Posts Tagged innovation

Debbie Downer Doesn’t Do Design

OspreyAre you a real engineer – you know, the kind who actually knows the underlying mechanics of how the natural world works? Have you ever been evicted from an innovation workshop by some smug hipster with an art degree who your firm engaged to teach you how to think creatively? Has a self-proclaimed design guru called you a Debbie Downer because you categorically reject all spacecraft designs that  include the note, “Insert warp drive here”?

Do you wear the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics on your sleeve? Do you recoil at greentech entrepreneurs who convince investors and politicians that with innovative design, photovoltaic conversion efficiency can breach the Shockley-Queisser limit or even the Carnot limit?

Do many TED talks make you want to hurl? You know the ones. Take the second most popular TED talk of all time, where Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor relates her “stroke of insight” – an incredible tale of the transcendent peace she experienced after a complete lateral stroke. She drags out the ever-popular (false – but don’t be a Negative Nancy) left-brain/right-brain stuff as an explanation for her mystical experiences. The high-rolling TED audience swoons. Taylor then dredges up an old TED staple, stating, “the left hemisphere is linear thinking.”

Ah – linear thinking. One TED speaker shows a graph of a straight line and another of an exponential curve. He explains the magic nature of exponentiality to the spellbound audience who has apparently forgotten their high school math class on compound interest and then releases his pearl: imagine how productive we can be if we employ nonlinear thinking instead of the linear variety. He equivocates discontinuous non-linearity with exponential nonlinearity and not a soul notices. Critical thinking is for left-brained losers.

Do you groan when Jane McGonigal declares an epic win with her assertion that behaviors learned in World of Warcraft can translate into solutions to real problems if we just swallow the right dose of newthink? McGonigal reports that humans have spent 5.93 million years playing World of Warcraft. She means, of course, 5.93 million man-years (or Doritos-stained-fingers, pear-shaped-kid-years). She adds that 5.93 million years ago is when primates became bipedal (TED video at 6:05). She then addresses the evolutionary value of video games, noting that we’ve played WoW as long as we’ve walked on our hind legs. I’m not making this up. “This is true; I believe this,” as McGonigal likes to say.

If you’ve ever wanted to choke a perpetual-motion hocking idea-man, The Onion has an antidote:

,

2 Comments

A Helicopter Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

flowerpower“Fail early and often.” This war cry du jour of speakers on entrepreneurial innovation addresses several aspects of what big companies need to learn from little ones about market dynamics at the speed of the internet. The shelf life of a product idea is pretty short these days. If you don’t cannibalize your own line, a nimble competitor will eat your lunch. Failure is a necessary step on the path to innovative solutions. Short-cycle failure is much cheaper than the long-cycle variety. Innovation entails new ideas, and the idea generation phase is not the time for Negative Nelly, the devil’s advocate, to demoralize your design team. A lot of bad ideas beget new insights that spawn good ideas.

My favorite story about letting crazy ideas fly deals with Pacific Power and Light, who supplies electricity to some remote spots in the Cascades. As the story goes, storms left thick ice on their power transmission lines. Linemen were sent out into the field, who climbed the icy towers and used long hooks to knock down the ice. The process was slow, expensive and dangerous.

PP&L’s brainstorming sessions initially yielded no clever solutions. They again attacked the issue, this time ensuring cognitive diversity by including linemen, accountants, secretaries, and the mail guy.

As a joke, a lineman suggested training bears to climb the poles and shake them. Someone else added that by putting honey pots on top of the poles, the bears would go for the honey without training, and perhaps shake the poles sufficiently to knock the ice off the lines. Continuing the silliness, someone suggested using helicopters to periodically fill the honey pots.

Bingo.  A secretary, formerly a nurse’s aide in Vietnam, recalled the fury of the down-wash from the helicopter blades and asked if flying a helicopter near the power lines would be sufficient to shake the lines and knock the ice off. In fact, it is! By valuing cognitive diversity and by encouraging crazy thinking, the team found a solution. As the story goes, PP&L now uses helicopters to fly over the power transmission lines after ice storms and it works fabulously.

As is probably apparent to any student of mythology, literary form criticism or biblical criticism, the story is pure fiction. It appears in many tellings on the web, some dating back several decades. Veracity strike one: manuscript (version) differences indicate multiple independent secondary sources. Strike two: earlier versions have less textural detail than later versions (e.g., the lineman is named Bill in later tellings). Strike three: the setups for the convergence of a diverse group are strained and get more detailed over time (compare the aphorism setups in Gospel Mark vs. Matthew).

Sure, the story is fiction – but what of it? The tale itself is aphoristic – an adage. It does not rely on the credibility of its source or the accuracy of the details to be valid; it’s validity is self evident. Or as Jack Nicholson (R.P. McMurphy) is often quoted as saying in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

But as any movie fan with access to web-based movie scripts can attest, that quote never happened either. But just because McMurphy never said that just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true doesn’t mean that that isn’t true. (That last sentence contains a level-two embedded phrase, by the way.)

Further, just because Nicholson didn’t say it doesn’t mean it wasn’t said. It turns out a few others are cited as sources for this saying as well. The earliest one I could find. oddly enough, is Marcus Borg, theologian and New Testament scholar who found himself in the odd position of trying to defend Christianity while denying that Jesus said the things attributed to him. Borg’s tools are the same ones I used on the helicopter scriptures above.

Quote attribution is a tricky matter, especially when a more famous guy repeats a line from a less famous guy. Everyone knows the one about Oscar Wilde saying to James Whistler, “I wish I had said that.” To which, Whistler replied, “You will Oscar, you will.” I love this one, because it’s a quote about a quote. And none the worse when we discover, as you might expect, that it never happened – which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The exchange between Whistler and Wilde is cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. They give the source as page 67 of Leonard Cresswell Ingleby’s 1907 book, Oscar Wilde. As you might expect from my mentioning it here, Inglesby’s book contains no such quote on page 67 or anywhere else in the book. However, the 1973 Monty Python skit, Oscar Wilde, does include this exchange between Whistler and Wilde. Inclusion by the Monty Python crew, who tend to research history better than most textbook authors, is reason enough to dig a bit further for a source. Oscar Wilde researcher Peter Raby would be the guy to check on this trivia. I did. Raby traces the quote back to rumors in the early 1900s. He finds that some time after Wilde’s death Herbert Vivien, Douglas Sladen and Frank Harris all recalled the quote but disagreed on whether Wilde or Whistler or neither were involved.

I will never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.  – Seneca

Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: It’s good to be silly at the right moment.  – Horace

In a world of crowdsourcing and open innovation, it barely matters – beyond frivolous patents of course – where an idea originates or if its pedigree is respectable. Fables about bears, helicopters and Jack Nicholson are fair game. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

, ,

Leave a comment

Engineering Innovation, Environmentalism and Sustainable Energy

GlobeLightBulbIf the world is to be saved, it will be innovative engineers who save it.

There is a reasonable chance that the planet needs saving from greenhouse gas and too much carbon dioxide. It’s not certain, and the climate models have far more flaws than many admit (Trenberth’s missing heat, the missing carbon sink, etc.). But the case for global warming is plausible and credible. It’s foolish to try to quantify the likelihood of climate catastrophe; but the model’s credibility and its level of peer review is sufficient to warrant grave concern and immediate work.

Environmental activists, scientists and politicians have made real progress on the climate problem. Calamatists and deniers might not see it that way, because that progress has been by fits and starts. It has involved bitter ideological disputes, ugly politics, and money spent on absurd tangents and scams. But such is the path of progress in a democratic system; and no one has yet to find a better means of agreeing on how to live together.

Environmentalists are opinionated, irrational, pessimistic, Luddite ideologues, unwilling to change their minds or their methods despite evidence. At least that’s how their opponents see them. But national parks, low-emissions cars, lead-free paint, and elimination of chlorofluorocarbons have served us all rather well with acceptable costs; and noisy environmentalists can take much of the credit. It is hard to argue (though some have) that we aren’t better off as a result of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Environmental activism has been innovative and entrepreneurial. Bold individuals and grass-roots movements did their work by being disruptive. They sought and received investment, more in publicity than in money, from high profile Hollywood entertainers. They attached brands, like Jane Fonda, to their polemical products with great success. Richard Posner calls non-academic moralists like Rosa Parks and Susan B Anthony “moral entrepreneurs.” That term seems equally applicable to much of the environmental movement.

Environmentalism, packed with emotion and persuasive passion, is a fine tool for raising awareness. It has been wildly successful; and the word is out. Environmentalism is, however, an extremely poor tool for problem solving. Unfortunately, much of the environmental movement seems unaware of this limitation. It’s time for the engineers.

leonardoScientists have done – and will continue to do – great work in climate modeling, energy research, and geoengineering theory. They’ve shown that global warming could disrupt ocean currents causing a new ice age, that synthetic algae biofuel warrants serious study, and that direct manipulation of climate – if you look far enough into the future – is not only possible but inevitable. Man-made or not, the earth’s climate will do something very unpleasant in the next 50,000 years and humans will likely choose climate engineering over extinction. Scientists will define the mechanism for doing this; engineers will translate concepts into technology. It will be scientists who demonstrate inertial confinement fusion but it will be engineers and innovators who make it utility scale.

Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, correctly observes that America has an alternative energy fetish. While walkable neighborhoods, conservation and home insulation get little press, solar power is everyone’s darling. The lens of technology is focused almost exclusively on a single cure for our energy problems: produce more energy. But the energy crisis can also be seen as cultural rather than technological. History gives evidence that increases in production and consumption efficiency lead to more consumption (Jevons Paradox). Ozzie proposes that better designed communities, reproductive rights, efficiency codes, insulation, and dwellings designed for sensible passive solar energy have great leverage since they address demand rather than supply.

In Green Illusions Ozzie is neither anti-capitalism nor anti-technology. Some of his proposals involve behavior change and others call for innovative design and engineering aimed at reducing energy demand. On the former, I’m not convinced that enough behavior change can happen in the time needed to seriously impact CO2 output. But I’m very optimistic about the potential for technology and capitalism to save us, Jevons Paradox and all, and despite claims that technology and capitalism are the roots of evil.

The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. – Lynn White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”

Let’s change the system and then we’ll begin to change the climate and save the world. The destructive model of capitalism is eradicating life. – Hugo Chavez at the Dec. 2009 UN Climate Change Conf.

The environmental movement now seems far more interested in mutual confirmation of their moral superiority than on fixing things. Far too many environmental moral-entrepreneurs have let their fight take them to an ideological – perhaps religious – place where they dwell on ecological sin and atonement, and revel in the prospect that things are going to hell fast. Since it was technology, capitalism and Christian ethics that got us in this environmental mess, we need to reject the whole lot; and they certainly can’t be part of the cure… Not so fast.

schematicThe big variables in the CO2 game are population, per-capita energy use, device efficiency and production efficiency. Despite their local success, our moral entrepreneurs have had little effect on awareness and behavior change outside Europe and America, the so-called global north. The parts of the world just now creeping out of poverty have other priorities; per-capita usage and device efficiency will likely be driven more by economics than by morality. China, for example, now adds roughly one gigawatt of coal-based electricity generation every week. It has made it clear that no climate-related restrictions will impede its growth. And China exports about 99% of the solar panels they produce. If we cut US CO2 output to zero, it would amount to only a minor delay in the timing of any impending global warming catastrophe.

The global south is where the action is; but the successes of our environmental moral-entrepreneurs have not escaped the boundaries of the global north. Fortunately – and due solely to market forces – the fruits of our technological entrepreneurs travel around the globe at the speed of light. The Jevons Paradox is a dressed-up claim of elasticity of demand with regard to price. The efficiencies of Jevons’ concern were dollars per watt, not CO2 per watt. US electricity prices have climbed steadily (roughly constant when adjusted for inflation) for the past several decades. So Jevons is largely irrelevant in the US and is no reason to throw in the towel on production or consumption efficiency. To the extent that Jevons applies to scenarios where consumption is affected by regulation and peer pressure, it still begs for innovation to bring about higher efficiency devices and power generation means.

RetailElectricityPrice

As the global south move out of poverty, they will buy refrigerators, air conditioners and cars. If all goes well, they’ll buy more efficient versions of those appliances than we did as we crawled out of poverty. If we’re luckier still, they’ll use electricity that comes from something other than the conventional coal plants they’re building at breakneck pace. That might be coal or gas with sequestration, small nuclear, or maybe fusion if we get our act together. It won’t be wind and it won’t be solar – for land-area reasons alone (do the math).

My main point here is a call for more innovation of the engineering type and less of the moral/environmental entrepreneur type. US environmentalism is becoming increasingly short-sighted, fighting a battle that, even if won decisively in the global north, is a miniscule fraction of the whole war. And that style of environmentalism has no tools to take its battle to the global south. What we can take to the global south is engineering innovation. We can’t keep that within our borders even when we try.

Engineering and innovation, with reasonable policy intervention (i.e., Jevons-neutralizing tax) can solve the problem of sustainable clean-energy generation. Behavior change is tricky and it takes time and finesse. Adoption of superior technology is much faster. I’m putting my money on the engineers.

, , ,

2 Comments

Richard Rorty: A Matter for the Engineers

William Storage           13 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center

Richard Rorty, PhilosopherRichard Rorty (1931-2007) was arguably the most controversial philosopher in recent history. Unarguably, he was the most entertaining. Profoundly influenced by Thomas Kuhn, Rorty is fascinating and inspirational, even for engineers and scientists.

Rorty’s thought defied classification – literally; encyclopedias struggle to pin philosophical categories to him. He felt that confining yourself to a single category leads to personal stagnation on all levels. An interview excerpt at the end of this post ends with a casual yet weighty statement of his confidence in engineers’ ability to save the world.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rorty looked at familiar things in different light – and could explain his position in plain English. I never found much of Heidegger to be coherent, let alone important. No such problem with Dick Rorty.

Rorty could simplify arcane philosophical concepts. He saw similarities where others saw differences, being mostly rejected by schools of thought he drew from. This was especially true for pragmatism. Often accused of hijacking this term, Rorty offered that pragmatism is a vague, ambiguous, and overworked word, but nonetheless, “it names the chief glory of our country’s intellectual tradition.” He was enamored with moral and scientific progress, and often glowed with optimism and hope while his contemporaries brooded in murky, nihilistic dungeons.

Richard Rorty, PhilosopherRichard Rorty photo by Mary Rorty. Used by permission.

Rorty called himself a “Kuhnian” apart from those Kuhnians for whom The Structure of Scientific Revolution justified moral relativism and epistemic nihilism. Rorty’s critics in the hard sciences – at least those who embrace Kuhn – have gone to great lengths to distance Kuhn from Rorty. Philosophers have done the same, perhaps a bit sore from Rorty’s denigration of analytic philosophy and his insistence that philosophers have no special claim to wisdom. Kyle Cavagnini in the Spring 2012 issue of Stance (“Descriptions of Scientific Revolutions: Rorty’s Failure at Redescribing Scientific Progress”) finds that Rorty tries too hard to make Kuhn a relativist:

“Kuhn’s work provided a new framework in philosophy of science that garnered much attention, leading some of his theories to be adopted outside of the natural sciences. Unfortunately, some of these adoptions have not been faithful to Kuhn’s original theories, and at times just plain erroneous conclusions are drawn that use Kuhn as their justification. These misreadings not only detract from the power of Kuhn’s argument, but also serve to add false support for theories that Kuhn was very much against; Rorty was one such individual.”

Cavagnini may have some valid technical points. But it’s as easy to misread Rorty as to misread Kuhn. As I read Rorty, he derives from Kuhn that the authority of science has no basis beyond scientific consensus. It then follows for Rorty that instituational science and scientists have no basis for a privileged status in acquiring truth. Scientist who know their stuff shouldn’t disagree on this point. Rorty’s position is not cultural constructivism applied to science. He doesn’t remotely imply that one claim of truth – scientific or otherwise – is as good as another. In fact, Rorty explicitly argues against that position as applied to both science and ethics. Rorty then takes ideas he got from Kuhn to places that Kuhn would not have gone, without projecting his philosophical ideas onto Kuhn:

“To say that the study of the history of science, like the study of the rest of history, must be hermeneutical, and to deny (as I, but not Kuhn, would) that there is something extra called ‘rational reconstruction’ which can legitimize current scientific practice, is still not to say that the atoms, wave packages, etc., discovered by the physical scientists are creations of the human spirit.”  – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

“I hope to convince the reader that the dialectic within analytical philosophy, which has carried … philosophy of science from Carnap to Kuhn, needs to be carried a few steps further.” – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

What Rorty calls “leveling down science” is aimed at the scientism of logical positivists in philosophy – those who try to “science-up” analytic philosophy:

“I tend to view natural science as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes” – Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to his Critics

For Rorty, both modern science and modern western ethics can claim superiority over their precursors and competitors. In other words, we are perfectly capable of judging that we’ve made moral and scientific progress without a need for a privileged position of any discipline, and without any basis beyond consensus. This line of thought enabled the political right to accuse Rorty of moral relativism and at the same time the left to accuse him of bigotry and ethnocentrism. Both did vigorously. [note]

You can get a taste of Rorty from the sound and video snippets available on the web, e.g. this clip where he dresses down the standard philosophical theory of truth with an argument that would thrill mathematician Kurt Gödel:

In his 2006 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, he explains his position, neither moral absolutist nor moral relativist (though accused of being both by different factions), in praise of western progress in science and ethics.

Another example of Rorty’s nuanced position is captured on tape in Stanford’s archives of the Entitled Opinions radio program. Host Robert Harrison is an eloquent scholar and announcer, but in a 2005 Entitled Opinions interview, Rorty frustrates Harrison to the point of being tongue-tied. At some point in the discussion Rorty offers that the rest of the world should become more like America. This strikes Harrison as perverse.  Harrison asks for clarification, getting a response he finds even more perverse:

Harrison: What do you mean that the rest of the world should become a lot more like America? Would it be desirable to have all the various cultures across the globe Americanize? Would that not entail some sort of loss at least at the level of diversity or certain wisdoms that go back through their own particular traditions. What would be lost in the Americanization or Norwegianization of the world?

Rorty: A great deal would be lost. A great deal was lost when the Roman Empire suppressed a lot of native cultures. A great deal was lost when the Han Empire in China suppressed a lot of native cultures […]. Whenever there’s a rise in a great power a lot of great cultures get suppressed.  That’s the price we pay for history.

Asked if this is not too high a price to pay, Rorty answers that if you could get American-style democracy around the globe, it would be a small price to have paid. Harrison is astounded, if not offended:

Harrison: Well here I’m going to speak in my own proper voice and to really disagree in this sense: that  I think governments and forms of government are the result of a whole host of contingent geographical historical factors whereby western bourgeois liberalism or democracy arose through a whole set of circumstances that played themselves out over time, and I think that [there is in] America a certain set of presumptions that our form of democracy is infinitely exportable … [and] that we can just take this model of American democracy and make it work elsewhere. I think experience has shown us that it’s not that easy.

Rorty: We can’t make it work elsewhere but people coming to our country and finding out how things are done in the democratic west can go back and try to imitate that in their own countries. They’ve often done so with considerable success. I was very impressed on a visit to Guangzhou to see a replica of the statue of Liberty in one of the city parks. It was built by the first generation of Chinese students to visit America when they got back. They built a replica of the Statue of Liberty in order to help to try to explain to the other Chinese what was so great about the country they’d come back from. And remember that a replica of the Statue of Liberty was carried by the students in Tiananmen Square.

Harrison (agitated): Well OK but that’s one way. What if you… Why can’t we go to China and see a beautiful statue of the Buddha or something, and understand equally – have a moment of enlightenment and bring that statue back and say that we have something to learn from this other culture out there. And why is the statue of liberty the final transcend[ant] – you say yourself as a philosopher that you don’t – that there are no absolutes and that part of the misunderstanding in the history of philosophy is that there are no absolutes. It sounds like that for you the Statue of Liberty is an absolute.

Rorty: How about it’s the best thing anybody has come up with so far. It’s done more for humanity than the Buddha ever did. And it gives us something that … [interrupted]

Harrison: How can we know that!?

Rorty: From history.

Harrison: Well, for example, what do we know about the happiness of the Buddhist cultures from the inside?  Can we really know from the outside that we’re happier than they are?

Rorty: I suspect so. We’ve all had experiences in moving around from culture to culture. They’re not closed off entities, opaque to outsiders. You can talk to people raised in lots of different places about how happy they are and what they’d like.

Then it spirals down a bit further. Harrison asks Rorty if he thinks capitalism is a neutral phenomenon. Rorty replies that capitalism is the worst system imaginable except for all the others that have been tried so far. He offers that communism, nationalization of production and state capitalism were utter disasters, adding that private property and private business are the only option left until some genius comes up with a new model.

Harrison then reveals his deep concern over the environment and the free market’s effect on it, suggesting that since the human story is now shown to be embedded in the world of nature, that philosophy might entertain the topic of “life” – specifically, progressing beyond 20th century humanist utopian values in light of climate change and resource usage. Rorty offers that unless we develop fusion energy or similar, we’ve had it just as much as if the terrorists get their hands on nuclear bombs. Rorty says human life and nature are valid concerns, but that he doesn’t see that they give any reason for philosophers to start talking about life, a topic he says philosophy has thus far failed to illuminate.

This irritates Harrison greatly. At one point he curtly addresses Rorty as “my dear Dick.” Rorty’s clarification, his apparent detachment, and his brevity seem to make things worse:

Rorty: “Well suppose that we find out that it’s all going to be wiped out by an asteroid. Would you want philosophers to suddenly start thinking about asteroids? We may well collapse due to the exhaustion of natural resources but what good is it going to do for philosophers to start thinking about natural resources?”

Harrison: “Yeah but Dick there’s a difference between thinking of asteroids, which is something that is outside of human control and which is not submitted to human decision and doesn’t enter into the political sphere, and talking about something which is completely under the governance of human action. I don’t say it’s under the governance of human will, but it is human action which is bringing about the asteroid, if you like. And therefore it’s not a question of waiting around for some kind of natural disaster to happen, because we are the disaster – or one could say that we are the disaster – and that the maximization of wealth for the maximum amount of people is exactly what is putting us on this track toward a disaster.

Rorty: Well, we’ve accommodated environmental change before. Maybe we can accommodate it again; maybe we can’t. But surely this is a matter for the engineers rather than the philosophers.

A matter for the engineers indeed.

.

————————————————-

.

Notes

1) Rorty and politics: The academic left cheered as Rorty shelled Ollie North’s run for the US Senate. As usual, not mincing words, Rorty called North a liar, a claim later repeated by Nancy Reagan. There was little cheering from the right when Rorty later had the academic left in his crosshairs; perhaps they failed to notice.. In 1997 Rorty wrote that the academic left must shed its anti-Americanism and its quest for even more abusive names for “The System.” “Outside the academy,  Americans still want to feel patriotic,” observed Rorty. “They still want to feel part  of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a  better place.”

On racism, Rorty observed that the left once promoted equality by saying we were all Americans, regardless of color. By contrast, he said, the contemporary left now “urges that America should  not be a melting-pot, because we need to respect one another  in our differences.” He chastised the academic left for destroying any hope for a sense of commonality by highlighting differences and preserving otherness. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals,” wrote Rorty.

For Dinesh D’Souza, patriotism is no substitute for religion. D’Souza still today seems obsessed with Rorty’s having once stated his intent “to arrange things so that students who enter as  bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with  views more like our own.” This assault on Christianity lands Rorty on a D’Souza enemy list that includes Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, D’Souza apparently unaware that Rorty’s final understanding of pragmatism included an accomodation of liberal Christianity.

2) See Richard Rorty bibliographical material and photos maintained by the Rorty family on the Stanford web site. 

, , , , , ,

4 Comments

Thomas Kuhn’s Disruptive Paradigm Shift Innovation

William Storage           4 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society

Down Not Out

Decades ago I read Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but forgot the details except for the general notion of paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts are unforgettable. They’re popping up everywhere these days. Recently I’ve revisited Kuhn in detail with an eye toward understanding the application of science and criticism of science to technology and innovation (related posts: Postmodern Management Strategy, A New Misunderstanding of Science, Postmodernism, Thomas KuhnPaul Feyerabend).

Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts was innovative and disruptive, and he’s often cited in reference to disruptive innovation. His influence is amazingly broad. It’s hard to get through a TED conference or an innovation seminar without hearing his name. As I mentioned in my first post on Kuhn, he strongly rejected most use of his work. No matter – the accidental rebel Kuhn lives on, 50 years after Structure was published. Kuhn is the most famous of several historians/philosophers of science whose work escaped the realm of academia in the ’60s. This explosion of popularity may never have happened without the others in that field who set the stage for Structure. Primarily, these were Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend.

In revisiting their work, I’ve collected some amazing quotes that show why these guys’ influence (mainly through Kuhn) went viral. The essential background here is that these scholars were, for the most part, methodologically and politically conservative and their writing was intended for a narrow audience of readers in their own fields. This important fact escaped (and continues to escape) most of the actual audience receiving their messages.

Kuhn was highly conservative, objectivist, authoritarian and generally positivist (by most understandings of positivism) when he wrote Structure and remained so throughout his career. The standard public view of Kuhn, however, was that he was subjectivist, relativist and liberal. These characteristics actually fit Kuhn’s opponent Karl Popper somewhat better, though Popper was closer in reality to the public conception of Kuhn. Paul Feyerabend was all over the board regarding Popper vs. Kuhn and most other subjects. Feyerabend, unlike both Popper and Kuhn, once embraced the cultural constructivist view of science but ultimately landed in objectivism. Imre Lakatos attempted a hybrid model of science somewhere between that of Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn’s runaway fame vanquished Popper and rendered Lakatos irrelevant.

The above summary grossly oversimplifies. None of these men where ideologues; their positions were far too highly developed for terms like relativist to be of much use beyond the coarsest of characterization. The below quotes show just how susceptible their writings can be to social reinterpretation, creative misunderstanding, and application to a spectrum of unrelated causes, especially when removed from their context.

Before the quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend, I’ll give links to some recent writings that use Kuhn – not merely his terminology, which is ubiquitous – but direct references that actually cite The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I’m listing some examples without judgment as to creative adaptation, creative misunderstanding, or clueless misappropriation.

Recent usage of Kuhn’s view of Paradigm Shift

Provocative quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend:

Thomas Kuhn’s apparent attack on logic and empiricism:

As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community… this issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Thomas Kuhn on the paradigm shift:

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn on interpretation of evidence:

Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn on bias in research:

Science does not deal in all possible laboratory manipulations. Instead it selects those relevant to the juxtaposition of a paradigm with the immediate experience that the paradigm has partially determined.  – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn on science’s distance from truth:

We may… have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Al Gore invoking Kuhn on paradigm shifts:

Well-established theories collapse under the weight of new facts and observations which cannot be explained, and then accumulate to the point where the once useful theory is clearly obsolete. – Commencement address at M.I.T. (7 Jun 1996)

Karl Popper on the role of the investigator:

… every step is guided by theory. We do not stumble upon our experiences, nor do we let them flow over us like a stream. Rather, we have to be active: we have to ‘make’ our experiences. It is we who always formulate the questions to be put to nature; it is we who try again and again to put these questions so as to elicit a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (for nature does not give an answer unless pressed for it). And in the end, it is again we who give the answer; it is we ourselves who, after severe scrutiny, decide upon the answer. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959

Popper on impossibility of justification and verification:

The best we can say of a hypothesis is that up to now it has been able to show its worth, and that it has been more successful than other hypotheses although, in principle, it can never be justified… – The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Popper on the shaky foundations of science:

 The empirical basis of objective science has … nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Paul Feyerabend’s often-quoted apparent defense of anarchy:

It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. – Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), 27-8.

Feyerabend’s rarely quoted qualification of the above:

Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. – Against Method

Feyerabend, sounding very conservative on the cultural-construction model of science:

How can an enterprise depend on culture in so many ways, and yet produce such solid results? Most answers to this question are either incomplete or incoherent. Physicists take the fact for granted. Movements that view quantum mechanics as a turning-point in thought – and that include fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a New Age, and relativists of all sorts – get aroused by the cultural component and forget predictions and technology. – “Atoms and Consciousness,” Common Knowledge Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992

Sociologist Steve Fuller on Kuhn vs. Popper:

… both can reasonably lay claim to having been seriously misinterpreted by friends and foes alike. The situation has not been helped by the standard presentation of the ‘Kuhn–Popper debate’ in textbooks on philosophy and the scientific method. In terms of scholastic affiliations, Popper is portrayed as objectivist, realist and positivist, while Kuhn appears as subjectivist, relativist and historicist. … Thus, philosophers – even the great ones – spend most of their time attacking straw opponents who fail to correspond to any actual precursor. – Kuhn vs. Popper, 2003

Imre Lakatos defending philosophy of science against scientists:

How can a mere philosopher devise criteria distinguishing between good and bad science, knowing it is an inutterable mystic secret of the Royal Society?  – ‘Lecture One on the Scientific Method’ (1973)

Lakatos against Popper:

No experimental result can ever kill a theory: any theory can be saved from counterinstances either by some auxiliary hypothesis or by a suitable reinterpretation of its terms. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London 1965 (1970), Vol. 4, 116.

Lakatos on science creating its own universe:

Scientists dream up phantasies and then pursue a highly selective hunt for new facts which fit these phantasies. This process may be described as ‘science creating its own universe’ (as long as one remembers that ‘creating’ here is used in a provocative-idiosyncratic sense). A brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests) might succeed in pushing any fantastic programme ahead, or alternatively, if so inclined, in overthrowing any arbitrarily chosen pillar of ‘established knowledge’. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes

Feyerabend on popular use of Kuhn:

Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash – Against Method

.

———————————————-

Down Not Out” photo by Thomas Hawk, used by permission  See him on Flickr.

, , ,

4 Comments