Trevor's Reviews > The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
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Jan 04, 2011

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bookshelves: philosophy, science, social-theory
Read from January 04 to 08, 2011

Let’s start elsewhere. Watch this and then we can talk paradigms:

Now, I don’t normally do that – nor do I like to talk about optical illusions. I generally think illusions mean quite other things to what most people like to say they mean. I find that people tend to say the most boringly predictable things about optical illusions. That is a large part of the source of my aversion to them, like Pavlov’s dogs, I have been taught to cringe at the first sight of the drawing that is a witch/young woman or a rabbit/duck. And let’s not mention poor old Escher – if he only knew the bollocks that is spoken with one of his drawings Power Pointed onto a screen behind a hundred thousand ‘motivational’ speakers… Can it really be all that hard to understand that there are paradoxes involved when you represent a three-dimensional object in two-dimensional space? This really isn’t something of the deep psychological significance some people seem to think it is and it certainly doesn’t prove that we ‘all see things differently’ – in fact, given these are standard optical illusions ought to be enough to prove we all see the world more or less the same.

What is interesting in the ‘watch the white team’ exercise above is that getting us to focus our attention on the white team means we miss entirely anything going on with the black team – even when one of the black team become a moon walking bear. A friend of mine was so convinced she could not miss something so obvious as a moonwalking bear that she thought somehow the computer knew she had already seen it and therefore always showed the version with the bear in it, at least after that very first time she watched it, which clearly had had no such thing.

A lot of this book is about how people can look at the same thing and yet not see the same things.

Kuhn’s says that there are two kinds of science – normal science, which you can think of by way of the lovely metaphor of accretion (facts get added to science in much the same way that layers of barnacles get added to a boat). And then there is revolutionary science – when all of the world changes, when no further facts may have been added, but all is different anyway: as when Copernicus placed the sun in the middle of the solar system or Einstein curved space to explain gravity. Notice that both normal and revolutionary science imply progress. For Kuhn the difference between the two types of science isn’t ‘progress’ – all science is about that – but about the mental framework from within which we work when we are doing one or the other. Mostly, and most scientists, do ‘normal science’ most of the time.

Sometimes people put out books with titles like ‘the 101 words or ideas you need to know to be considered scientifically aware’ – Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts would pretty well have make it onto one of those list like books: alongside the Turing test, Mr Schrodinger's cat and the uncertainty principle, I guess. A paradigm is a fundamental way of viewing the world. It is more than a theory, but literally a way of understanding. Better to think of it on the scale of a worldview – Dawkins and Creationists have separate paradigms.

A lot of this comes from Kantian philosophy – and if I was to blame anyone for Kuhn, Kant would be the person I would turn to. Kant said that we can not know the world as it is in-itself. We can only understand the world as humans, with our limited human faculties. Is the ‘human’ way of understanding the world how the world should be understood? For Kant that question doesn’t really make sense (how would we ever know otherwise?) This is the subjectivism of Kantian philosophy – we might not know the world as it is in itself (how it is objectively) but we can come to understand the world partially and subjectively through our limited and even potentially distorting senses (was that a witch or a pretty young woman you drew for me?)

Now, this is where people go off half-cocked and say that there is no meaning in the universe and that all that exists is our interpretation - the glorious appeal of solipsism to undergraduate philosophy students (with our thoughts we make the world) and other such nonsense. When I first read Kuhn I assumed that this was, fundamentally or finally, what he was saying. I still think subjectivism is large part of what he is saying (despite his spending pages and pages in the postscript trying to convince me otherwise), but I don't think he is saying either that the world outside our senses does not exist or that the universe is fundamentally meaningless.

The best way to understand a paradigm shift is to work through an example of one. Perhaps an equally good way is to think about how your view of the world changed once you stopped counting passes made by the white team and noticed the dancing bear.

Before Copernicus, people thought the earth was at the centre of the universe. Everything else revolved around us: the stars, the planets, the moon. After Copernicus the earth went from the centre of the universe to a place infinitely less significant, just another lump of rock forever falling towards a third-rate star and forever missing it around and around again. The change in perspective involved in this change of view can only be described as a revolution – not only in how we understood how the heavens work, but also how society worked when Copernicus was alive and how religion worked and so much else as well.

The previous paradigm of science, one fitting epicycles into the orbits to account for odd observations like the backward progressions of planets, for example, suddenly seemed no longer necessary to people who accepted the new world view. But then, the problem was that not only were epicycles no long necessary, but perhaps neither were the strict Medieval social structures of kings and bishops and barons and peasants each in their separate and fixed spheres.

Kuhn asks if two people (one holding the Ptolemaic view of the heavens and the other the Copernican) were to sit down beside an open fire with a glass of wine to chat about the skies, would they actually be talking about the same things? His answer is that what they would have to say to each other would be incommensurable. That is, what they would say might as well be said in two different and untranslatable languages.

For example – to the Ptolemaic astronomer the sun is another, though special, planet – the word planet is from Greek and means wanderer. To the old astronomy the sun wanders across the sky and so is a planet. To the Copernican the sun is fixed and the planets and comets move around it. So, when they talk each to the other about the sun are they really talking about the same thing? Kahn says that in a sense they are - and this is how he tries to escape the charge of subjectivism – but that this is only true in that the light from the sun falls upon both observers equally. However, in looking at the sun from their separate paradigms it is hardly surprising they seem to be talking across each other, at cross purposes and worse, when they try to describe what they see.

Our choice of paradigm is not simply a matter of us matching our theories to the world with increasing precision. Firstly, it took a very long time for the Copernican system to show itself superior to the Ptolemaic in predicting where planets and stars might be at any given time. You have to remember that placing the sun at the centre was only part of the solution – we also needed to understand that the orbits weren’t perfect circles and so much else struggled and teased from the heavens by Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others.

Kuhn argues that the difference between how successfully the Copernican view made predictions over the Ptolemaic wasn’t really the thing that tipped things in its favour. But rather other criteria, like overall ‘simplicity’ of the theory and its ‘beauty’ where at least as important.

Paradigm shifts are not important for the old questions they help to answer, but rather for the new questions they allow us to ask. They allow us to go back to normal science, but now in a way that directs our attention away from counting basketball passes and toward the moondancing bear.

I think I was probably harder on Kuhn when I first read him than I am now. However, I still think incommensurable is far too strong a word. I think people can understand and still disagree – and that this isn’t really about misunderstanding. Sometimes we disagree because we understand too well.

And I do think Kantian subjectivity is a large part of Kuhn’s theory and, in fact, that Kuhn goes even further than Kant did (at least Kant believed all humans had the same faculties, and therefore all saw the world in much the same way – Kuhn certainly does not agree with that).

The other problem I have with this theory is that I constantly come back to the ‘so what’ test. I think it would be very hard to argue that we don’t see the world differently post-Einstein than we did under the classical world view of Newton. And that such a shift in perspective could not be anticipated prior to the shift and that those pre and post shift do see the world in quite different ways – but who could really argue otherwise? Newton’s absolute space and Einstein’s curved spacetime are like night and day in many ways. But even Newton knew there was a hole a mile wide in his theory of the universe. Not having any idea of what gravity was and only being able to describe how it worked annoyed him all of his life. Gravity could not be explained by Newtonian physics – so if there was ever to be an explanation then something had to change.

Books like 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, I think, put this book into a new perspective. We are much more likely to hope for paradigm changes today, I think. For example, people both hope for evidence in support of and against string theory – one way or another, a new paradigm will be born. And what if we never find the Higgs Boson? The standard model will suddenly become somewhat non-standard. I think the current groping for new paradigms, particularly in physics, is interesting and quite different from what I take to be the meaning of Kuhn’s theory. To Kuhn, all science is normative – perhaps today that is less true of the outer limits of physics where quarks meet strings.

The other ‘so what test’ is to ask if scientists on the ground use Kuhn’s theory as a why to help them either do normal science or map a path towards or through scientific revolutions? I would suspect this would be more likely to be the case in the social sciences – perhaps where notions like paradigm shifts really do mean something much more akin to worldviews. All the same, most of what I have read of science and scientists is that they are not terribly interested in philosophy (at least, those who are not outright contemptuous of it).

Paradigm shifts, according to Kuhn, are for the young and often only succeed when the dead have died off. That is, paradigm shifts are for those not too deeply indoctrinated in the old paradigm. I think this is less true today – you don’t need to be a child any longer to win a Nobel Prize; in fact, the average age of winners increased throughout the whole of last century.

The kinds of people who show optical illusions as part of their endlessly boring Power Point presentations are also the kinds of people who talk about paradigm shifts and quantum leaps. In science these phrases mean pretty well the exact opposite to what they generally mean in general chitchat. A quantum leap isn’t an earth shattering leap forward, but about the smallest change in state possible – a paradigm shift is closer in meaning to what is generally implied by quantum leap, a complete change in your view of the universe. Mostly, the kinds of people who talk of paradigm shifts, mean something as significant as a new wrapper on a chocolate bar. So, it is not only poor Mr Escher we need to consider being unintentionally abused by the ignorance of PowerPoint Presenters, but poor old Kuhn too.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Scribble Orca I was just wondering why I was asked to count passes in the first place. Which paradigm was that?

Trevor wrote:"Paradigm shifts are not important for the old questions they help to answer, but rather for the new questions they allow us to ask. They allow us to go back to normal science, but now in a way that directs our attention away from counting basketball passes and toward the moondancing bear."

Think this is the best paragraph in the whole review.

Trevor It's an absurdly long review, really. You can see why I never was quite able to get the whole Haiku thing working for me.

Scribble Orca Your review I find
provides some simple peace of mind
for road kill like me.

Trevor Yes, jet lag is a horrible thing. I'm sure you do feel like road kill

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