The Structure of the Kuhnian Revolution

Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

Related Post Roulette

26 Responses

  1. Lyle says:

    There are a couple of nice examples of paradigm shifts in the earth sciences that make the point well. The first is the Bretz floods in the Spokane Washington Area. Harlan Bretz detected evidence of these in the 1920s but got laughed out of a presentation on it in Washington. 40 years later it became accepted after the linkage to glacial lake missoula solved the source problem. This in particular stretched the paradigm of the time frame in which natural processes are to be looked at. (Human time scales are far to short for geological processes)
    On a grander scale we have the whole plate tectonics revolution which overturned much of established geology in the 1965-1980 time frame and is continuing to remake geology. I think these examples may help the reader as well as the more physics oriented areas, as well as showing that scientific revolutions can happen at different scales.Report

  2. Michael Drew says:

    This is helpful, as I think some of the reaction in the previous thread was based in part on William’s summary you quote (mine certainly was). (And to be fair to Mr. Brafford, I don’t think he was trying at a rigorous restatement of the thesis there, but merely a shorthand sketch of the idea from which to depart on his own musings.)

    Chris/others, do you think Kuhn’s view of the structure of science’s progression is as revolutionary as perhaps his title suggests, or as it has been suggested it was within the context of extant structural-sociological understandings of the scientific enterprise extant at the time (1962)? It frankly seems like a quite insightful, plausible take on the subject it treats, but not one that itself should have effected that great a paradigm shift of its own in the structural understanding of what science does. But perhaps that view is just a phenomenon of being born and brought to these questions in a post-Kuhnian world myself…Report

    • Thanks for sticking up for me, Michael — I only brought up Kuhn as a way of leading to Allan Bloom! But I am glad we got to talk about this stuff. There are more good resources on Kuhn at the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I prefer to Wikipedia.Report

      • Chris Dierkes in reply to William Brafford says:

        Sorry William, I should have made that point clearer in my response.


        I think similar ideas were in the air at the time, but Kuhn’s book I think was a major achievement. It laid out a historical account, complete with politics, intrigue, human power dimensions and the like. If others were thinking along similar lines, nobody had previously put it together in such a persuasive fashion I would say.Report

  3. Quiddity says:

    Physics, physics, physics! That’s an area of science where newer understandings of nature often do mean that the previous system is totally replaced. But in other areas of science, it’s not that radical. The circulation of blood, studied many years ago, remains valid as a principle. In other branches a similar, step-by-step learning process is followed. But physics is different in that it’s attempting to find fundamental descriptions of how matter and energy interact. If, due to new theories and measurements, that description changes, then you can say a revolution has occurred. But I’m not so sure that the progress of science, and the behavior of scientists, is so capricious in other areas of study.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Quiddity says:

      well let’s think of Darwin. Darwin goes to the G’pos islands. He undertakes a paradigm (injunction) as a naturalist. Following the cycle depicted above, he does his naturalistic practice, observes/collects/analyzes the data, and then fits the data within the then existing Linneaen system.

      All within the current paradigm.

      Where Darwin takes off (and initiates a revolution) is he asks what is the causal factor for this classification system of speciation? And more importantly, he purposefully decides at the beginning to ask, “How can this be explained without recourse to ‘supernatural’ factors?”

      Darwin was heavily influenced by Charles Lyell’s work in geology (so I think the physics/biology distinction is not as hard as it may at first appear).

      Another biology example would be Mendel’s pea plant experiments, which caused the paradigm shift to modern genetics.Report

      • Rufus in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        They were buddies right? I wonder if people have similar problems with Lyell’s work as they do with Darwin? I’ve never heard anyone say, “the theory of slow-moving forces of geological change is a lie!” But I’d imagine Lyell was controversial, right?Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to Rufus says:

          absolutely lyell was (at the time) controversial. It’s not Darwin who disproved Bishop Usher’s 6,000 year timeline for all of human history. It was Lyell. The later theories of “biological eras” are roughly correlate to geological strata.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Quiddity says:

      As cited the earth sciences represent areas where the theory works well. In fact it was the plate tectonics revolution that lead me to study geophysics. In spring 1970 here was a field where change was rampant and new ideas bubbled up all the time, compared to solid state physics which was staid and slowly changing. Clearly the earth sciences and biology are closely related. Another paradigm shift in methods in science in general is the arrival of computational science, where problems that used to be intractable and had to be simplified away can now be calculated with computer modeling.
      I believe there are both paradigms with subject matter as well as paradigms with methods (or perhaps for the latter another name is generation change which implies a new view as the new generation arises)Report

  4. A.R.Yngve says:

    These paradigm shifts are precisely what makes physics (and its related fields, astrophysics and cosmology) so exciting to follow… you never know what those wild ‘n wacky physicists will come up with next!

    You may have noticed how scientific paradigm shifts are not always properly understood by the “larger culture.” Newton was ridiculed in contemporary cartoons, Darwin was caricatured as a monkey, the Theory of Relativity was notoriously misinterpreted as “relativism” and turned into a crude popular meme… so the next big paradigm shift in physics should be detectable by the amount of misinterpretation and bad jokes it generates…Report

  5. How much damage does this really do to Popper, though? I’ve read both, and my own sense is that Kuhn doesn’t really disagree with Popper’s falsification model of science. He just claims that falsification comes in sudden bursts.

    The result looks a lot like the theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution — with a similar set of claims and counter-claims about P.E.’s relationship to classical evolution, its degree of originality, and the respective degrees of tension within the threads of thought in evolution and in the history of science.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      some not all. It adds to Popper I would say.

      With Einstein’s theory of special relativity, they still had to test whether it would predict phenomenon or not. Which it did in the ability to explain/predict Mercury’s retrograde motion (relative to Earth), a fact Newton was never able to fully account for.

      The trouble with String Theory (or “M” Theory) is that (as of yet) it has no real capacity to observe an event that it could explain that quantum theory and/or general relativity could not. It qualifies (qua injunction and worldview) as a different paradigm relative to QT and GR, but it has no Popperian falsification moment, so it really can’t be accepted at this point full scale.Report

  6. sofianitz says:

    I can’t imagine what anybody would do with an objective certainty. I wouldn’t want one.

    Maybe to beat up people you don’t like.

    If you see an objective certainty flying around out there anywhere, kill it before it does harm to anyyone.Report

    • ThatPirateGuy in reply to sofianitz says:

      I dunno it sure would be nice to have objective certainty that medicine A is a safe and effective cure or treatment for disease B.

      Don’t be scared probably non-existent objective certainty, you can hide out with me.Report

      • > I dunno it sure would be nice to have objective certainty
        > that medicine A is a safe and effective cure or treatment
        > for disease B.

        I’d like a pony, too. We live in a probabilistic universe, not a universe of provable truths. If you want proofs, you have to go to mathematics, you can’t do it in science. In science, we don’t know what the axioms are.Report

  7. Pat Cahalan says:

    > As stated, Kuhn revealed the limitations of Popperian falsification theory by showing
    > the way in which science exists in a scientific worldview or cultural space.

    Not precisely.

    Kuhnians vs. Popperians isn’t the “Postmodernism” vs. “Positivism” battle that most people think it is (clarification: “most people” being “many scientists who listened to a couple of lectures on philosophy of science but haven’t taken any more philosophy than your average high schooler).

    Kuhn was writing a descriptive, historical narrative discussing the changing of scientific paradigms. Popper was writing a philosophical grounding for the sciences. Postmodernists have all jumped all over Kuhn as revealing that science isn’t about empiricism, but for the most part Postmodernists are doing so incorrectly (Kuhn himself famously said that he wasn’t a “Kuhnian”).Report

  8. Freddie says:

    Chris is right to say that string theory presents problems for/with Popper. Most of the time, this is taken as a problem for string theory. Yet I suspect it is a problem for Popper…. When people say that aspects of the material universe must be observable or else the description of them isn’t science, what I suspect they are really saying, at heart, is “the physical universe must arrange itself in such a way that it permits human scientific understanding.” Which would ordinarily be seen as the most flagrantly postmodernist anthropic reading, but here would actually be emanating from an objectivist source.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Freddie says:

      It’s not that the physical universe must arrange itself such that we can understand it. Rather, it’s that the business of science is only with those things in the physical universe that we can understand while using a particularly constrained toolkit. We remain free to construct other modes of thought, whether theology or string theory, as long as we don’t claim that they are in fact science. This was the treatment Popper gave Freudian psychoanalysis:

      The two psycho-analytic theories [Freud’s and Alfred Adler’s] were in a different class [from Marx]. They were simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behavior which could contradict them. This does not mean that Freud and Adler were not seeing certain things correctly; I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable. But it does mean that those “clinical observations” which analysts naïvely believe confirm their theory cannot do this any more than the daily confirmations which astrologers find in their practice.[3] And as for Freud’s epic of the Ego, the Super-ego, and the Id, no substantially stronger claim to scientific status can be made for it than for Homer’s collected stories from Olympus. These theories describe some facts, but in the manner of myths. They contain most interesting psychological suggestions, but not in a testable form.

      String theory I understand to be in the same category, at least for now. Perhaps some theoretical or practical advance will allow it to be tested in the future, which would mean we’d have to change how we think about it. Until then, the scientific toolkit doesn’t have a lot to work on.Report

      • Freddie in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        But the way that people proceed from that is to then say, “so string theory can’t be an accurate model of the universe.” And that’s straight anthropics. The question is, what if string theory is a conceptually accurate vision of the physical universe? Should cosmologists stop thinking about it, working on it, out of a conviction that it isn’t science?Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Freddie says:

          Well, yes, it would be wrong to say that string theory can’t be an accurate model of the universe. I’d think the proper thing to say is that it might be an accurate model. My understanding (and I’m right out at the edge of it here) is that it comports with observational data but adds many new things that are hard to test. So the answer has to remain “maybe.”

          How much faith do we put in it? For the “new” parts of string theory, the question hardly matters. That which can’t be tested shouldn’t matter at all, should it? Once it can be tested, we know it matters.

          The claims of Freudian psychoanalysis, however, mattered a great deal, despite their lack of falsifiability. They mattered in the medical and legal communities in some distinctly coercive ways, among other things. This is why Popper’s objections to Freud were really important, and why a Popperian objection to string theory is mostly a curiosity, except possibly in choosing whether to fund more theoretical work on string theory. One would think that the focus of such theoretical work should be to find ways of possibly falsifying the theory. That would dispel the objections once and for all.Report

          • Freddie in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            I think therein lies the great question, though: what if the structure of the physical universe is such that it defies our ability to find experimentally satisfying (read: falsifiable) ways to understand it? As a matter of pure intuition (read: bullshit), it seems to me that the limits of science won’t come from a lack of pure computational or mathematical ability, but rather from a problem of perspective, which seems to be exactly the problem that string theory proceeds under. But then, I’m fantastically unqualified to have this discussion, so.Report

            • Pat Cahalan in reply to Freddie says:

              > What if the structure of the physical universe is such that
              > it defies our ability to find experimentally satisfying (read:
              > falsifiable) ways to understand it?

              Parts of it are. There is no experimentally satisfying way of testing many of the structural hypothesis regarding black holes, for example. The current limits of our observational properties are well known in practice and the theoretical limits of our observational properties are fairly well understood as well, within the accepted bounds of our understanding. Our electron microscope technology, for example, has limited precision. No matter how good it gets we’re very unlikely to ever be able to break the Planck length barrier… at least not without a shift in understanding of the Universe that’s so significant the term “paradigm” wouldn’t even apply.

              One of the drawbacks of any formal framework is that it cannot be consistent, complete, and correct. To paraphrase Gödel, “pick two”. You can only cram so much into a formal model before it breaks, that includes experimentally verifiable science.

              That doesn’t mean that falsifiable science represents the end of knowledge (although a rational empiricist might claim so) or that anything like string theory doesn’t qualify as necessary or correct. I’m not a Popperian by any means, I don’t know that this iron-clad distinction between falsifiable empiricism and “other” is a necessary distinction in the entire domain of all science.

              I’ll generally let the physicists decide inside their domain expertise what should or should not be considered applied and theoretical physics, and what the standard of evidence should be in either case.Report

  9. Mike Farmer says:

    “what I suspect they are really saying, at heart, is “the physical universe must arrange itself in such a way that it permits human scientific understanding.” ”

    Who is actually saying this, though? Certainly not objectivists. Your rearrangement doesn’t make it so.Report