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Sunday, December 23, 2012

'Paradigms, after Fifty Years'

I get in trouble if I blog too much when family is around for the holidays, so a quick one from David Warsh:

Paradigms, after Fifty Years, Economics Principals: For a book built on a narrative of, among other things, the history of our understanding of electricity, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, has had a remarkable run. It appeared in 1962, and people have been arguing about it ever since. ... For Structure is the book that made the word paradigm, meaning a way of seeing, part of the everyday discourse of nearly everyone who deals with ideas for a living. ...

Before Kuhn, the philosophy of science was boring and the history of science a backwater... There was a lot of boilerplate instruction about the steps of the scientific method and the logic of scientific discovery (if you’re not wrong, you might be right) to be found in the first chapters of textbooks, but, as Kuhn wrote at the beginning of Structure, this was no better than an image of national culture drawn from a tourist brochure.
After Kuhn, the focus shifted to the social organization of science: to the textbooks themselves, graduate education, the communities (“invisible colleges”) in which science was done, and the various nexuses in which results were put to work, from scientific journals and legal briefs to corporate laboratories and entrepreneurial start-ups. ...
How does a science get started? According to Kuhn, the story goes something like this: in the beginning someone contributes a powerful example of how to think about a set of scientific problems: Aristotle’s Physica, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Newton’s Principia, Franklin’s Electricity, Lavoisier’s Chemistry, Lyell’s Geology. The achievements appear, not out of the blue, but they are transformative. A community forms around them because they offer not a finished theory but rather a thinking cap, a pre-analytic way of seeing things and asking questions about them.
This way-of-seeing aspect that each possessed Kuhn designated a paradigm. The word itself is ancient Greek; he borrowed it from language studies, where it described the all-but-unconscious pattern by which one learns to conjugate a verb or decline a noun when learning to speak a language. A successful paradigm is enabling. It both poses plenty of unanswered questions and suggests means by which they might be conclusively answered. ...
This is the route to what Kuhn called “normal science.” By that he meant successful science, rather like filling in the outlines of a hastily drawn map once a new continent has been discovered. In this metaphor, normal scientists come in all sorts of guises: trailblazers, pioneers, settlers, sodbusters, ranchers, developers. Kuhn, unfortunately, chose two other metaphors to describe the conduct of this phase, and those labels have sometimes caused proud scientists to rebel at his description. Successful normal scientists were “puzzle-solvers,” he said, working away at adducing facts, producing theories and making sure the one dovetailed with the other. Or they were, in essence, engaged in “mopping up” after a big paradigmatic invasion. ...
Kuhn was a great student of the Copernican revolution, which meant he thoroughly understood the Ptolemaic system that it overthrew – crystalline spheres arrayed around an earth at the center of the universe. Ptolemy, and the astronomers who worked in his tradition for nearly fifteen hundred years, were excellent normal scientists. They had built a system that cohered; when observation of the heavens produced a troubling fact (anomalies, Kuhn dubbed such facts), they added a sphere or two.
But the troubling facts multiplied. Eventually a scientific crisis was at hand – anomalies with which existing normal science simply could not cope under any circumstances. At that point, a “revolutionary,” usually a young scientist, capable, but with little commitment to the old tradition – in this case, Copernicus – would produce a new paradigm, radically reordering the old facts, ignoring some and adducing new ones. The new paradigm would be resisted for a time, science being an inherently conservative enterprise, but gradually would gain adherents among the young. In time, the new order would be widely accepted. ...
In Structure, Kuhn went on to make the point that scientific revolutions didn’t have to be huge events with sweeping cultural ramification, such as the Copernican, Newtonian or chemical revolutions. The professional groups affected by them could be far smaller. ...

An especially fascinating aspect of the story has to do with the reception of Structure. A tendency to mildly disparage it has emerged. Hacking, in his introduction, assures us that science has moved on. The Cold War is over; physics is no longer “where the action is.” Today, he says, “biotechnology rules.” Thus Structure, he writes, “may be – I do not say it is –more relevant to a past epoch in the history of science than it is to the sciences as they are practiced today.”
David Kaiser, a physicist who is a professor in the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where Kuhn spent his last seventeen years), put the case clearly on the eve of a fiftieth-anniversary symposium: “Kuhn had an ambition with the book, which was common at the time: he really thought there was a structure, a hidden key that makes science tick. I think many of my colleagues today in the history and sociology of science would find that ambition wrong-headed. There is not a single magical key that will unlock the way science gets done.”
There is another possibility, of course – that, for one reason or another, it is the historians and philosophers of science, taken as a group, that have got it wrong. They are, after all, “normal” scientists. For as Daryn Leboux, of Queens University, and Jay Foster, of Memorial University of Newfoundland, said in their Science magazine review of the fiftieth anniversary edition, Structure was a revolution of its own, and revolutions are complicated things. They can spark backlash as well as assimilation. It is possible, even likely, that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of those books, like The Origin of Species, that take more than a generation, even two or three, to find its level – a real anomaly in the age of blink. I eagerly look forward to the seventy-fifth anniversary edition.

    Posted by on Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 01:53 PM in Economics, Methodology, Science | Permalink  Comments (17)


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