On cranks and demarcation

It is generally acknowledged that attempts to demarcate science from non- or pseudoscience, based on a priori standards, have failed. Here I discuss a values-based approach, advocated by Feyerabend in his paper Realism and Instrumentalism, in which he wrote:

The […] distinction between ‘respectable’ people and cranks […] does not lie in the fact that the former suggests what is plausible and promises success, whereas the latter suggest what is implausible, absurd and bound to fail. It cannot lie in this because we never know in advance which theory will be successful and which theory will fail. It takes a long time to decide this question, and every single step leading to such a decision is again open to revision. Nor can the absurdity of a point of view count as a general argument against it. It is a reasonable consideration for the choice of one’s own theories to demand that they seem plausible to oneself. This is one’s private affair, so to speak. But to declare that only plausible theories should be considered is going too far. No, the distinction between the crank and the respectable thinker lies in the research done once a certain point of view is adopted. The crank usually is content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and he is not at all prepared to tests its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favour the opponent, or even to admit that there exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the ‘respectable thinker’ from the crank. The original content of his theory does not. If he thinks that Aristotle should be given a further chance, let him do it and wait for the results. If he rests content with his assertion and does not start elaborating a new dynamics, if he is unfamiliar with the initial difficulties of his position, then the matter is of no further interest. However, if he does not rest content with Aristotelianism in the form in which it exists today but tries to adapt it to the present situation in astronomy, physics, and micro-physics, making new suggestions, looking at old problems from a new point of view, then be grateful that there is at last somebody who has unusual ideas and do not try to stop him in advance with irrelevant and misguided arguments.

I believe this is a view developed from Mill’s arguments in On Liberty, particularly the second chapter. For Feyerabend, the demarcation of good and bad ideas occurs in terms of values, not facts or adherence to method. In his detailed study, Feyerabend and Scientific Values, Farrell identifies four such values advocated by Feyerabend:

1. Theoretical traditions – identifying knowledge with universality and with theories as the form of information, seeking laws via a standardised, logical form of reasoning (cf. A Farewell to Reason, p118).
2. Historical traditions – placing an emphasis on plurality and the particular, reasoning via stories, lists and analogy, and only resorting to rules when useful. Here knowledge has more of an instrumental role as a tool, with the relationship between different tools one of usefulness rather than fitting into a coherent whole.
3. Tenacity – retaining interest in or advocacy of a theory in spite of setbacks or evidence to the contrary, insisting that it retains merit and that apparent facts to the contrary may eventually be reinterpreted and count in its favour. Sometimes the reasoning behind a theory or its explanatory ability may be taken to outweigh conflicting experience, or refuting experiments may be flawed. Tenacity encourages work to continue even though the theory may be wrong, since without further investigation matters can hardly be expected to be otherwise.
4. Proliferation – the drive to develop a multiplicity of theories in order to strengthen our existing ideas or replace them with alternatives. According to Mill, “[s]o essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”

Clearly these values are in conflict with each other and form two deliberately idealised and opposing poles. For Feyerabend, attempting to find theories that are empirically adequate may lead to a solution that is disconnected or inconsistent, whereas seeking a universal solution can leave out the quirks and eccentricities of what people actually experience. Tenacity and proliferation are bridges between the two: empirical adequacy is departed from because tenacity prompts us to be dissatisfied with a multitude of separate and overlapping theories and to continue working towards a single answer; we proliferate theories because a unified approach fails to account for all phenomena, so we try to understand theories and potential answers better by comparing them with others.

Note that these are not intended to be rules but are instead values, the dynamic between which drives creativity and exploration. As soon as they are interpreted as applying everywhere they fail to capture science and even restrict it, but as tendencies to be encouraged they stimulate imagination and invention. This is neither anarchistic nor revolutionary (as people are inclined to view Feyerabend) but it avoids setting limits and arbitrarily cutting off entire areas of enquiry from scientific exploration, and yet still provides us with means to understand when we are dealing with cranks who have no interest in learning anything.

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15 Responses to On cranks and demarcation

  1. Michael S. Pearl says:

    “the distinction between the crank and the respectable thinker lies in the research done once a certain point of view is adopted. The crank usually is content with defending … he is not at all prepared to tests its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favour the opponent, or even to admit that there exists a problem.”

    While Feyerabend concerned himself (at least in his writings) with matters most conventionally assigned to “science”, the above remarks which describe “the crank” could just as well be used to indicate precisely what it is that is ever wrong about any scientific, philosophical, or religious apologetics. And that problem rests not “with defending” some belief (including beliefs about just what are the facts of a matter) or even defending tenaciously; there is nothing inherently wrong with apologetics – with defending a position; there is nothing wrong with tenaciously defending a belief. Rather, what is most often the problem with any defense or, for that matter, with any thinking whatsoever, is the failure to recognize that there are — and just what are — the limits to the scope of the validity of the belief at issue.

    Successful defenses do not usually depend on the opponent putting forth an invalid objection, and the “respectable thinker” will seek out validity in the opponent’s objection or perspective as a very effective means for testing, for determining, the limits under which his own position will remain valid. In other words, the “respectable thinker” looks for, indeed hopes for, objections which serve to highlight or emphasize the frequently unsettled assumptions upon which his thinking depends. Unsettled, or merely possibly true assumptions, define the limits of validity, and it is these assumptions upon which the respectable thinker most wishes would like to focus once he has arrived at what the thinker takes to be more than a merely valid and a likely to be true (even if to some degree tentative) conclusion.

    “As soon as they are interpreted as applying everywhere they fail to capture science and even restrict it, but as tendencies to be encouraged they stimulate imagination and invention. This is neither anarchistic nor revolutionary (as people are inclined to view Feyerabend) but it avoids setting limits and arbitrarily cutting off entire areas of enquiry from … exploration …”

    Apologetics is concerned only with successfully defending the validity of its own perspective and conclusions; it does not metamorphose to “crank” thinking until its validity is taken as sufficient to justify restricting the scope of thinking, to disregard apparently valid alternatives. It is one thing to judge what course is most likely to arrive at a solution to a problem and to choose to concentrate on a pursuit along that course; it is another thing altogether to proclaim that it is not possible for there to be valid alternative courses. The respectable thinker realizes that the value of his pursuit does not depend upon alternative courses being held in disrespect.

  2. Michael S. Pearl says:

    And another thing –

    … seeking a universal solution can leave out the quirks and eccentricities of what people actually experience.

    It seems to have become a matter of common wisdom to insist that what are usually referred to as the laws of nature are not so much absolute as they are probabilistic, and, in keeping with this now conventional wisdom, it could just as well be claimed that the focus of science is on probabilities rather than on any “universal solution”.

    This concentration on probabilities has become especially formalized in the manner in which virtually all clinical medical research, for example, is conducted and presented. Absent the expectation of the universal solution, that research is most respected which presents the largest number of sample patient cases because – it is suspected or expected – that the larger the sampling population, the less relevant will be the variations with which any patients present.

    This is to say that even science done in terms of probabilistic solutions rather than universal solutions can turn out to be dismissive of “the quirks and eccentricities”.

    In science, it is most often the anecdote which focuses on what seems at the time to be the eccentric; however, anecdotes tend to be held almost reflexively in low regard, particularly in comparison with studies that have large sampling populations and especially when compared to the large studies which feign a greater degree of variable control by including a second population which is either not treated or does not receive the same treatment.

    However, the fact of the matter is that it is the apparent quirk or the apparently eccentric which serves as the source for the greatest possibility of furthered or improved knowledge. It is for this reason that the “respectable thinker” will not be so readily dismissive of anecdotes, and it is for this reason that the respectable thinker – especially as distinguished from the ordinary thinker – will rather quickly turn his attention away from what is most often the case and, instead, focus on the eccentric in the hope of improved understanding.

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  7. Tom says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. But I’m still puzzled about how this demarcation criteria for cranks vs respectable thinkers could be applied. For example with respect to conspiracy theorists. Some people claim that Obama was born in Kenya. I would like to say such people are cranks, and perhaps that matches Feyerabend’s criteria. However, I do not go to any effort to subject my own conventional opinion to scrutiny because it doesn’t seem to require it. Does this make me a crank too?

    And with respect to the practise of science, is it really the case that evolutionary biologists should raise and test objections to the neo-Darwinian synthesis? I think science mostly depends upon plausibility – which is a public and conventional affair, not a private one. Scientists are generally pragmatists and this is pragmatism 101: if someone tries to persuade you of something that you can’t make sense of, don’t buy it. In plain language, such a person is a crank.

    Most of science at least – “normal science” – can be characterised as subordinating inventiveness and imagination to the discipline of methodology and the conventional body of knowledge. It would seem to be only when normal science breaks down and plausibility can no longer guide reasonable thinkers – unusual in the natural sciences but more common in the social ones, as in the ongoing crisis in macroeconomics – that we would need Feyerabend’s criteria to distinguish between cranks and respectable thinkers.

    • Paul Newall says:

      Thanks for the comment. It’s important to remember that applying demarcation criteria doesn’t really work, for reasons I explained here. Feyerabend’s values-based approach set out here isn’t a new attempt at an a priori criterion and he explicitly states that this view can only be “applied”, as it were, after time has been allowed in which to conduct further investigation of an idea. The end result is something akin to an assessment that the idea might eventually be of merit but that no case has yet been made for considering it, so we needn’t spend time on it. This puts “demarcation” where Laudan argued it belongs, in terms of the well-foundedness of a claim instead of its “scientific” status prior to any development being undertaken.

      I don’t think there’s an implication in Feyerabend’s paper that this values-based approach applies to scientists, such that if they fail to “raise and test objections” then they are also cranks; after all, they would already have developed their claims in order for them to have become respectable. Feyerabend’s target here is the dismissal of ideas before they have had a chance to show that their initial implausibility should not speak against their prospects, which very much has the support of the history of science, as it were.

      Finally, I just want to point out that Feyerabend rejected the possibility of “normal science” in Kuhn’s account. In his paper Consolations for the specialist he argued (in the section entitled Does normal science exist?) that Kuhn’s own discussion of how paradigms are overthrown (via the help of alternatives (proliferation) and the enlargement of existing anomalies) does not permit a temporal separation of normal and revolutionary activity. If this is so then Feyerabend’s values-based approach is precisely what (he hoped) should lead us to encourage and support the minority to potentially improve our knowledge, but only if they are themselves working to develop their ideas.

      • In the way that I recall (meaning – in the way that I interpreted) Kuhn’s main thrust with regards to “normal science”, there were certainly aspects which seemed quite correct. In particular, normative science is that which is primarily relegated to or conducted by those who are most accurately described as technicians. And here I do not mean to restrict the term technician to actual lab techs or the like. Rather, I think that many of what or whom we call scientists are effectively dedicated normativists, and I believe that Tom is correct when he indicates that these sorts of scientists believe in “subordinating inventiveness and imagination”.

        This is not to say that those scientists would easily admit that such is their belief or practice. After all, that type of dedication to conservatism is readily appreciated as a position which can dangerously tend towards intellectual unrespectability (and, hence, crank-ism or crank-edness).

        Many of those who are no more than normativists likely think that their respectability is preserved by the willing admission that scientific conclusions are overwhelmingly tentative. However, the problem for those who are effectively dedicated normativists is that they are utterly satisfied with leaving it to others to define, describe, and establish the new normal. Imagination, inventiveness, and invention are always outside the conduct of normative science, and it is imagination and inventiveness which actually and ultimately garner respectability for science. Normative practice simply allows for the diffusion of respectability to the relatively unimaginative – and not just in science. The same can be said of philosophy, as well.

        As I said previously, the key to intellectual (including scientific) respectability is in seeking out and recognizing the limits of validity with regards to any held position. Such a seeking out depends on imaginative thinking and ferocious questioning; it requires what can be called an actively open mind, and, when successful, this seeking out will itself end up suggesting paths for further investigation.

        In effect, the crank status might best be regarded as indicating a pretentiousness, in particular an intellectual pretentiousness.

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