Friday, January 11, 2013

January 12, 2013   

Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

 When Kuhn came on the scene in 1962, Karl Popper and Behavorism and Scientific Method had been the godlike basis of science and the scientific method. Kuhn dramatically attacked this seemingly faultless universally acclaimed accomplishment of modern science and, indeed, modern life, which was credited with all our impressive advances, or what were then seen as "advances."*
      Kuhn agreed that "scientific method" might exist but, if so, it isn't nearly as important as it is made out to be. Kuhn noticed that many science breakthroughs came about independent of rigorous methodologies. For some scientists and their discoveries these so-called methods weren't even known! And so Thomas Kuhn set out to discover what it was that gave birth to scientific discoveries. He came up with ideas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  that are still current 50 years later and, in fact, is probably the leading sourcebook in all introductory science study, a theory based on the concepts of paradigms, normal science, anomalies, and scientific revolutions, and this is the theory he set forth in 1962. Paradigms, Normal Science, and Anomalies. Throughout history, Kuhn argued, and he invented "paradigm" to describe each set of separate beliefs. From this he developed the logical idea of "dominant paradigms." You can see how foundational and practical Kuhn's insights were, much like the historian Herbert Butterfield, whom I have mentioned, thirty years before, in his "Whig Thesis."
     Kuhn adopted the term "scientific revolution" to describe the event of a new paradigm overtaking a previous one. It is not hard to see how the "scientific method" was all but scrapped in this new way of looking at invention. Interestingly, falsifying was the first step in a scientific revolution. A little verification of the new was built on a little falsification of the old! An elegant twist. Paradigm change is really a conversion.
     Ironically, Kuhn's work emphasized that most scientists who achieve remarkable results know little or nothing about the history or philosophy of science. In this way, he explained why the nature of "breakthroughs" is consistently misrepresented especially by the more creative and curious thinkers. A false impression is given that one proceeded logically from one fact to another, linearly. What is new, according to Kuhn, is what he called "puzzles," because behind every new paradigm or scientific revolution is a scientist or scientists puzzled by things that previously were not puzzling; that's how I put it, anyway.
     David Ricci explains that the failure of political scientists before Kuhn forced them to miss the salient features of politcal life : "the really 'big' issues of the past twenty years - foreign policy, nuclear policy, civil rights (including McCarthyism), the relation- ship of government to the economy." If so, you can see how important and useful Kuhn is to us. For Kuhn, progress in science is movement without a goal.
     Of course, Academia being what it is, you can imagine how far Kuhn is followed in such reactionary institutions. Political Science for example must be the laughing stock of all the other foolish disciplines.

* A typical but by no means exceptional survey of Popper is found in the opening pages of David Ricci's "Reading Thomas Kuhn," Western Political Quarterly 30:1 (March, 1977), 7–34

** Ibid.,20. "From this point of view, the scientific method is not the midwife of knowledge, although it may have an important role to play somewhere in the day- to-day work of normal science. Moreover, the knowledge in question, no matter how attained, is not objectively reliable. In fact, scientific communities agree to espouse certain paradigmatic "truths" at least partly for sociological rather than methodological reasons. This is why, instead of speaking of public tests and rea- soned discourse, Kuhn described the acceptance of new knowledge in terms of conversions, gestalt switches, transfers of allegiance, and acts of faith, an explicit argument against the scientific method."

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