Friday, July 4, 2008

End of Method, Against Method Redux

I’ve been pining to make this post for a couple of weeks now, ever since the July issue of Wired came out. It’s the issue with a cover that claims, or intimates depending on your hyperbole register, that we’ve breached a boundary where profound change now dominates. Specifically, the claim is that we are seeing the “end of science”. Rather, we are seeing the end of how scientific method gets constructed. It’s a good and useful read that focuses on how access to and manipulation of large amounts of data can enable us to (for)see patterns and attributes of “scientific” phenomena. This can be anything from political voting behavior to issues of disease outbreak to understanding outer space. Good points and all true. Being an academic, I am used to seeing claims of the “beginning of this” or “the end of that”; such monikers are abundant in conference programs and journals (I’d love to see someone claim “we’re seeing the middle of such and such”). But the Wired article isn’t a let down…it is important, namely because we’ve seen similar calls that fell flat or were resisted. The zeitgeist seems to favor such valorization of data’s potential. Paul Feyerabend's oft-misread Against Method aimed to illuminate the social constructedness of science and argue that changes in method have largely worked to further cement a popular reception of science as truth and its methods as truth-making rituals. Feyerabend articulated his project as:

My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic. (1975, 32)

It would be interesting to read Feyerabend against (or with) the Wired piece. Our increased ability to understand the world through the mass amounts of data that we have and through statistical analysis is impressive and does often achieve great results. Just because such great things do happen though is not reason to look askance at the method itself. My hope is that with this particular change in the way science is conducted we’ll revisit the irreverence of Against Method so that a critical use of technology and assumptions about science can yield a scientific method with reflexivity and breadth versus one that simply assumes truth from process and ability to construct a method.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London: Verso.

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