Someone mentioned Paul Feyerabend in response to this post. He was in favor of having slack in science, and I resonate strongly with some of these descriptions:
Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts. He thought that previous theory might influence natural interpretations of observed phenomena. Scientists necessarily make implicit assumptions when comparing scientific theories to facts that they observe. Such assumptions need to be changed in order to make the new theory compatible with observations. The main example of the influence of natural interpretations that Feyerabend provided was the tower argument. The tower argument was one of the main objections against the theory of a moving earth. Aristotelians assumed that the fact that a stone which is dropped from a tower lands directly beneath it shows that the earth is stationary. They thought that, if the earth moved while the stone was falling, the stone would have been “left behind”. Objects would fall diagonally instead of vertically. Since this does not happen, Aristotelians thought that it was evident that the earth did not move. If one uses ancient theories of impulse and relative motion, the Copernican theory indeed appears to be falsified by the fact that objects fall vertically on earth. This observation required a new interpretation to make it compatible with Copernican theory. Galileo was able to make such a change about the nature of impulse and relative motion. Before such theories were articulated, Galileo had to make use of ad hoc methods and proceed counterinductively. So, “ad hoc” hypotheses actually have a positive function: they temporarily make a new theory compatible with facts until the theory to be defended can be supported by other theories.
Feyerabend commented on the Galileo affair as follows:
The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.
The following is also a nice thing to keep in mind. Although less about slack and more about the natural pull to use tools like science to further political/moral aims.
According to Feyerabend, new theories came to be accepted not because of their accord with scientific method, but because their supporters made use of any trick – rational, rhetorical or ribald – in order to advance their cause. Without a fixed ideology, or the introduction of religious tendencies, the only approach which does not inhibit progress (using whichever definition one sees fit) is “anything goes”: “‘anything goes’ is not a ‘principle’ I hold… but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history.” (Feyerabend, 1975).
The following is more controversial, and I don’t fully agree with it. But it contains some interesting thought nuggets.
Feyerabend described science as being essentially anarchistic, obsessed with its own mythology, and as making claims to truth well beyond its actual capacity. He was especially indignant about the condescending attitudes of many scientists towards alternative traditions. For example, he thought that negative opinions about astrology and the effectivity of rain dances were not justified by scientific research, and dismissed the predominantly negative attitudes of scientists towards such phenomena as elitist or racist. In his opinion, science has become a repressing ideology, even though it arguably started as a liberating movement. Feyerabend thought that a pluralistic society should be protected from being influenced too much by science, just as it is protected from other ideologies.
Starting from the argument that a historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argues that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions. Feyerabend also argued that scientific accomplishments such as the moon landings are no compelling reason to give science a special status. In his opinion, it is not fair to use scientific assumptions about which problems are worth solving in order to judge the merit of other ideologies. Additionally, success by scientists has traditionally involved non-scientific elements, such as inspiration from mythical or religious sources.
My more charitable interpretation is that, Science is a nicely rigorous method for truth-seeking, but because of its standards for rigor, it ends up missing things (like the ‘ki’ example from In praise of fake frameworks).
Also, I sense elitist attitudes from science / rationality / EA as not entirely justified. (Possibly this elitism is even counter to the stated goals of each.) I feel like I often witness ‘science’ or ‘rationality’ getting hijacked for goals unrelated to truth-seeking. And I’m currently a tiny bit skeptical of the confidence of EA’s moral authority.
The opening Feyeraband quote is sounds very similar to (Scott’s review of) Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Related: Jacob’s post on the copernican revolution from the inside.