Monday, March 24, 2014

Kuhn on the structure of scientific revolutions

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kuhn on the structure of scientific revolutions
Date: 30th November 2011 12:36

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 21 November, with your essay for the University of London BA Methodology module, in response to the question, ''Scientific theories are as often accepted on ideological as evidential grounds.' Discuss.'

You offer a clear and well-researched account of Kuhn's 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions'. Your decision to focus on Kuhn (rather than Feyerabend, or Kuhn and Feyerabend) looks to be wise, given the sufficient complexity of the issues raised by Kuhn.

On the one hand we have the description of 'normal science' and 'puzzle solving' vs 'scientific revolution', 'paradigm shift', with which (as you observe) many would agree, including traditionalists. It is common knowledge hat the history of science can be seen as a history of 'revolutions'.

On the other hand, there is the thesis of incommensurability, which on the face of it is outrageous. Of course, we can understand the phlogiston theory, the heliocentric theory, newtonian physics. There is nothing, or at least nothing relevant in these once widely accepted theories -- or 'world views' if one wants to be grand about it -- that we do not grasp or 'see'. If one were of a literary bent, one could write a novel about a physicist researching aspects of the phlogiston theory (in between attempts to transmute lead into gold).

Wittgenstein talks somewhere about the once widely held belief that rats are 'generated' by piles of dirty rags. I don't know whether any natural philosopher so-called seriously considered this, but if they did, the mind-set involved is not so strange or exotic that one cannot 'get into' it and understand it. The paramount importance of the authority of Aristotle in the Middle Ages, which seems so irrational to us now, is not 'incommensurate' with modern ways of thinking. On the contrary, we have the necessary tools as historians of science, to understand why consulting Aristotle could have been considered a far better research strategy than using one's own eyes.

What is 'ideology'? What species of ideology would allow a serious thinker to consider the possibility that dirty rags generate rats, or that everything that needs to be known in respect to the physical world can be found in the writings of some Ancient Greek philosopher who never performed a single experiment? More to the point, in what sense could *that* state of affairs -- seemingly absurd yet still 'understandable' one day apply to us -- from the perspective of future 'enlightened' observers to whom we appear no less ideologically illuded?

I want to agree with your conclusion. 'Individuals are complex creatures, and their decision-making depends on the roles they take... This individual complexity is compounded when they conjoin in groups, such as a scientific community, and group dynamics come into play.' There's much more to be said about this, however. The 'group dynamics' of the scientific community, or indeed the academic community at large, is not something that as an observer one finds always edifying.

The cause of truth fails to be served when decisions are made about research projects purely on the basis of the availability of grant funding (e.g. from corporations serving their own interests, not the interests of science), or when a noted authority makes pronouncements (e.g. Linus Pauling extolling the virtues of Vitamin C) which in the mouth of a lesser researcher would be dismissed as unverified conjecture, or just when following the desire to be 'in with the in crowd' brings far greater material rewards to the young researcher than going against the stream.

I have described ideological vices (the very term 'ideology' seems to me to connote a negative value) which 'we' can succumb to, but which one can also succeed in avoiding and rising above. In an 'open society' (Popper) these issues can be debated.

I would also question the dichotomy implied by the question between 'ideological' and 'evidential'. The traditional virtues will always be virtues, even when circumstances arise where we genuinely don't know what to do, e.g. where there is no way to give a 'value' to the probability of different alternatives, no obvious explanation why an experiment has gone wrong (e.g. Michelson-Morley).

It took an outsider like Einstein (was he a genius? I don't know) to consider the outrageous possibility that the speed of light really is constant irrespective of the motion of the source OR the observer. Einstein was practising the traditional virtues. He was responding the the evidence, just as the researcher is taught to do. The only difference is that, in a practical situation this can be more difficult than one would think, given the desire which we all have not to cast ourselves into the role of the fool.

All the best,

Geoffrey