Some comments on Karsten Weber "Science Wars: Remarks from a Critical Rationalist's Point of View" in Jarvie et al (eds) Karl Popper: A Centenary Assessment, Ashgate, 2006, pp 95-107.

In this paper Karsten Weber suggested that critical rationalism has been found wanting in the "Science Wars" set on foot by  Sokal's hoax .  Weber's case has a strong and a weak form (by analogy with the sociology of science). The weak form amounts to a charge of inconsistency in critical rationalism. The strong form is a charge of complicity with postmodernism (even anticipating pomo) to undermine respect for the truth and the credibility of science and rationality.

In reply I will argue that critical rationalism is untouched by these criticisms .

Weber started by noting that Sokal's charges against pomo were substantially anticipated by Gross and Levitt some years before, and these came some decades after the "two cultures" debate started by C P Snow in 1959 (see note 1). He recapitulated the sequence of events that started in 1996 when Sokal placed a paper in the avant garde journal Social Text containing nonsensical statements about theories from science and mathematics in the habitual style of some contributors to the journal. He followed that with a paper revealing the hoax. This paper was rejected by Social Text and was printed in Lingua Franca three weeks after the original paper. The debate then started in earnest with supporters of relativism and social constructivism on one side versus and supporters of truth and rationality on the other.

Then a strange feature of the debate emerged. Weber wrote:

"Surprisingly, at least for critical rationalists, one will see that Sokal added them to the legions of posmodernist supporters."

He moved on to discuss the book that Sokal and Bricmont wrote to reply to critics and to provide more depth to their arguments. [This is reviewed on Amazon which now has a permalink feature].

"Sokal and Bricmont, however, didn't attack only postmodernist authors; they also attacked critical rationalism. Popper's rejection of inductive science and his denial of the possibility of verification are, as they pointed out are, gateways to epistemological relativism and this critical rationalism seems to be a kind of predecessor of postmodernism. The two authors argue that the scepticism that lies within Popper's philosophy of science and its surrender of a criterion of truth cannot be accepted within the realms of science".

There are several strong rejoinders to that claim.

1. Popper has defended the correspondence theory of truth in some depth and detail. See the Addendum to vol 2 of The Open Society post 1962 editions. The discussion of truth has been mixed up by the implicit assumption by many writers that the Truth (usually depicted as Justified True Belief) is the Terminus of Investigation. That approach bogs down every time on the problem of infinite regress. The correspondence theory is not a terminus, it is a regulatory principle for discussions about the world and how it works.

2. The idea that Popper's ideas are a gateway to irrationalism has been run heavily by David Stove and his admirers who used to trumpet the claim on a website and an email discussion group. They were challenged to produce examples of people who had gone through that gateway and the only name advanced was Feyerabend who of course dissented radically from Popper's ideas, along with a deal of ad hominem abuse of Popper (and his wife, for good measure). They were invited to make good the claim or remove it from the site. It has been removed from the site but there has not been anything like a retraction of the arguments that were used to support the claim in the first place.

3. Properly understood, critical rationalism and the theory of conjectural knowledge are more helpful and robust than the theories of science that
depend on verification and inductive support for theories. The shoe is really on the other foot so far as the gateway to irrationalism is concerned, if the integrity of science really depended on the positivist approach then we would be in deep trouble. Positivism and logical empiricism became to boring and technical after the first wave of excitement (in the 1930s?) that by the 1960s students who wanted some sense of life and movement in their philosophy courses would have baled out in droves to enlist with Kuhn and the Continentals.

4. Bill Bartley, with David Miller, is arguably the best commentator on these matters and Weber has some especially interesting remarks on Bartley near the end of the paper.

David Miller took exception to the claim by Sokal and Bricmont that "ambiguities or inadequacies in Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery (p 59) bear some responsibility for the rising tide of irrationalism in the philosophy of science" and Weber set out to improve the arguments that they advanced. He settled on what he called "Popper's (crypto)-conventionalism [which] opens the door to relativistic positions if one only wants to go through. Feyerabend did it, Kuhn did it too, and Lakatos was half way through". This is based on a statement from page 19 of LSD that conventionalism is self-contained and defensible, that is, any particular scientific system can be interpreted as a system of implicit definitions. However that statement needs to be seen in the context of the argument that conventionalism maintains its coherence at a serious risk of becoming a self-contained or reinforced dogmatism that repels criticism (which may be valid in a larger context, outside its own self-contained system) and new ideas which may represent an advance.

He also settled on Popper's discussion of the acceptance of basic (observation) statements, claiming that the admission of an element of decision (implying discretion and hence arbitrariness) opens the gate as far as any pomo person could possibly wish. The answer to that line of argument can be found in Chapter 23 of The Open Society where Popper anticipated the strong program in the sociology of science and pointed out that the objectivity amd rationality of science do not depend on the objectivity or rationality of of individual scientists but on the give and take of public criticism in the community of scientists.

In a concluding section Weber noted that the Science Wars can be seen as a sequel to the 1970s debate over Positivism in the social sciences when Adorno and Habermas in the Frankfurt School attacked the positivism of Popper and critical rationalism. The critical rationalists were found wanting because they (allegedly) only want to describe how the world is while the Good Guys want to change it (presumably for the better). As Weber explained, that is pure nonsense because even the most casual reading of Popper on social issues would indicate that he is in favour of changes that improve the world (just be sure to monitor the impact of your actions). He also pointed out that there is a difference between describing the world and changing it, but the difference is not a matter of antagonism or a choice that has to be made between one or the other. .

Weber went on to say that the critical rationalists, unlike the Frankfurt School, learned that comprehensive rationalism would not fly, (as Popper explained in chapter 24 of The Open Society). At that point he inserted a footnote, responding to an anonymous referee who referred him to Bartley's comprehensively critical rationalism. Weber's comment is interesting but was only an aside to the paper so I will discuss it in note 2.

The paper ends with some brief and somewhat cryptic comments on freedom, democracy and decolonisation, making a connection between a sustainable form of critical rationalism and the future prospects of freedom and civilisation. The most important point to be made in my conclusion is that Weber has not sustained the case against critical rationalism in the form that comes from Popper, with some refinements provided by Bartley. He has not helped to sustain critical rationalism (and civilisation) by recycling invalid criticisms of Popper's theory of conjectural knowledge.


Note 1. 1959 is such a long time ago that some explanation of the "Two Cultures" debate is probably required. C P Snow is now forgotten but at the time he had a profile as a kind of Rennaisance man, equally at home in science where he trained and worked, in the corridors of power, and in literature, where he wrote some novels called the "Strangers and Brothers series".

He gave a public address that depicted the "two cultures" of science and the arts as worlds apart, with scientists as the people of the future "the future is in their bones" because they understand the way things work, also they are optimistic and public spirited (and politically progressive quite likely). The arty and literary types in contrast are narrow minded, conservative, backward-looking, illiterate in science ( how many could explain the second law of thermodynamics? etc).

Snow's lucky break was to antagonise F R Leavis, a vengeful and outspoken literary scholar and critic who regarded the Great Tradition in literature as the vital heart of western civilization. He delivered a speech in reply that started with a two-fisted attack on Snow's claims to be a writer of novels (as if he even knows what a novel IS etc). As Peter Medawar remarked, with Leavis among his enemies, Snow didn't need his friends.

The debate raged for some time in a number of  newspapers and journals, including letters to the editor of  The Times in London where at that time the letters were a major vehicle for high level public debate. It spread to the US. From the perspective of a critical rationalists with an interest in the humanities the debate seemed to reflect over-specialization and narrow-mindedness more than any deep philosophical or methodological divide between the sciences and the humanities. It was pointed out that communication between specialities in the sciences is about equally unsatisfactory as the communication between scientists and other people, so the whole thing was mostly hot air. Popper's comment could well have been the last word on the matter.

"Science, after all, is a branch of literature; and working on science is a human activity like building a cathedral. No doubt there is too much specialization and too much professionalisation in contemporary science, which makes it inhuman [but this is not confined to the natural sciences]...Labouring the difference between science and the humanities has long been a fashion, and has become a bore. The method of problem solving, the method of conjecture and refutation is practiced by both. It is practiced in reconstructing a damaged text as well as in constructing a theory of radioactivity". Objective Knowledge, page 185.

Note 2. Under "comprehensively critical rationalism" there is no logical limit to criticism, everything is open to criticism. This was offered by Bartley as an improvement on "comprehensive rationalism" that fails on the problem of the infinite regress and Popper's "critical rationalism" which makes a minimum concession to irrationalism by adopting rationalism as a faith, albeit a faith that stands up to criticism better than the alternatives (irrationalism and comprehensive rationalism). Bartley's argument can be found in a 1964 paper and it is extended in additions to the second edition of The Retreat to Commitment. Popper's case for critical rationalism, against comprehensive rationalism, is in chapter 24 of The Open Society.

Weber  did not go into any depth on Bartley's arguments but he offered a "moral intuition" as a counter-argument. "There are some basic rights that belong to human beings and cannot be subjected to criticism...From my point of view, there are some conditions that must be met before we can start the process of criticism. These conditions cannot be criticized. So Comprehensively Critical Rationalism is practically impossible or even contradictory." 

That amounts to a  "throwaway line" and it cannot be taken seriously as a response to the intricate argumetation that underpins Bartley's position, though it is no more inadequate than the arguments offered in the body of the paper to defend the inductive and justificationist view of science and rationality. It seems that Weber, no more than Sokal and Bricmont, is prepared to engage with the full range of arguments against justificationism, that is, the deeper assumption that sustains inductivism and also most forms of irrationalism.

Other notices of Centenary papers.

A short review of the Canterbury (NZ) papers. Phillip Catton and Graham Macdonald (eds) Karl Popper: Critical Appraisals.

A comment on Steve Fuller's Vienna paper.

Alain Boyer's French review of both the Vienna and Canterbury proceedings.

John Pratt on the Vienna papers "One of the mysteries of intellectual life", Higher Education Review Vol 40, No 1, 2007. pp 72-76.
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