My antidote to this is most clearly expressed by David Stove (though I have some other ammunition which we will maybe need later on).
David Stove is an Australian essayist and philosopher who is not widely known.
His defence of objective (absolute) scientific knowledge, and criticism of the ever-fashionable amongst artsy soft-science types Popperian school of post-modernism is for me compelling.
It matters, because post-modernism, applied to science, has been used to deny the possibility of scientific truth. If it is all relative, scientific fashion, why should we believe one bunch of scientists (today) over some other bunch, in the past?
and, here is some fun:This book is about a recent tendency in the philosophy of science: that tendency of which the leading representatives are Professor Sir Karl Popper, the late Professor Imre Lakatos, and Professors T.S.Kuhn and P.K.Feyerabend.
These authors' philosophy of science is in substance irrationalist. They doubt, or deny outright, that there can be any reason to believe any scientific theory; and a fortiori they doubt or deny, for example, that there has been any accumulation of knowledge in recent centuries.
Yet, [...] these writers are not at all widely recognized by their readers as being irrationalists. [...]
It is from these two facts that the question arises to which Part One of this book is addressed: namely, how have these writers succeeded in making irrationalism about science acceptable to readers, most of whom would reject it out of hand if it were presented to them without disguise? [...]
Part Two of the book is addressed to the question: what intellectual influence led these writers themselves to embrace irrationalism about science?
Neutralising Success Words
Stove starts chapter one by clarifying the sort of view that would uncontroversially constitute an irrationalist position regarding science.
Stove then advances his reading of the philosophers he is criticising: "Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, are all writers whose position inclines them to deny (A), or at least makes them more or less reluctant to admit it. (That the history of science is not "cumulative", is a point they all agree on)." Popper himself had given a 1963 summary of his thoughts the title "Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge", seemingly endorsing (A) in almost identical language. Nonetheless, the question Stove addresses in the chapter is "How do these writers manage to be plausible, while being reluctant to admit so well-known a truth as (A)?"
- Much more is known now than was known fifty years ago, and much more was known then than in 1850. So there has been a great accumulation or growth of knowledge in the last four hundred years. This is an extremely well-known fact, which I will refer to as (A). A philosopher, in particular, who did not know it, would be uncommonly ignorant. So a writer whose position inclined him to deny (A), or even made him at all reluctant to admit it, would almost inevitably seem, to the philosophers who read him, to be maintaining something extremely implausible.
A general answer to this question is offered: "the constant tendency in these authors to conflate questions of fact with questions of logical value, or the history with the philosophy of science." Stove claims this tendency is "widely recognized", but waives both this general answer (and its supporters) in favour of seeking a more specific account.
Stove's first step in refining the general answer is observing what he calls mixed strategy writing in the authors he is examining. He uses this expression, since it is not always clear to him whether the writing expresses "equivocation" or "inconsistency". What is common to the examples Stove offers is that something well-known is mixed with something extraordinary, without the clash being resolved; the "irrationalism" is introduced simultaneously with orthodoxy, rendering it more plausible to the reader—disbelief is suspended.
A straightforward example is provided by Thomas Kuhn's description of "paradigm shift", where he asserts the well-known fact that the world is the same after "paradigm shift" as before. Yet, at the same time, Kuhn also suggests that solutions to problems achieved under old paradigms are lost, redundant or "un-solutions" under new paradigms—denial of (A) above.
Examining Kuhn's use of the word solution more closely, Stove notes that Kuhn sometimes uses it in the ordinary way regarding practical knowledge, but at other times in a weaker sense, specific to Kuhn's theory, that a solution is relative to a paradigm, people, place and time. This equivocation on solution actually provides Stove with an answer of exactly the type he was looking for. All his authors, with many similar words, show similar equivocation. Stove lists knowledge, discovery, facts, verified, understanding, explanation and notes the list is far from complete. Idiosyncratic weak senses of these words are a characteristic of the writing of his subjects that explains clearly how a reader, presuming ordinary use of language, might believe them to be expressing something more orthodox than is, in fact, their intention.
At this point, Stove coins the expression neutralizing success words and provides an uncontroversial example from everyday language to illustrate it.
Stove also provides a quote from Paul Feyerabend (1975:27) explicitly directing his readers to "neutralize" his success words or not, according to their own preferences.
- Nowadays in Australia a journalist will often write such a sentence as, "The Minister today refuted allegations that he had misled Parliament", when all he means is that the Minister denied these allegations. "To refute" is a verb with 'success-grammar' (in Ryle's sense). To say the Minister refuted the allegations is to ascribe to him a certain cognitive achievement: that of showing the allegations to be false. "To deny", on the other hand, has no success-grammar. So a journalist who used "refuted" when all he meant was "denied" has used a success-word, but without intending to convey the idea of success, of cognitive achievement, which is part of the word's meaning. He has neutralized a success-word [emphasis original].
- My frequent use of such words as 'progress', 'advance', 'improvement' etc., does not mean that I claim to possess special knowledge about what is good and what is bad in the sciences and that I want to impose this knowledge upon my readers. Everyone can read the terms in his own way and in accordance with the tradition to which he belongs [emphasis original].