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Feyerabend and manufactured disagreement: reflections on expertise, consensus, and science policy

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Feyerabend is infamous for his defense of pluralism, which he extends to every topic he discusses. Disagreement, a by-product of this pluralism, becomes a sign of flourishing critical communities. In Feyerabend’s political works, he extends this pluralism from science to democratic societies and incorporates his earlier work on scientific methodology into a procedure for designing just policy. However, a description and analysis of Feyerabend’s conception of disagreement is lacking. In this paper, I reconstruct and assess Feyerabend’s conception of disagreement, with a particular emphasis on the role of experts, and its role in the formation of science policy. I go on to assess this argument in light of recent literature on manufactured disagreement on politically contentious science policy (Oreskes and Conway in Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, Bloomsbury Publishing, Indianapolis, 2011). I conclude by suggesting some prospects and problems for de-idealizing Feyerabend’s position on disagreement to see whether it may be plausibly implemented.

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  1. 1.

    Feyerabend’s anarchism is an epistemological anarchism and can be constrained on ethical grounds (see Shaw 2017, pp. 8–9). At times, he claims that “[t]he only theoretical restriction…of science which I am prepared to tolerate is what follows from a principle of general hedonism: all those elements of science which are inconsistent with hedonism must go” (quoted in Motterlini 1999, p. 121). His pronouncements of humanitarianism suggest that he has some moral theory constraining his anarchism. However, he also repeatedly states that we should pursue immoral lines of research (Feyerabend 1970a, p. 172, 1975a, p. 189). As such, it is unclear what ethical constraints Feyerabend endorsed.

  2. 2.

    While there are many marginal comments on political topics in Feyerabend’s earlier works, they become more prominent from the late 60s onwards (see Feyerabend 1968a, b, 1970b, 1975b, c).

  3. 3.

    It should be noted that this characterization of Feyerabend’s pluralism is contentious. See Preston (1997), Lloyd (1997), and Oberheim (2006) for contrasting interpretations.

  4. 4.

    Most social epistemologists are interested in cases where epistemic equals disagree (King 2012). On a Feyerabendian analysis, disagreement is an after effect of pluralism. Disagreement exists because of proliferations and becomes ‘equal’ by tenacity. As such, lack of disagreement is insufficient for entailing epistemic confidence; we must also show that the conditions of pluralism were met and still there was no substantive disagreement.

  5. 5.

    This view has a great deal in common with feminist perspectives on ‘proceduralism’ (Harding 1992; Longino 2002; Wylie and Sismondo 2015), and can also be seen in light of the ‘problem of unconceived alternatives’ where the confidence that theories approximately represent reality is undermined by the lack of conceiving, articulating, and rejecting possible alternatives (Stanford 2006; see also Dellsén 2019).

  6. 6.

    This idea is on display in Biddle’s (2013) recommendation for institutionalized dissent in pharmaceutical research.

  7. 7.

    Carrier (2017) points out that this rests on a value judgment about the reliability of knowledge that we are seeking. We may be willing to accept more risky knowledge to forgo the demands a pluralistic community may place on us.

  8. 8.

    Feyerabend explicitly defends a stakeholder-based view: “problems are solved and solutions are judged by those who suffer from the problems and have to live with the solutions” (Feyerabend 1978, p. 85). External participants may be welcomed, but only at the discretion of the stakeholders.

  9. 9.

    Notice that experts can be either cranks or respectable thinkers. An expert who refuses to consider criticisms of their view seriously is a crank, but an expert who openly considers criticisms from as many perspectives as possible would be a respectable thinker on Feyerabend’s account.

  10. 10.

    See Feyerabend (1975a, pp. 306–307) for additional examples. Selinger (2003) argues that Feyerabend exaggerates the ability of laypeople to review scientific knowledge. However, he mistakenly claims that Feyerabend uses a vague, homogenous category of ‘laypeople’ when Feyerabend is really interested in a particular kind of layperson.

  11. 11.

    Jasanoff’s full-fledged account of public reason can be found in (Jasanoff 2012) and a more focused discussion climate policy can be found in (Jasanoff 2011).

  12. 12.

    Oreskes is cited here as an exemplar of this position.

  13. 13.

    See Beder (1991, p. 227) for a nice taxonomy of closure mechanisms.

  14. 14.

    Elsewhere, a similar issue is called the ‘problem of manufactured dissent.’ Since I want to focus on the disagreement itself, rather than the dissent, I will depart from the common expression in this paper.

  15. 15.

    The methods of consensus formation at the IPCC are notoriously complicated and multifaceted. See Hulme and Mahony (2010) and the citations therein for a starting point, albeit slightly outdated, for this analysis.

  16. 16.

    See Sismondo (2008, 2018) for a similar discussion in the pharmaceutical industry. However, in this case, the results aren’t as problematic on empirical grounds (Sismondo 2018, pp. 12–13).

  17. 17.

    I will accept their descriptions of the events for the sake of argument in this paper. For brevity, I will forgo summarizing their description of Patrick Michael’s complaints against the IPCC and Fred Seitz and Fred Singer’s criticisms of the process of peer-review of the IPCC’s Working Group 1 Report from 1995. These cases, I think, follow the same pattern as those outlined here. See Oreskes (2004a) for her depiction of the consensus on climate change and Doran and Zimmerman (2009) for critical discussion.

  18. 18.

    Elective Modernism, as outlined and defended by Collins and Evans (2007), can be seen as complementing this view to some extent. See Sorgner (2016) for a comparison of this view to Feyerabend’s.

  19. 19.

    For example, Oreskes and Conway write that “If journalists were to give both sides equal weight or space in their reporting, this would effectively misrepresent the situation in the scientific community” because “those two sides had very different numbers of experts associated with them” (Oreskes and Conway 2008, emphasis in original, 15).

  20. 20.

    Again, Oreskes and Conway write: “there is simply the consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter. That is what scientific knowledge is” (Oreskes and Conway 2011, p. 268).

  21. 21.

    I say ‘may be’ because, for Feyerabend, cranks have no place in democratic dialogues. But given that climate skepticism exists, for Feyerabend, this means we need to search for non-crank defenders of the view and allow them to have their proportionally guaranteed airtime. Feyerabend doesn’t discuss what may happen if there are no such proponents to be found.

  22. 22.

    Oreskes and Conway also claim that pluralism in science is acceptable in preliminary stages of investigation (Oreskes and Conway 2011, p. 268).

  23. 23.

    Recent reviews of various kinds of ‘denialism’ seem to suggest that this rough-and-ready characterization is correct (Björnberg et al. 2017). However, we should be quite careful, as the distinction between a ‘crank’ and someone who has radical views can be difficult to discern (see Ritson 2016; Collins et al. 2017).

  24. 24.

    It should be noted that Sismondo’s analysis of Big Pharma influence being done by ‘ghost writing’ and other more ‘behind the scene’ techniques complicates Feyerabend’s pluralistic solution in these cases. This is because the controversial steps in the arguments of the biased research is not visible, making it more difficult to assess.

  25. 25.

    There are attempts to recommend improvements of peer-review practices in light of these concerns (Jayasinghe et al. 2003). However, these recommendations do not appear to improve the situation a great deal. This being said, enough tenacity on such research may lead to a peer-review worth having.

  26. 26.

    In fairness, none of the literature I have cited has done any detailed examination of the particular communities discussed by Oreskes and Conway. As such, I may be making an illegitimate use out of a generally problematic practice where these specific communities are outliers to these general patterns. However, if de Melo-Martín and Intemann (2014, pp. 597–98) are correct, then peer review may conservative in these areas as well. Additionally, being an ‘open community’ is a matter of degree, it may be that these communities are sufficiently pluralistic to warrant a confidence in their consensus. Again, such an assessment is exceptionally difficult to determine and is beyond the scope of the present paper. I must leave it, therefore, as an invitation for future research on this question.

  27. 27.

    There is some evidence that being inclusive of climate skeptics, in a non-combative manner, can be fruitful even if the goal is to change their mind about climate change. The efforts of Katherine Hayhoe, Debbie Dooley, Judith Curry, and others provide avenues of finding common grounds to have more fruitful engagements with climate skeptics rather than telling them that their views are scientifically ungrounded, morally problematic, and so forth (see Revkin 2009). This provides evidence that including climate skeptics is not inherently regressive (see Melo-Martín and Intemann 2018, especially the references in fn. 57, p. 168). See also Intemann and de Melo-Martín (2014) for related discussion.

  28. 28.

    Such a deference to experts on some topics may be something that a critical person would do. However, following expert opinion would be a choice and not required by a standard of what should be done.

  29. 29.

    Though the term ‘propaganda’ is not used, Beatty’s (2006) example of masking disagreements may constitute an instance of this.

  30. 30.

    To be clear, the use of propaganda is limited to attempting to combat dogmatism and not changing views. A recent study suggests that the brute fact of disagreement will lower support for public policies on climate change (Aklin and Urpelainen 2014) which may suggest that if we want to increase support, we should use the appeal to consensus as a rhetorical tactic. Similarly, van der Linden et al. (2015) have found that the perception of a consensus on climate change is more likely to lead changes of belief on the urgency of climate action. However, for a Feyerabendian, the aim is not to convince others of a particular point of view but to make them open to taking alternatives seriously. The goal is to have them be willing to be persuaded, not necessarily to persuade them (Baumtrog 2016). I am not aware of any studies on this particular point.

  31. 31.

    See Oreskes (2017) and a response from Pearce et al. (2017) for further discussion in the case of climate change.

  32. 32.

    Some have worried that we must adjust our expectations for the level of maturity we can expect from public forums in a ‘post-truth’ age of politics (Perl et al. 2018). This may make it difficult to expect the mature kinds of discussions Feyerabend envisages. Feyerabend even admits the possibility of this limitation of his view: “There may, of course, come a time when it will be necessary to give reason a temporary advantage and when it will be wise to defend its rules” (Feyerabend 1975a, p. 22). Similarly, one study suggests that pluralism on social media will prevent open exchanges rather than encourage them (Bail et al. 2018).

  33. 33.

    See Goldenberg (2016) for the argument that the inclusion of those who are ‘vaccine hesitant’, whom some call ‘anti-vaxxers’, will lead to greater social cohesion by increased transparency and trust between the medical community and some members of the public. Exclusion, on this view, does more harm than good: “it also insulates scientific institutions from much needed reflexive scrutiny of their practices… which is ultimately self-defeating, as public trust is damaged” (554).


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I greatly appreciate the thoughtful feedback from Kareem Khalifa, Matt Brown, and two anonymous reviewers as well as the stimulating conversations with Sergio Sismondo which greatly challenged and clarified my own thoughts on these issues. Funding was provided by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Grant No. 756-2019-0800).

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Shaw, J. Feyerabend and manufactured disagreement: reflections on expertise, consensus, and science policy. Synthese (2020).

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  • Feyerabend
  • Pluralism
  • Disagreement
  • Science policy
  • Consensus
  • Climate change