Saturday, March 28, 2015

More Fun With Feyerabend

Thinking more about Paul Feyerabend's fascinating short essay, The Strange Case of Astrology, from his book, Science in a Free Society, and especially considering what he said early in the developing sTARBABY scandal, before he could have known about it, it is remarkably prescient of not only that event which proved Feyerabends' contentions, more about it should be said.  The reason for that is that as early as 1978, the ongoing practices of "skepticism" and neo-atheism were set out in clear detail in it.

Even as he was writing the essay, the instigator of Objections to Astrology:
A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists, Paul Kurtz, and one of its signatories, George Abell, joined by the statistician Marvin Zelen were doing just what could be expected of people who held the view of science, scholarship and standards of integrity that the essay exposed.

For my own purposes, it is a good example of something I recently said about neo-atheists, even the scientists among them but, just as much so, the non-scientists, science journalist, bloggers, etc.  That they shared all of the sins of medieval scholastic scholars and none of their virtues.

Here's a passage from Feyerabend's provocative and rather brilliant essay:

Now what surprises the reader [of the Humanist anti-astrology statement] whose image of science has been formed by the customary eulogies which emphasize rationality, objectivity, impartiality and so on is the religious tone of the document, the illiteracy of the "arguments" and the authoritarian manner in which the arguments are being presented.  The learned gentlemen have strong convictions, they use their authority to spread these convictions (why 186 signatures if one has arguments?), they know a few phrases which sound like arguments, but they certainly do not know what they are talking about.(1) 

Take the first sentence of the "Statement."  It reads:  "Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned with the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world."

In 1484 the Roman Catholic Church published the Malleus Maleficarum, the oustanding textbook on witchcraft.  The Malleus is a very interesting book.  It has four parts:  phenomena, aetiology, legal aspects, theological aspects o witchcraft.   The description of phenomena is sufficiently detailed to enable us to identify the mental disturbances that accompanied some cases.  The aetiology is pluralistic, there is not just the official explanation, there are other explanations as well, purely materialistic explanations included.  Of course, in the end only one of the offered explanations is accepted, but the alternatives are discussed and so one can judge the arguments that lead to their elimination.   This feature makes the Malleus superior to almost every physics, biology, chemistry textbook of today.   Even the theology is pluralistic, heretical views are not passed over in silence, nor are they ridiculed;  they are described, examined, and removed by argument.   The authors know the subject, they know their opponents, they give a correct account of the positions of their opponents, they argue against these positions and they use the best knowledge available at the time of their arguments.

The book has an introduction, a bull by Pope Innocent VIII, issued in 1484.   The bull reads:  "It has indeed come to our ears, not without afflicting us with bitter sorrow, that in ...."  - and now comes a long list of countries and counties - "many persons of both sexes unmindful of their own salvation have strayed from the Catholic Faith and have abandoned themselves to devils ..." and so on.  The words are almost the same as the words in the beginning of the "Statement,"  and so are the sentiments expressed.  Both the Pope and the "186 leading scientists"  deplore the increasing popularity of what they think are disreputable views.  But what a difference in literacy and scholarship!

Comparing the Malleus with accounts of contemporary knowledge the reader can easily verify that the Pope and his learned authors knew what they were talking about.  This cannot be said of our scientists.  they neither know the subject they attack, astrology, nor those parts of their own science that undermine the attack.

It is a poor account of the superiority of materialistic "science" - or, rather as I'd call it, scientism - that they practice an inferior, though otherwise identical form of argument from authority with a late medieval Pope, placing ideas and practices they don't like on a modern Index Prohibitorum.   And that their scholarship is generally of a uniformly worse variety than that practiced by the authors of a witch-hunters manual.  And even as the atheists assert their superiority to even modern religious scholarship, which is conducted at such a superior level to that practiced by the pseudo-skeptics that its dismissal can only be out of the total ignorance or inability to make that comparison

That is the real practice of the pseudo-skeptics.  And, it has come to my attention, again, that, not infrequently, the pseudo-skeptics do them better by misrepresenting research and simply lying about the existence of even published, reviewed, rigorously conducted scientific research when it doesn't serve their ideological purposes.   And, as it pretty obvious from the people involved and their developing activities, as well as their polemics, that the "skeptics" were only a cover for the promoters of ideological atheism.   Their practices merely the extension of those which date back to the 19th century with the sleazy, dishonest Joseph McCabe and many others.

About twelve years after his critique of the statement of the 186 authorities,  Feyerabend also said in Three Dialogues on Knowledge:

I have no special love of astrology and much that is written in this area bores me to tears.  But astrology is an excellent example of the way scientists deal with phenomena outside of their area of competence.  They dont' study them, they simply curse them, insinuating that their curses are based on strong and straightforward arguments

If he had lived about fifteen or more years, he would have seen even more evidence of that in the early books of neo-atheism.   The frequently named "four horsemen" of neo-atheism aren't the heralds of the end of religion, they are the heralds of the new dark age we are in, one made all the darker for falsely taking the name "science" for its trade mark and label, even as the medieval variety took the name of Jesus in vain as they violated everything he taught.   They will likely do more damage to the reputation of science than they will religion.   It is noteworthy that almost forty years after the efforts of the 186 that the public understanding of science is not notably healthier and that its reputation is not what it was even as they issued their fatwa.

Update:  I decided that I should include Feyerabend's first footnote as it supported his assertion about the ignorance of the signatories.

1. This is quite literally true.  When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview some of the Nobel Prize Winners they declined with the remark that they had never studied astrology and had no idea of its details.  Which did not prevent them from cursing it in public.  In the case Velikowski the situation was exactly the same.  Many of the scientists who tried to prevent the publication of Velikowski's first book or who wrote against it once it had been published never read a page of it but relied on gossip or newspaper accounts.  This is a matter of record. Cf. de Grazia.  The Velikowski Affair,  New York 1966, as well as the essays in Velikowski Reconsidered, New York 1976.  As usual the greatest assurance goes hand in hand with the greatest ignorance. 

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