a methodology to what it is that scientists actually do

Why Feyerabend? Most likely, because Popper can’t do. Climate models cannot be falsified, you know. Much easier to stick with them if one believes that “science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise“…

But there’s plenty of more surprises behind Schmidt’s statement (why limit oneself to Wikipedia…). In a 1983 article on The New York Times (“New Attack on Galileo Asserts Major Discovery Was Stolen“), William J Broad writes:

In his 1975 book ”Against Method,” Dr. Feyerabend argued, using Galileo’s grand eloquence and reputed corner-cutting as key examples, that all progress in science depended not only on rational argument but on a mixture of subterfuge, rhetoric and propaganda.

Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth, in a letter by Feyerabend, published on The New York Review of Books on Oct 11, 1979:

Discussing the rise of Western rationalism I pointed out that the transition created more problems than it solved, that most of the problems are still with us, that they do not occur in Homer, that Aristotle was aware of this advantage and therefore adapted philosophy to common sense.

That letter is a scathing attack against a June 28, 1979 review by David Joravsky of several books, including two by Feyerabend: “Science in a Free Society” and “Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge” (the one mentioned by Broad above). Joravsky replies himself quoting from “Against Method”:

[Feyerabend writes that] “Galileo the mountebank” used “deception,” “trickery,” and outright “lying” to promote views he knew he could not prove by rational argument with available evidence; and that’s the way that science develops.

Finally, two excerpts from a website allegedly publishing the whole Analytical Table of Contents from “Against Method:

[…] Galileo prevails because of his style and his clever techniques of persuasion, because he writes in Italian rather than in Latin, and because he appeals to people who are temperamentally opposed to the old ideas and the standards of learning connected with them […]

[…] Thus science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without having ever examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution […]

In summary: it can be argued that according to Feyerabend’s “appreciation of how science actually works

  1. Science relies on a mixture of subterfuge, rhetoric and propaganda
  2. Rationalism should be adapted to common sense
  3. Science commonly develops with deception, trickery and lying, especially when one doesn’t have rational arguments or evidence to promote one’s views
  4. A scientific point of view may as well prevail through persuasion and by becoming more fashionable
  5. Science is inherently superior only for those ideologically believing in it
  6. State and Science should be separated

Yikes! Points #1. #3 and #4 describe what many have accused RealClimate of doing. Points #2 and #5 refute the prevalence of climate models over real-world observations. Point #6 is incompatible with the very existence of the IPCC as intergovernmental entity in charge of assessing the science of climate change.

Is that really the way Gavin Schmidt wanted to describe his field of work? Perhaps he should have checked one thing or two about Feyerabend first. Because with AGW believers like these, who needs climate skeptics?

ps no, I do not think all of Feyerabend work was incoherent rubbish

0 replies on “On Feyerabend, or…With AGW Believers Like These, Who Needs Climate Skeptics?”

Popper is not a positivist, Luke, and he never disagreed with Khun on the influence of social elements on science. Just with the implications that this leads to absolute relativism.


I’ll be coming out soon, as it were, and perhaps will announce it on your blog.

Happy for you to pick up on my comments – I am about half way through writing a book but it gets more and more epistemologically confusing and the day job takes priority.

The Obama link is interesting, as the whole of 2009 will be.

Having studied philosophy of science in university I have always been interested in the subject and sympathetic to the value of the research and ideas in this field of knowledge. Personally, I have never found working scientists to be anything but contemptuous of this academic field and if any lip service was paid at all to philosophy of science or epistemology, working scientists always tended to be strictly Popperian in temperament. I have been observing with some bemusement that AGW proponents have been highly sympathetic to Kuhn and later thinkers, who argue for the role of social forces in the acceptance of scientific paradigms as examples of how ‘real science’ is or should be done. A tacit admission that their body of work is in its present form unfalsifiable.

Thanks for the references. I liked this from Allchin:
“[when] the context is missing … the perceptive reader may consider the account suspect – even without knowing the historical significance … Equipped with the proper analytical perspective, a reader may recognize when a history is probably untrustworthy. One need not know the actual history in detail.”
It’s Hemingway’s “built-in shit detector.”

On the comparison to Dawkin’s God delusion, there’s a big difference between a Government imposing laws based on religious belief (on subjects of sexual morality, e.g.) and laws to prevent global warming. In the former case, I wouldn’t try to change their belief, but would challenge their right to impose their belief on the rest of us. Their right to believe is equivalent to my right not to. With AGW, the truth (or at least the provability, the quality of evidence and argument etc) is the essential point.

I agree that “deluded” is probably a more accurate description of most believers than “fraud” or “hoaxer”, but in a political argument criticising your opponent’s mental state gets you nowhere. “Fraud” or “hypocrite” (e.g. thrown at Gore over his carbon footprint) is legitimate political debate. It depends whether you’re trying to understand, or win support for a political cause.

“Cognitive dissonance” is also an accurate description, chestnut or not. Does psychology have more to offer than just suggestive labels though? I’d like to think so.
Maurizio in a comment on the following post recommends to stop worrying. I’m sure he’s right – in terms of preserving one’s sanity. But I tend to agree with you that we’re in for a messy process. I can’t see all that mass hysteria quietly dissolving in the warm light of reason.


Firstly, delusion is the word I use because I don’t like “hoax”, “scam” and “conspiracy” because these terms imply dishonest and malicious motives and also an active role in the stupidity. Delusion at least allows for an honest and even passive or subconcious error. The key question that people use on skeptics is “how can the science be wrong”. This is the question I’ve been trying to address for the last 2 years since I became a climate apostate. Hence the point ain my previous comment that even the way we teach scientists about science leads them to worship its integrity in a ‘religious’ way without seeing that it is really a complex social process.

The carbon delusion is like Dawkin’s the god delusion. Baron Rees of Ludlow, Lord Stern and Nobel winner Gore have all had their (social) rewards as victors in the “war on carbon” reinforcing the social truth of climate change.

Kuhn’s work on the sociology of science is only part of this picture – Merton, Fleick (who used the term DenkCollectiv), Shapin, Collins et al (Books like Leviathan and the Air Pump, Constructing Quarks and so on) all point to the complex social processes of frontier or controversy science.

Kuhn identified for example, the case of heliocentricity as a special one since the conflict was between science and religion but as it struck me there were many religious scientists at the time so it’s not such a clear divide. Another scientific myth is that of the scientific revolution sweeping the supernatural away and yet Faraday’s Candle book makes many statements about his religious beliefs. I’m now reminded of Chestertpon’s supposed comment about “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing they believe in anything.” I view religion as a special case of a social impact and the green’s delusion is the new one

The situation is further complicated by the fact that so much of climate science is based on reconstructions (of paleotemps or surface station records) with man-made ‘adjustments’ and modelling both of which have masive scope for bias whether consciously or not. Modelling as well is subject to massive levels of overconfidence in all fields of science – the model is still subject to GIGO. Let’s not forget that we’re talking essentially about the most complex system on the planet as well.

Finally, the usual heated debates in the scientific world around controversy have been circumvented or superceded by the creation of the IPCC which has jumped the gun in ascribing the cause and cascades of belief and information from the IPCC and other presure groups are perverting even the learned societies. When the real climate crowd bait the climateaudit lot to publish as in any other scientific debate they’re being naive because the IPCC has become a government-mandated arbiter of the new truth and truly the debate is almost over, but not for lack of contrary evidence. The IPCC is clearly a thought collective and subject to hubris and group think. At least the Pope has a Devil’s Advocate – what the IPCC needs is a Skeptic’s Advocate.

If indeed we’re right then that old chestnut ‘cognitive dissonance’ comes to mind and “When prophesies fail” could see interminable mental problems for individual scientists and a backlash on science itself. I note the recent Haute de la Garenne fiasco has been blamed solely on the police in Jersey by the media, when the media were clearly also part of the ‘social construction of mass murder’. A suspected skull fragment became whole skull of parts of a skeleton before finally becoming a coconut and floor voids became cellar/cellars/colditz dungeons/ torture chambers etc in the tabloids and even broadsheets. The IPPC is playing the same role as the Jersey police – announcing the partial evidence with its own presumption of guilt. The media and the green pundits are then playing their role – 100 ft sea level rise, death of polar bears, death of the Loch Ness monster etc etc – it was the same as the rabbits and salmon with cataracts from ozone depletion.

It’ll be interesting to see how it progresses in 2009. Many are predicting that reality will dawn but I think it will be a messy process with many reputations destroyed along the way. Perhaps my own as well – hence pseudonym.

Thanks for a provocative article. From reading the Wikipaedia article, I’m not sure if Feyerabend is saying “that’s the way science should be” or “that’s the way it must be, because of inevitable social and psychological constraints” – it’s only human nature, in other words. In the first case, it’s simply a prescription – propaganda for a political point of view; in the second case it’s a sociological observation, interesting, but nothing to do with the philosophy of science.

Either way, Gavin’s endorsement is a fascinating admission. Trouble is, you can’t use it against Climate Alarmism without going ad hominem – delving into motivations. I’m all for that, since what we’re up against is not a scientific consensus but a religio-political movement. I’d love to see more input from sociologists, psychologists, historians – knowledgable people who are not afraid of experts waving statistics.

ps congratulations on getting up Tamino’s nose.
pps to Luke Warmer
Your use of the word ‘delusion’ suggests you’re thinking on the same lines as I am, that group psychology is the direction to look. I’m not sure that it’s the incentives that’s doing it, though. When the Astronomer Royal threatens mankind with obliteration, I seem to hear an unhappy child who feels he’s not getting enough attention. And as for Dr Hansen – how would you feel, working for an organisation exploring the furthest reaches of the cosmos, and you get the job of reading the thermometer 5 ft above ground? No wonder he wants to drown us all.


Now you’re talking about the area that I find most fascinating and where the climate change debate has really opened my previously Popperian eyes. Despite the positivisit machinations of scientists it really does seem that where there is controversy there is inevitably some form of social construction at work.

The debate in the ‘science wars’ has been a particularly messy one but if scientists are going to keep learning a pseudohistory of science then they will continue to be subject to hubris. By this I mean that they come to believe that they are never wrong (these days) despite the litter of historical ‘errors’ along the road of scientific progress.

The only rational explanation that a skeptic of climate change today can have (barring hoax or conspiracy) has to be that the ‘delusion’ has been created by scientists thinking they’re invulnerably correct whilst being influenced and getting incentives from social processes e.g. media , IPPC, Royal Society, Nobel prize, Greenpeace etc

Have a read of Allchin’s document – especially Figure 1 – on pseudohistory in science:

It is an interesting read, I promise. And then if you haven’t read it, a book like “the Golem” (which despite hostile reviews from positivists seems to be holding its own very well) by Collins and Pinch which is very powerful – especially Pinch’s own work on solar neutrinos.

Point #6 is indeed the major stumbling block with the IPPC.

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