Was Thomas Kuhn Right about Anything?

William Storage – 9/1/2016
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley History of Science

Fifty years ago Thomas Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution armed sociologists of science, constructionists, and truth-relativists with five decades of cliche about the political and social dimensions of theory choice and scientific progress’s inherent irrationality. Science has bias, cries the social-justice warrior. Despite actually being a scientist – or at least holding a PhD in Physics from Harvard, Kuhn isn’t well received by scientists and science writers. They generally venture into history and philosophy of science as conceived by Karl Popper, the champion of the falsification model of scientific progress.

Kuhn saw Popper’s description of science as a self-congratulatory idealization for researchers. That is, no scientific theory is ever discarded on the first  observation conflicting with the theory’s predictions. All theories have anomalous data. Dropping heliocentrism because of anomalies in Mercury’s orbit was unthinkable, especially when, as Kuhn stressed, no better model was available at the time. Einstein said that if Eddington’s experiment would have not shown bending of light rays around the sun, “I would have had to pity our dear Lord. The theory is correct all the same.”

Kuhn was wrong about a great many details. Despite the exaggeration of scientific detachment by Popper and the proponents of rational-reconstruction, Kuhn’s model of scientists’ dogmatic commitment to their theories is valid only in novel cases. Even the Copernican revolution is overstated. Once the telescope was in common use and the phases of Venus were confirmed, the philosophical edifices of geocentrism crumbled rapidly in natural philosophy. As Joachim Vadianus observed, seemingly predicting the scientific revolution, sometimes experience really can be demonstrative.

Kuhn seems to have cherry-picked historical cases of the gap between normal and revolutionary science. Some revolutions – DNA and the expanding universe for example – proceeded with no crisis and no battle to the death between the stalwarts and the upstarts. Kuhn’s concept of incommensurabilty also can’t withstand scrutiny. It is true that Einstein and Newton meant very different things when they used the word “mass.” But Einstein understood exactly what Newton meant by mass, because Einstein had grown up a Newtonian. And if brought forth, Newton, while he never could have conceived of Einsteinian mass, would have had no trouble understanding Einstein’s concept of mass from the perspective of general relativity, had Einstein explained it to him.

Likewise, Kuhn’s language about how scientists working in different paradigms truly, not merely metaphorically, “live in different worlds” should go the way of mood rings and lava lamps. Most charitably, we might chalk this up to Kuhn’s terminological sloppiness. He uses “success terms” like “live” and “see,” where he likely means “experience visually” or “perceive.” Kuhn describes two observers, both witnessing the same phenomenon, but “one sees oxygen, where another sees dephlogisticated air” (emphasis mine). That is, Kuhn confuses the descriptions of visual experiences with the actual experiences of observation – to the delight of Steven ShapinBruno Latour and the cultural relativists.

Finally, Kuhn’s notion that theories completely control observation is just as wrong as scientists’ belief that their experimental observations are free of theoretical influence and that their theories are independent of their values.

Despite these flaws, I think Kuhn was on to something. He was right, at least partly, about the indoctrination of scientists into a paradigm discouraging skepticism about their research program. What Wolfgang Lerche of CERN called “the Stanford propaganda machine” for string theory is a great example. Kuhn was especially right in describing science education as presenting science as a cumulative enterprise, relegating failed hypotheses to the footnotes. Einstein built on Newton in the sense that he added more explanations about the same phenomena; but in no way was Newton preserved within Einstein. Failing to see an Einsteinian revolution in any sense just seems akin to a proclamation of the infallibility not of science but of scientists. I was surprised to see this attitude in Stephen Weinberg’s recent To Explain the World. Despite excellent and accessible coverage of the emergence of science, he presents a strictly cumulative model of science. While Weinberg only ever mentions Kuhn in footnotes, he seems to be denying that Kuhn was ever right about anything.

For example, in describing general relativity, Weinberg says in 1919 the Times of London reported that Newton had been shown to be wrong. Weinberg says, “This was a mistake. Newton’s theory can be regarded as an approximation to Einstein’s – one that becomes increasingly valid for objects moving at velocities much less than that of light. Not only does Einstein’s theory not disprove Newton’s, relativity explains why Newton’s theory works when it does work.”

This seems a very cagey way of saying that Einstein disproved Newton’s theory. Newtonian dynamics is not an approximation of general relativity, despite their making similar predictions for mid-sized objects at small relative speeds. Kuhn’s point that Einstein and Newton had fundamentally different conceptions of mass is relevant here. Newton’s explanation of his Rule III clearly stresses universality. Newton emphasized the universal applicability of his theory because he could imagine no reason for its being limited by anything in nature. Given that, Einstein should, in terms of explanatory power, be seen as overturning – not extending – Newton, despite the accuracy of Newton for worldly physics.

Weinberg insists that Einstein is continuous with Newton in all respects. But when Eddington showed that light waves from distant stars bent around the sun during the eclipse of 1918, Einstein disproved Newtonian mechanics. Newton’s laws of gravitation predict that gravity would have no effect on light because photons do not have mass. When Einstein showed otherwise he disproved Newton outright, despite the retained utility of Newton for small values of v/c. This is no insult to Newton. Einstein certainly can be viewed as continuous with Newton in the sense of getting scientific work done. But Einsteinian mechanics do not extend Newton’s; they contradict them. This isn’t merely a metaphysical consideration; it has powerful explanatory consequences. In principle, Newton’s understanding of nature was wrong and it gave wrong predictions. Einstein’s appears to be wrong as well; but we don’t yet have a viable alternative. And that – retaining a known-flawed theory when nothing better is on the table – is, by the way, another thing Kuhn was right about.



“A few years ago I happened to meet Kuhn at a scientific meeting and complained to him about the nonsense that had been attached to his name. He reacted angrily. In a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the hall, he shouted, ‘One thing you have to understand. I am not a Kuhnian.’” – Freeman Dyson, The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions


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