Note: This is a re-post of a blog post by Ali Shaikh on a blog affiliated with The Box Move: Brain Talk, a new resource for Psychology enthusiasts.
In the philosophy of science, the question of the objectivity of the scientific method and the rationality of its aim is a crucial one. Karl Popper was the strongest advocate of an objective and unchanging scientific method and the rationality of its aims. Paul Feyerabend was conversely its greatest enemy, advocating that there was no unchanging objective methodology, and that the aims of science were as irrational as that of any myth. I will examine the key arguments from both authors and demonstrate that Feyerabend is correct in asserting the lack of an unchanging objective scientific method but that Popper's position on the rational enterprise of science is far more reasonable.
The scientific method conceived by Popper is based primarily on what he calls the principle of falsification. His framework describes the beginnings of scientific thought in the idea that scientists perceive a problem and generate a hypothesis or a “conjecture” to explain their observations. Scientists then devise experiments in an attempt to falsify these conjectures, or to corroborate the claims of their hypothesis by failing to falsify them. The theory that has more opportunity to be falsified is a better theory, since it is better exposed to refutation. Once a theory is falsified, it is to be discarded, and if it fails to be falsified, it may be accepted tentatively with an appropriate level of criticism and skepticism. It is this criterion of demarcation that distinguishes science from pseudoscience and is the method by which scientific knowledge has advanced. This for Popper is the scientific method of critical rationalism.
Feyerabend criticizes this formulation and argues that although Popper's conception of the scientific method is internally consistent, it is entirely absent from the historical development of science. He argues that science has progressed in a chaotic fashion; the politics and passions of people, the inspiration of a few prodigies and the opportunities available to a rare elite. He argues that often people have irrationally discarded certain scientific principles of the time allowing them to obtain a new perspective on a certain problem, enabling science to progress. He further asserts that if implemented, the Popperian scientific method would be the death of all scientific thought. Its strong demand of avoiding ad hoc modifications, or its principle of discarding theories that have been falsified would prevent any progression in science. This he claims is because science has progressed by having its true development in the anarchistic process of thought; all of Popper's criteria have been violated by scientists throughout history because science progresses by virtue of individual approaches to science, and not an overarching unchanging methodology.