With his talk of shifting paradigms, Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, can change the way one views the world.
I feel a palpable bond with Michael Skapinker who writes in the FT this week about revisiting Kuhn’s 1962 book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.
Yet ask me to name the thinker who has affected me the most, and there is only one candidate – the sage of Springfield, Homer Simpson.
“Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true,” says Homer in “Lisa, the Skeptic”, a 1997 episode of America’s cleverest animated sitcom.
Homer himself must surely have been reading another philosopher of science – the epistemological anarchist Paul Feyerabend.
A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1958 to 1990, Feyerabend penned books with titles such as “Against Method” and “Farewell to Reason”.
Going well beyond the paradigms of Kuhn, the “falsificationism” of Karl Popper, and the attempts of Imre Lakatos to resolve perceived conflicts between the two, Feyerabend rejected the existence of universal methodological rules. To him, science was no more “scientific” than crystal-ball gazing or writing poetry. His mantra was “anything goes”.
Homer understands this. If only facts weren’t meaningless, he says, then you could “prove” things. He might have added that not only can nothing be proved from so-called “facts” but, equally, nothing can be disproved.
Take “Duff Beer” Homer’s favourite drink. The proposition that Duff, Duff Light and Duff Dry are, in fact, all the same beer (as indicated to Simpsons viewers on a Duff Brewery tour in the episode “Duffless”) is clearly of no consequence. And Homer does well to remain oblivious.
No experiment exists that could establish, with rigorous certainty, that any beer is the same as any other beer. All observations are perceptual experiences couched in the language of a pre-existing hypothesis. And the senses are unreliable guides, anyway, especially after a couple of pints of Duff.
As Homer surely knows, the word “science” is derived from “scio”, Latin for “to know”. So, strictly speaking, nothing we build on the flimsy foundation of our fallible senses is “scientific” – not geology, not astrophysics, certainly not economics – as FT readers recognise.
In 1981, before Homer Simpson was a gleam in Matt Groening’s eye, I was travelling across America by Greyhound bus. In Utah I sat next to a chap for a couple of hours who turned out to be a philosophy PhD student from University of California, Berkeley.
After a few conversational cul-de-sacs I mentioned Paul Feyerabend, and his eyes lit up. Within seconds we, too, had formed a palpable bond. Excitedly, he scrambled about his person and brought forth a treasured scrap of paper from a musty corner of his wallet. It was a personal note to him from Feyerabend.
I don’t quite remember the context, but it said: “I have sawn off the branch on which I sit, and am now enjoying the pleasures of freefall.”
Rather like our present-day economics.