Claude Bernard, Bachelard and Feyerabend: three scientists against scientism

September – October 2020, CNT-AIT France, Editorial of the magazine Anarchosyndicalisme ! n ° 169,

A divided scientific community, government lies legitimized by a scientific council, contradictory health injunctions, systematically false forecasts, a prescription right of doctors flouted by the Surgeon Council of the Order … As in the worst hours of the Chernobyl disaster, the assessment is clear, it is clear that a certain science is slavishly placed at the service of the State.

This monstrous coupling signs the persistence of a political project as old as it is perverse, consisting in the implementation of a policy rooted in dogmas aimed at denying the freedom of individuals in favour of a frozen social and economic order and therefore with no prospect of change. This project is perfectly explained by an Anti-Enlightenment figure, Ernest Renan. In « The Future of Science » published in 1890, he called for « a scientific government, in which competent and special men would treat governmental questions as scientific questions and would rationally seek their solution. «

Recall that at that time the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, which was going to be swept away by the Mexican Revolution in 1911, had taken this model by relying on « los Científicos« , that is to say a conglomerate of extremely rich characters using technocracy and statistics to exploit a population reduced to misery.

Such a scientist ideology very quickly collided with modern scientific thought, from 1865, Claude Bernard wrote a first warning vis-à-vis the emergence of statistical studies in the medical field and especially their tendency to transform probabilities into certainties and these certainties in fantasies.

« As for statistics, it is given a big role in medicine, and therefore it constitutes a medical question which must be examined here. The first condition for using statistics is that the facts to which it is applied be observed exactly so that they can be brought down to units comparable to each other. However, this is not most often found in medicine. Anyone familiar with hospitals knows the causes of gross errors in the determinations that serve as the basis for statistics. Very often the names of the diseases have been given at random, either because the diagnosis was obscure, or because the cause of death was entered without attaching any scientific importance to it, by a student who had not seen the patient, or by a person from the administration foreign to medicine. In this respect, there could be no valid pathological statistic except that which is made with results collected by the statistician himself. But even in this case, no two patients are exactly alike; age, sex, temperament, and a host of other circumstances will always make differences, hence the average or ratio deduced from comparing facts will always be open to dispute. But, even by hypothesis, I could not admit that the facts can never be absolutely identical and comparable in the statistics, they must necessarily differ by some point, because without that the statistics would lead to an absolute scientific result, while it can only give a probability, but never a certainty ”(In “Introduction to experimental medicine”).

This passage, which is still relevant, is perhaps destined to be forgotten as it is obvious that it can only displease a system based on the accumulation of data for the benefit of digital manufacturers. At worst, it will be easy for them to debunk Claude Bernard, founder of experimental medicine, on the grounds that he widely practiced vivisection. But the fact remains that by affirming this fundamental truth that “no two patients are exactly alike”, he is already calling into question a medicine based on big data and defending for each patient as a unique being the right not to be treated like a number. This is why medicine thought of as knowledge of humans always begins with a unique and direct dialogue between practitioner and patient.

This critique of mathematical reductionism would broaden a century later. First under the blows of Bachelard, who in his book “the rationalist commitment” denounces the scientific superstition of formalists and logicians, spouting out a dialectic which “may perhaps lead to general morality and policy” But absolutely not “to a daily exercise of freedoms of mind,” against this narrow and bourgeois rationalism which “then as the bad taste of painful elementary school lesson, is cheerful as a prison door, and welcoming as a tradition.” Bachelard writes that “in order to think, we would first have to unlearn so much!” He offers what he calls a super-rationalist approach:

The risk of reason must be total. It is its specific character to be total. All or nothing. If the experience is successful, I know it will change my mind completely. It is because a physics experiment can change my mind that I am willing to make it. What is the interest, in fact, in making one more experiment that would confirm what I already know and therefore what I am? Any real discovery determines a new method, it must destroy a previous method. In other words, in the realm of thought, recklessness is a method. It is only recklessness that can be successful. We must go as quickly as possible to the regions of intellectual recklessness. Knowledge accumulated for a long time, patiently juxtaposed, avariciously preserved, is suspect. They bear the bad sign of prudence, of conformism.

In 1975, this discourse against a fixed method that politicians would like hegemonic was amplified by Feyerabend who wrote his essay “Against the method” with the subtitle “Outline of an anarchist theory of knowledge”.

For Feyerabend, it is above all about pointing out what he calls scientific chauvinism, that is to say a body of knowledge based on an ad-hoc method and the proliferation of which the state promotes. For him, it is necessary to separate science from the State, as one separated the State from religion, so that each individual is able to freely choose what to think. In any case, we more often see the renewal of knowledge than its overcoming in the etymological sense of the term. Thus Copernicus renews Aristarchus, and the physics of the twentieth century renews the intuition of the Greek atomists. The scientist claim to return past knowledge to the dustbin of history and to despise extra-Western knowledge is harmful to the imagination necessary for the renewal of scientific thought and therefore for its progress.

What has been called the health crisis highlighted this centuries-old battle between knowledge serving the dominant system and free and open science. Modern version of Auguste Comte’s positivist crusade for whom science should be at the service of bourgeois order against the spirit of the Encyclopaedists responsible in his eyes for the troubles of the French Revolution. Let us never forget, however, that contrary to what Shakespeare wrote, power is never afraid of a time when “madmen lead the blind”.

Doctor X., CNT-AIT Local union of Toulouse

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