Posts Tagged Thomas Kuhn
“How easy it is to lead people by the nose in a rational way.”
A similarly named post I wrote on Paul Feyerabend seven years ago turned out to be my most popular post by far. Seeing it referenced in a few places has made me cringe, and made me face the fact that I failed to make my point. I’ll try to correct that here. I don’t remotely agree with the paper in Nature that called Feyerabend the worst enemy of science, nor do I side with the postmodernists that idolize him. I do find him to be one of the most provocative thinkers of the 20th century, brash, brilliant, and sometimes full of crap.
Feyerabend opened his profound Against Method by telling us to always remember that what he writes in the book does not reflect any deep convictions of his, but that he intends “merely show how easy it is to lead people by the nose in a rational way.” I.e., he was more telling us what he thought we needed to hear than what he necessarily believed. In his autobiography he wrote that for Against Method he had used older material but had “replaced moderate passages with more outrageous ones.” Those using and abusing Feyerabend today have certainly forgot what this provocateur, who called himself an entertainer, told us always to remember about him in his writings.
Any who think Feyerabend frivolous should examine the scientific rigor in his analysis of Galileo’s work. Any who find him to be an enemy of science should actually read Against Method instead of reading about him, as quotes pulled from it can be highly misleading as to his intent. My communications with some of his friends after he died in 1994 suggest that while he initially enjoyed ruffling so many feathers with Against Method, he became angered and ultimately depressed over both critical reactions against it and some of the audiences that made weapons of it. In 1991 he wrote, “I often wished I had never written that fucking book.”
I encountered Against Method searching through a library’s card catalog seeking an authority on the scientific method. I learned from Feyerabend that no set of methodological rules fits the great advances and discoveries in science. It’s obvious once you think about it. Pick a specific scientific method – say the hypothetico-deductive model – or any set of rules, and Feyerabend will name a scientific discovery that would not have occurred had the scientist, from Galileo to Feynman, followed that method, or any other.
Part of Feyerabend’s program was to challenge the positivist notion that in real science, empiricism trumps theory. Galileo’s genius, for Feyerabend, was allowing theory to dominate observation. In Dialogue Galileo wrote:
Nor can I ever sufficiently admire the outstanding acumen of those who have taken hold of this opinion and accepted it as true: they have, through sheer force of intellect, done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed them to be the contrary.
For Feyerabend, against Popper and the logical positivists of the mid 1900’s, Galileo’s case exemplified a need to grant theory priority over evidence. This didn’t sit well with empiricist leanings of the the post-war western world. It didn’t set well with most scientists or philosophers. Sociologists and literature departments loved it. It became fuel for fire of relativism sweeping America in the 70’s and 80’s and for the 1990’s social constructivists eager to demote science to just another literary genre.
But in context, and in the spheres for which Against Method was written, many people – including Feyerabend’s peers from 1970 Berkeley, with whom I’ve had many conversations on the topic, conclude that the book’s goading style was a typical Feyerabendian corrective provocation to that era’s positivistic dogma.
Feyerabend distrusts the orthodoxy of social practices of what Thomas Kuhn termed “normal science” – what scientific institutions do in their laboratories. Unlike their friend Imre Lakatos, Feyerabend distrusts any rule-based scientific method at all. Instead, Feyerabend praises the scientific innovation and individual creativity. For Feyerabend science in the mid 1900’s had fallen prey to the “tyranny of tightly-knit, highly corroborated, and gracelessly presented theoretical systems.” What would he say if alive today?
As with everything in the philosophy of science in the late 20th century, some of the disagreement between Feyerabend, Kuhn, Popper and Lakatos revolved around miscommunication and sloppy use of language. The best known case of this was Kuhn’s inconsistent use of the term paradigm. But they all (perhaps least so Lakatos) talked past each other by failing to differentiate different meanings of the word science, including:
- An approach or set of rules and methods for inquiry about nature
- A body of knowledge about nature
- In institution, culture or community of scientists, including academic, government and corporate
Kuhn and Feyerabend in particular vacillating between meaning science as a set of methods and science as an institution. Feyerabend certainly was referring to an institution when he said that science was a threat to democracy and that there must be “a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions.” Along these lines Feyerabend thought that modern institutional science resembles more the church of Galileo’s day than it resembles Galileo.
On the matter of state control of science, Feyerabend went further than Eisenhower did in his “military industrial complex” speech, even with the understanding that what Eisenhower was describing was a military-academic-industrial complex. Eisenhower worried that a government contract with a university “becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” Feyerabend took this worry further, writing that university research requires conforming to orthodoxy and “a willingness to subordinate one’s ideas to those of a team leader.” Feyerabend disparaged Kuhn’s normal science as dogmatic drudgery that stifles scientific creativity.
A second area of apparent miscommunication about the history/philosophy of science in the mid 1900’s was the descriptive/normative distinction. John Heilbron, who was Kuhn’s grad student when Kuhn wrote Structure of Scientific Revolutions, told me that Kuhn absolutely despised Popper, not merely as a professional rival. Kuhn wanted to destroy Popper’s notion that scientists discard theories on finding disconfirming evidence. But Popper was describing ideally performed science; his intent was clearly normative. Kuhn’s work, said Heilbron (who doesn’t share my admiration for Feyerabend), was intended as normative only for historians of science, not for scientists. True, Kuhn felt that it was pointless to try to distinguish the “is” from the “ought” in science, but this does not mean he thought they were the same thing.
As with Kuhn’s use of paradigm, Feyerabend’s use of the term science risks equivocation. He drifts between methodology and institution to suit the needs of his argument. At times he seems to build a straw man of science in which science insists it creates facts as opposed to building models. Then again, on this matter (fact/truth vs. models as the claims of science) he seems to be more right about the science of 2019 than he was about the science of 1975.
While heavily indebted to Popper, Feyerabend, like Kuhn, grew hostile to Popper’s ideas of demarcation and falsification: “let us look at the standards of the Popperian school, which are still being taken seriously in the more backward regions of knowledge.” He eventually expanded his criticism of Popper’s idea of theory falsification to a categorical rejection of Popper’s demarcation theories and of Popper’s critical rationalism in general. Now from the perspective of half a century later, a good bit of the tension between Popper and both Feyerabend and Kuhn and between Kuhn and Feyerabend seems to have been largely semantic.
For me, Feyerabend seems most relevant today through his examination of science as a threat to democracy. He now seems right in ways that even he didn’t anticipate. He thought it a threat mostly in that science (as an institution) held complete control over what is deemed scientifically important for society. In contrast, people as individuals or small competing groups, historically have chosen what counts as being socially valuable. In this sense science bullied the citizen, thought Feyerabend. Today I think we see a more extreme example of bullying, in the case of global warming for example, in which government and institutionalized scientists are deciding not only what is important as a scientific agenda but what is important as energy policy and social agenda. Likewise the role that neuroscience plays in primary education tends to get too much of the spotlight in the complex social issues of how education should be conducted. One recalls Lakatos’ concern against Kuhn’s confidence in the authority of “communities.” Lakatos had been imprisoned by the Nazis for revisionism. Through that experience he saw Kuhn’s “assent of the relevant community” as not much of a virtue if that community has excessive political power and demands that individual scientists subordinate their ideas to it.
As a tiny tribute to Feyerabend, about whom I’ve noted caution is due in removal of his quotes from their context, I’ll honor his provocative spirit by listing some of my favorite quotes, removed from context, to invite misinterpretation and misappropriation.
“The similarities between science and myth are indeed astonishing.”
“The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”
“All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’.”
“Revolutions have transformed not only the practices their initiators wanted to change buy the very principles by means of which… they carried out the change.”
“Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash.”
“First-world science is one science among many.”
“Progress has always been achieved by probing well-entrenched and well-founded forms of life with unpopular and unfounded values. This is how man gradually freed himself from fear and from the tyranny of unexamined systems.”
“Research in large institutes is not guided by Truth and Reason but by the most rewarding fashion, and the great minds of today increasingly turn to where the money is — which means military matters.”
“The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.”
“Without a constant misuse of language, there cannot be any discovery, any progress.”
Photos of Paul Feyerabend courtesy of Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend
In my last post I ended with the question of whether science in the pure sense can withstand science in the corporate, institutional, and academic senses. Here’s a bit more on the matter.
Ronald Reagan, pandering to a church group in Dallas, famously said about evolution, “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only.” (George Bush, often “quoted” as saying this, did not.) Reagan was likely ignorant of the distinction between two uses of the word, theory. On the street, “theory” means an unsettled conjecture. In science a theory – gravitation for example – is a body of ideas that explains observations and makes predictions. Reagan’s statement fueled years of appeals to teach creationism in public schools, using titles like creation science and intelligent design. While the push for creation science is usually pinned on southern evangelicals, it was UC Berkeley law professor Phillip E Johnson who brought us intelligent design.
Arkansas was a forerunner in mandating equal time for creation science. But its Act 590 of 1981 (Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act) was shut down a year later by McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Judge William Overton made philosophy of science proud with his set of demarcation criteria. Science, said Overton:
- is guided by natural law
- is explanatory by reference to natural law
- is testable against the empirical world
- holds tentative conclusions
- is falsifiable
For earlier thoughts on each of Overton’s five points, see, respectively, Isaac Newton, Adelard of Bath, Francis Bacon, Thomas Huxley, and Karl Popper.
In the late 20th century, religious fundamentalists were just one facet of hostility toward science. Science was also under attack on the political and social fronts, as well an intellectual or epistemic front.
President Eisenhower, on leaving office in 1960, gave his famous “military industrial complex” speech warning of the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.” At about the same time the growing anti-establishment movements – perhaps centered around Vietnam war protests – vilified science for selling out to corrupt politicians, military leaders and corporations. The ethics of science and scientists were under attack.
Also at the same time, independently, an intellectual critique of science emerged claiming that scientific knowledge necessarily contained hidden values and judgments not based in either objective observation (see Francis Bacon) or logical deduction (See Rene Descartes). French philosophers and literary critics Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida argued – nontrivially in my view – that objectivity and value-neutrality simply cannot exist; all knowledge has embedded ideology and cultural bias. Sociologists of science ( the “strong program”) were quick to agree.
This intellectual opposition to the methodological validity of science, spurred by the political hostility to the content of science, ultimately erupted as the science wars of the 1990s. To many observers, two battles yielded a decisive victory for science against its critics. The first was publication of Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt in 1994. The second was a hoax in which Alan Sokal submitted a paper claiming that quantum gravity was a social construct along with other postmodern nonsense to a journal of cultural studies. After it was accepted and published, Sokal revealed the hoax and wrote a book denouncing sociology of science and postmodernism.
Sadly, Sokal’s book, while full of entertaining examples of the worst of postmodern critique of science, really defeats only the most feeble of science’s enemies, revealing a poor grasp of some of the subtler and more valid criticism of science. For example, the postmodernists’ point that experimentation is not exactly the same thing as observation has real consequences, something that many earlier scientists themselves – like Robert Boyle and John Herschel – had wrestled with. Likewise, Higher Superstition, in my view, falls far below what we expect from Gross and Levitt. They deal Bruno Latour a well-deserved thrashing for claiming that science is a completely irrational process, and for the metaphysical conceit of holding that his own ideas on scientific behavior are fact while scientists’ claims about nature are not. But beyond that, Gross and Levitt reveal surprisingly poor knowledge of history and philosophy of science. They think Feyerabend is anti-science, they grossly misread Rorty, and waste time on a lot of strawmen.
Following closely on the postmodern critique of science were the sociologists pursuing the social science of science. Their findings: it is not objectivity or method that delivers the outcome of science. In fact it is the interests of all scientists except social scientists that govern the output of scientific inquiry. This branch of Science and Technology Studies (STS), led by David Bloor at Edinburgh in the late 70s, overplayed both the underdetermination of theory by evidence and the concept of value-laden theories. These scientists also failed to see the irony of claiming a privileged position on the untenability of privileged positions in science. I.e., it is an absolute truth that there are no absolute truths.
While postmodern critique of science and facile politics in STC studies seem to be having a minor revival, the threats to real science from sociology, literary criticism and anthropology (I don’t mean that all sociology and anthropology are non-scientific) are small. But more subtle and possibly more ruinous threats to science may exist; and they come partly from within.
Modern threats to science seem more related to Eisenhower’s concerns than to the postmodernists. While Ike worried about the influence the US military had over corporations and universities (see the highly nuanced history of James Conant, Harvard President and chair of the National Defense Research Committee), Eisenhower’s concern dealt not with the validity of scientific knowledge but with the influence of values and biases on both the subjects of research and on the conclusions reached therein. Science, when biased enough, becomes bad science, even when scientists don’t fudge the data.
Pharmaceutical research is the present poster child of biased science. Accusations take the form of claims that GlaxoSmithKline knew that Helicobacter pylori caused ulcers – not stress and spicy food – but concealed that knowledge to preserve sales of the blockbuster drugs, Zantac and Tagamet. Analysis of those claims over the past twenty years shows them to be largely unsupported. But it seems naïve to deny that years of pharmaceutical companies’ mailings may have contributed to the premature dismissal by MDs and researchers of the possibility that bacteria could in fact thrive in the stomach’s acid environment. But while Big Pharma may have some tidying up to do, its opponents need to learn what a virus is and how vaccines work.
Pharmaceutical firms generally admit that bias, unconscious and of the selection and confirmation sort – motivated reasoning – is a problem. Amgen scientists recently tried to reproduce results considered landmarks in basic cancer research to study why clinical trials in oncology have such high failure rate. They reported in Nature that they were able to reproduce the original results in only six of 53 studies. A similar team at Bayer reported that only about 25% of published preclinical studies could be reproduced. That the big players publish analyses of bias in their own field suggests that the concept of self-correction in science is at least somewhat valid, even in cut-throat corporate science.
Some see another source of bad pharmaceutical science as the almost religious adherence to the 5% (+- 1.96 sigma) definition of statistical significance, probably traceable to RA Fisher’s 1926 The Arrangement of Field Experiments. The 5% false-positive probability criterion is arbitrary, but is institutionalized. It can be seen as a classic case of subjectivity being perceived as objectivity because of arbitrary precision. Repeat any experiment long enough and you’ll get statistically significant results within that experiment. Pharma firms now aim to prevent such bias by participating in a registration process that requires researchers to publish findings, good, bad or inconclusive.
Academic research should take note. As is often reported, the dependence of publishing on tenure and academic prestige has taken a toll (“publish or perish”). Publishers like dramatic and conclusive findings, so there’s a strong incentive to publish impressive results – too strong. Competitive pressure on 2nd tier publishers leads to their publishing poor or even fraudulent study results. Those publishers select lax reviewers, incapable of or unwilling to dispute authors. Karl Popper’s falsification model of scientific behavior, in this scenario, is a poor match for actual behavior in science. The situation has led to hoaxes like Sokal’s, but within – rather than across – disciplines. Publication of the nonsensical “Fuzzy”, Homogeneous Configurations by Marge Simpson and Edna Krabappel (cartoon character names) by the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems in 2014 is a popular example. Following Alan Sokal’s line of argument, should we declare the discipline of computational intelligence to be pseudoscience on this evidence?
Note that here we’re really using Bruno Latour’s definition of science – what scientists and related parties do with a body of knowledge in a network, rather than simply the body of knowledge. Should scientists be held responsible for what corporations and politicians do with their knowledge? It’s complicated. When does flawed science become bad science. It’s hard to draw the line; but does that mean no line needs to be drawn?
Environmental science, I would argue, is some of the worst science passing for genuine these days. Most of it exists to fill political and ideological roles. The Bush administration pressured scientists to suppress communications on climate change and to remove the terms “global warming” and “climate change” from publications. In 2005 Rick Piltz resigned from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program claiming that Bush appointee Philip Cooney had personally altered US climate change documents to lessen the strength of their conclusions. In a later congressional hearing, Cooney confirmed having done this. Was this bad science, or just bad politics? Was it bad science for those whose conclusions had been altered not to blow the whistle?
The science of climate advocacy looks equally bad. Lack of scientific rigor in the IPCC is appalling – for reasons far deeper than the hockey stick debate. Given that the IPCC started with the assertion that climate change is anthropogenic and then sought confirming evidence, it is not surprising that the evidence it has accumulated supports the assertion. Compelling climate models, like that of Rick Muller at UC Berkeley, have since given strong support for anthropogenic warming. That gives great support for the anthropogenic warming hypothesis; but gives no support for the IPCC’s scientific practices. Unjustified belief, true or false, is not science.
Climate change advocates, many of whom are credentialed scientists, are particularly prone to a mixing bad science with bad philosophy, as when evidence for anthropogenic warming is presented as confirming the hypothesis that wind and solar power will reverse global warming. Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, a pernicious proponent of such activism, does immeasurable damage to his own stated cause with his descent into the renewables fantasy.
Finally, both major climate factions stoop to tying their entire positions to the proposition that climate change has been measured (or not). That is, both sides are in implicit agreement that if no climate change has occurred, then the whole matter of anthropogenic climate-change risk can be put to bed. As a risk man observing the risk vector’s probability/severity axes – and as someone who buys fire insurance though he has a brick house – I think our science dollars might be better spent on mitigation efforts that stand a chance of being effective rather than on 1) winning a debate about temperature change in recent years, or 2) appeasing romantic ideologues with “alternative” energy schemes.
Science survived Abe Lincoln (rain follows the plow), Ronald Reagan (evolution just a theory) and George Bush (coercion of scientists). It will survive Barack Obama (persecution of deniers) and Jerry Brown and Al Gore (science vs. pronouncements). It will survive big pharma, cold fusion, superluminal neutrinos, Mark Jacobson, Brian Greene, and the Stanford propaganda machine. Science will survive bad science because bad science is part of science, and always has been. As Paul Feyerabend noted, Galileo routinely used propaganda, unfair rhetoric, and arguments he knew were invalid to advance his worldview.
Theory on which no evidence can bear is religion. Theory that is indifferent to evidence is often politics. Granting Bloor, for sake of argument, that all theory is value-laden, and granting Kuhn, for sake of argument, that all observation is theory-laden, science still seems to have an uncanny knack for getting the world right. Planes fly, quantum tunneling makes DVD players work, and vaccines prevent polio. The self-corrective nature of science appears to withstand cranks, frauds, presidents, CEOs, generals and professors. As Carl Sagan Often said, science should withstand vigorous skepticism. Further, science requires skepticism and should welcome it, both from within and from irksome sociologists.
XKCD cartoon courtesy of xkcd.com
April 1 2015.
My neighbor asked me if I thought anything new ever happened in philosophy, or whether, 2500 years after Socrates, all that could be worked out in philosophy had been wrapped up and shipped. Alfred Whitehead came to mind, who wrote in Process and Reality that the entire European philosophical tradition was merely footnotes to Plato. I don’t know what Whitehead meant by this, or for that matter, by the majority of his metaphysical ramblings. I’m no expert, but for my money most of what’s great in philosophy has happened in the last few centuries – including some real gems in the last few decades.
For me, ancient, eastern, and medieval philosophy is merely a preface to Hume. OK, a few of his predecessors deserve a nod – Peter Abelard, Adelard of Bath, and Francis Bacon. But really, David Hume was the first human honest enough to admit that we can’t really know much about anything worth knowing and that our actions are born of custom, not reason. Hume threw a wrench into the works of causation and induction and stopped them cold. Hume could write clearly and concisely. Try his Treatise some time.
Immanuel Kant, in an attempt to reconcile empiricism with rationalism, fought to rescue us from Hume’s skepticism and failed miserably. Kant, often a tad difficult to grasp (“transcendental idealism” actually can make sense once you get his vocabulary), succeeded in opposing every one of his own positions while paving the way for the great steaming heap of German philosophy that reeks to this day.
The core of that heap is, of course, the domain of GWF Hegel, which the more economical Schopenhauer called “pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking.”
Don’t take my word (or Schopenhauer‘s) for it. Read Karl Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy. On second thought, don’t. Just read Imre Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique of Hegel. Better yet, read Paul Feyerabend’s critique of Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique. Of Hegel. Now you’re getting the spirit of philosophy. For every philosopher there is an equal and opposite philosopher. For Kant, they were the same person. For Hegel, the opposite and its referent are both all substance and non-being. Or something like that.
Hegel set out to “make philosophy speak German” and succeeded in making German speak gibberish. Through great effort and remapping your vocabulary you can eventually understand Hegel, at which point you realize what an existential waste that effort has been. But not all of what Hegel wrote was gibberish; some of it was facile politics.
Hegel writes – in the most charitable of translations – that reason “is Substance, as well as Infinite Power; its own Infinite Material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as also the Infinite Form, – that which sets this Material in motion”
I side with the logical positivists, who, despite ultimately crashing into Karl Popper’s brick wall, had the noble cause of making philosophy work like science. The positivists, as seen in writings by AJ Ayer and Hans Reichenbach, thought the words of Hegel simply did no intellectual work. Rudolf Carnap relentlessly mocked Heidegger’s “the nothing itself nothings.” It sounds better in the Nazi philosopher’s own German: “Das Nichts nichtet,” and reveals that Reichenbach could have been more sympathetic in his translation by using nihilates instead of nothings. The removal of a sentence from its context was unfair, as you can plainly see when it is returned to its native habitat:
In anxiety occurs a shrinking back before … which is surely not any sort of flight but rather a kind of bewildered calm. This “back before” takes its departure from the nothing. The nothing itself does not attract; it is essentially repelling. But this repulsion is itself as such a parting gesture toward beings that are submerging as a whole. This wholly repelling gesture toward beings that are in retreat as a whole, which is the action of the nothing that oppresses Dasein in anxiety, is the essence of the nothing: nihilation. It is neither an annihilation of beings nor does it spring from a negation. Nihilation will not submit to calculation in terms of annihilation and negation. The nothing itself nihilates.
Heidegger goes on like that for 150 pages.
The positivists found fault with philosophers who argued from their armchairs that Einstein could not have been right. Yes, they really did this; and not all of them opposed Einstein’s science just because it was Jewish. The philosophy of the positivists had some real intellectual heft, despite being wrong, more or less. They were consumed not only by causality and determinism, but by the quest for demarcation – the fine line between science and nonsense. They failed. Popper burst their bubble by pointing out that scientific theory selection relied more on absence of disconfirming evidence than on the presence of confirming evidence. Positivism fell victim mainly to its own honest efforts. The insider Willard Van Orman Quine (like Popper), put a nail in positivism’s coffin by showing the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements to be false. Hillary Putnam, killing the now-dead horse, then showed the distinction between “observational” and “theoretical” to be meaningless. Finally, in 1960, Thomas Kuhn showed up in Berkeley with the bomb that the truth conditions for science do not stand independent of their paradigms. I think often and write occasionally on the highly misappropriated Kuhn. He was wrong in all his details and overall one of the rightest men who ever lived.
Before leaving logical positivism, I must mention another hero from its ranks, Carl Hempel. Hempel is best known, at least in scientific circles, for his wonderful illustration of Hume’s problem of induction known as the Raven Paradox.
But I digress. I mainly intended to say that philosophy for me really starts with Hume and some of his contemporaries, like Adam Smith, William Blackstone, Voltaire, Diderot, Moses Mendelssohn, d’Alembert, and Montesquieu.
And to say that 20th century philosophers have still been busy, and have broken new ground. As favorites I’ll cite Quine, Kuhn and Hempel, mentioned above, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty (late works in particular), Hannah Arendt, John Rawls (read about, don’t read – great thinker, tedious writer), Michel Foucault (despite his Hegelian tendencies), Charles Peirce, William James (writes better than his brother), Paul Feyerabend, 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, and the distinguished Simon Blackburn, with whom I’ll finish.
One of Thomas Kuhn’s more controversial concepts is that of incommensurability. He maintained that cross-paradigm argument is futile because members of opposing paradigms do not share a sufficiently common language in which to argue. At best, they lob their words across each other’s bows. This brings to mind a story told by Simon Blackburn at a talk I attended a few years back. It recalls Theodoras and Protagoras against Socrates on truth being absolute vs. relative – if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, it’s still good.
Blackburn said that Lord Jeremy Waldron was attending a think tank session on ethics at Princeton, out of obligation, not fondness for such sessions. As Blackburn recounted Waldron’s experience, Waldron sat on a forum in which representatives of the great religions gave presentations.
First the Buddhist talked of the corruption of life by desire, the eight-fold way, and the path of enlightenment, to which all the panelists said “Wow, terrific. If that works for you that’s great” and things of the like.
Then the Hindu holy man talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release. And the panelists praised his conviction, applauded and cried ‘Wow, terrific – if it works for you that’s fabulous” and so on.
A Catholic priest then came to the podium, detailing the message of Christ, the promise of salvation, and the path to eternal life. The panel cheered at his great passion, applauded and cried, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you, great”.
And the priest pounded his fist on the podium and shouted, ‘No! Not a question of whether it works for me! This is the true word of the living God; and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!”
The panel cheered and gave a standing ovation, saying: “Wow! Terrific! If that works for you that’s great”!
Those who conceptualize products – particularly software – often have the unpleasant task of explaining their conceptual gems to unimaginative, sanctimonious engineers entrenched in the analytic mire of in-the-box thinking. This communication directs the engineers to do some plumbing and flip a few switches that get the concept to its intended audience or market… Or, at least, this is how many engineers think they are viewed by designers.
Truth is, engineers and creative designers really don’t speak the same language. This is more than just a joke. Many posts here involve philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability between scientific paradigms also fits the design-engineering gap well. Those who claim the label, designers, believe design to be a highly creative, open-ended process with no right answer. Many engineers, conversely, understand design – at least within their discipline – to mean a systematic selection of components progressively integrated into an overall system, guided by business constraints and the laws of nature and reason. Disagreement on the meaning of design is just the start of the conflict.
Kuhn concluded that the lexicon of a discipline constrains the problem space and conceptual universe of that discipline. I.e., there is no fundamental theory of meaning that applies across paradigms. The meaning of expressions inside a paradigm comply only with the rules of that paradigm. Says Kuhn, “Conceptually, the world is our representation of our niche, the residence of the particular human community with whose members we are currently interacting” (The Road Since Structure, 1993, p. 103). Kuhn was criticized for exaggerating the extent to which a community’s vocabulary and word usage constrains the thoughts they are able to think. Kuhn saw this condition as self-perpetuating, since the discipline’s constrained thoughts then eliminate any need for expansion of its lexicon. Kuhn may have overplayed his hand on incommensurability, but you wouldn’t know it from some software-project kickoff meetings I’ve attended.
This short sketch, The Expert, written and directed by Lauris Beinerts, portrays design-engineering incommensurability from the perspective of the sole engineer in a preliminary design meeting.
See also: Debbie Downer Doesn’t Do Design
A classic is a book that everyone has an no one reads. Or everyone wants to have read but doesn’t want to read. Or so said Mark Twain. Or so people say he said.
Two friends (count ’em, two!) read my last post on Thomas Kuhn and called me to discuss it. This is unprecedented. I didn’t really expect many people to read my random thoughts on esoterica from a half century ago. Like, geek out already. Actually, my Kuhn coverage has now been viewed 910 times. And I know that at least two of those “views” actually read it. I expect advertisers to be lining up at my door soon. Compare this to I Can Has Cheezburger. That site was getting 1.5 million hits a day in 2007.
One friend said that he had downloaded the Kindle sample of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and wasn’t able to get through more than a few pages. I should have warned my large reader base that nobody actually reads Kuhn. At least not much of it at once. Instead you mine Kuhn in the same way you mine other religious texts for statements that can be recontextualized (postmodernists love that word) to support your agenda. Seriously, it is much more fun to read about Kuhn than to read Kuhn. And Kuhn can’t hold a candle to Kuhnians – especially those Kuhnians who are rhetorically shrill. You know, the ones compelled to voice the urgency for society to choose between textual demodernism and subcultural dematerialism through a dialectic praxis paradigm that mandates art as a totality. I’m kidding.
The other friend (I think I actually have more than two friends, but two of them called to discuss Kuhn) challenged me on my accusing Kuhn of being a constructionist. I’m aware that many Kuhn fans insist that he was nothing of the sort. I’ll accept that Kuhn shares little with many constructionists, but will stick to my guns on the claim that the term accurately describes Kuhn as he presents himself in Structure. I think this despite the fact that Kuhn denied that his remarks on world-change were aligned with constructionism. At the same time Kuhn did, however, acknowledge a parallel between his views and with Kantian idealism. (walks like a duck…). Consider a couple of quotes from Structure:
“knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all”
“the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds… Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction”
(As an example of the wide range of use and misuse of Kuhn, this quote from Structure appears in The Politics of Gender in African American Churches by Demetrius K. Williams.)
“The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defence can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties to a debate over paradigms are not sufficiently extensive for that. As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice – there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community. To discover how scientific revolutions are effected, we shall therefore have to examine not only the impact of nature and of logic, but also the techniques of persuasive argumentation effective within the quite special groups that constitute the community of scientists.” – Chapter 9 of Structures, emphasis added.
[The] most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms… is that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. – as cited in: Scott L. Pratt (2009) Logic: Inquiry, Argument, and Order.
Yes, Kuhn’s constructionism is different from that of the postmodernist moral relativists. Kuhn is complex. He rejects epistemic presumptuousness and epistemic modesty at the same time – and does so rationally. He’s part philosophical realist and part logical positivist. He is not a strong constructionist, but but he’s a constructionist of some sort. Or so thinks this amateur multidisciplinarian.
How many Kuhnian constructionists does it take to change a light bulb?
You’re still thinking in terms of incremental change, but we need a paradigm shift.
For the last year or so I’ve done a lot of reading about and by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution had its 50th anniversary last year. Though you may not recognize his name, you hear his doctrine – or more likely someone’s interpretation of it – every day. Wittgenstein is widely held to be the 20th century’s most influential thinker. I think not. Wittgenstein may be somewhere in the background, but Kuhn is everywhere. He is cited, quoted and misquoted daily in nearly every discipline. Kuhn pops up in a sermon from former Baptist minister Robert M. Price entitled What Is Truth? He is cited by political and legal theorists, authors of software methodology, and innovation cheer leaders. He’s in Corley’s Biblical Hermeneutics. Stephen Covey repackaged his terminology and built an empire on it. New Age mystics and feminist epistemologists love him. Robin Mansell, professor of New Media at the London School of Economics and Political Science says she read Structures “as a call to arms for a sociological account of science and innovation.” Environmental activists love Kuhn as much as do management strategists and psychologists. Or, at least, they love what they think is Kuhn. Kuhn was misinterpreted so badly that, at one point, he angrily shouted at a conference, “I am not a Kuhnian,” attempting to distance himself from the nonsense that claimed him as its high priest.
In a post last year I called Kuhn an accidental guru. But my more thorough reading of and about Kuhn has really blurred the line between Kuhn and Kuhnians for me. Kuhn claimed, in later writings, that Structures was meant as a descriptive, not prescriptive of science, and prescriptive (or normative) only for other historians of science. I.e., it describes science as he sees it, defends the practice of science as being rational if not optimal, and defines standards for how science should be written about. So Kuhn seems then to frame himself as more historian of science and less philosopher of science. On the other hand, in Kuhn’s view (and that of his defenders) the “Kuhnians” (followers Kuhn never expected or wanted to have) drew all sorts of political, sociological and postmodern philosophical content from Structures that it simply did not contain.
Not so fast, Dr. Kuhn. I’ve come to believe that Kuhn was either backpedaling when he attempted to distance himself from the Kuhnians or was simply incoherent in his Structures doctrine. Kuhn can’t use the principles of the postmodern philosophers – which predated him by at least a decade – the perspective of social constructionists, concepts from Gestalt-psychology, and politically charged vocabulary – and then disown the Kuhnians. Maybe he can disown the new-age fuzzies and charlatan management consultants, but not a lot of the others.
So let’s take a look at the minimal Kuhn and then some of the main flavors of Kuhnians. Among Kuhn essentials, I see:
- There is normal science and then revolutionary science, which causes a paradigm shift to the next normal science.
- Revolutions, originating in crisis, are required for paradigm shifts.
- Inter-paradigmatic communication is impossible (Kuhn’s “incommensurability”).
- Theories fully pervade observation; observation language that is free of theoretical influence is impossible (Kuhn vs. Popper)
- Paradigms dictate – not reflect – the world. Reality is constructed, not observed.
- The ultimate desideratum of truth is solidarity.
The first three claims are what Kuhn and his defenders see as his core material. But he explicitly and repeatedly states points 4 and 5 in unambiguous terms – and point 5 in terms nearly identical to the postmodern constructivists who preceded him. Point 6 (desideratum of truth) is something Kuhn doesn’t state explicitly but is an unavoidable conclusion from his discussion of points one through three.
In my view, Kuhn’s first three points are often, but not always, true. Yes, Einsteinian mechanics overturned – not added onto – Newtonian mechanics. A Newtonian cannot make sense of measuring distance in years and mass in Joules. But many major changes in science were simply additive. And some radical changes in reality models, while not additive (to the previous paradigm), did not involve revolutionary crisis at all. When DNA was discovered, I’m pretty sure just about every biologist said, “ah, so that’s how it works,” and nary a shot was fired; no crisis started the DNA revolution. Against incommensurability (point 3), opponents of plate tectonics conversed effectively with its proponents. I’ve read quite a bit of dialog between quantum mechanics friends and foes where it was clear that both sides, while disagreeing, even violently (“God does not play dice”), fully understood each other. Thus, against Kuhn, paradigm-neutral communication not only exists but is commonplace. One could rightly say that Galileo’s excommunication fully proceeded from normal science’s (i.e. the church) rather full grasp – across paradigms – of the revolutionary science’s content.
Kuhn’s last three points (as I have identified them) are the ones that fueled the Kuhnians. Kuhn’s constructionist (point 4 and 5) views completely escape me. Point 4 is too complex to discuss here, but for argument’s sake can be lumped with point 5, which is easier to digest but has more radical consequences. These two point are not merely a rejection of epistemic presumptuousness (that we can truly “know” the world as it is) – a position that has certain philosophical merit – but assert that there is no accessible world but that which is a mental construction. It’s there in black and white; and has spawned, or at least nursed, volumes of moral-relativist social-theory drivel – as I see it anyway. I’ll spare you the argument for this.
Point 6 should ruffle the feathers of conservatives of all flavors, including political and scientific. Repulsive as this claim first appears, I can get no distance from it; though I’ve winded myself trying to do so. “You are only as old as the last time you changed your mind” (Leary).
One wants to say that science is objective, or at worst, that it strives vigorously for objectivity. And of course it does. It’s the most honest thing the human race has ever done. But how does science know when it has been objective? Or, viewed slightly differently, deciding what constitutes objectivity is outside the realm of science. How do we decide between two irreconcilable claims that both profess to have been objectively reached? The only conceivable means of deciding is consensus.
Consider two competing scientific theories. Neither is perfect; both fit the limited evidence reasonably well (“underdetermination of theory by evidence,” for the epistemologists among us). This brings up the issue of deciding what attributes of theory are most important in a given situation. Some will support the one that appears simplest mathematically (e.g. Poincare), some will chose the most intuitive, some will go for one with the greatest empirical content (e.g. Popper). How do we create a value matrix with weightings of the theories’ various attributes. And how do you objectivize the subjective judgments of “grades” and how well each theory scores for each attribute. Such decisions are subjective, and involve values and beliefs. Quantifying their components simply pushes subjectivity back one level, since someone needs to decide on the criteria, the weights, and the scores. And since disagreements on these are inevitable, consensus within a community of peers or competent judges seems the only option. Finally, those excluded from the group of deciders may disagree with its findings. Kuhn documents many cases of this, introducing corporate and political biases that fueled the fires of science’s critics. Defenders of science (critics of anti- and pseudo-science) like Alan Sokol famously refuted the claims of only the most facile of the social constructionists fueled by this facet of Kuhn. But Sokol and his ilk sidestepped the more logically-troublesome aspects of communities of scientists – namely, that the ultimate desideratum of truth (in the practical, non-metaphysical sense of that term) is solidarity.
So I, like some of the Kuhnians, find one of Kuhn’s main points inescapable and strangely compelling. And on the grounds stated above I simply can’t accept Kuhn’s claim that he is not a Kuhnian. This, by the way, is also the basis on which Richard Rorty proclaimed himself a Kuhnian, despite claims by Kuhn’s defenders that Rorty misused Kuhn. Rorty then based his bold, modified-pragmatist theory of truth heavily on Kuhn’s implications around truth.
Further, on point 5, I can’t avoid concluding that either Kuhn misstated his own position, using the language of social constructionists, or actually is a constructionist of the most extreme kind, in which case, again, Kuhn is in fact a Kuhnian. He certainly didn’t believe that all claims of truth (and all interpretations of evidence) are equally valid, that your reality can be different than mine, or that science is the first tool of oppression. Nor did he hold any anarchic or nihilistic perspectives. But you can still be a Kuhnian without holding all such beliefs. No Kuhnian holds simultaneously all the ideas derived from Kuhn; so you can’t falsify Kuhnianism based on absence of one or two Kuhnian characteristics.
I never expected it to come out this way, but I’m part Kuhnian. Are you?
William Storage 13 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center
Richard 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 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.
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.
William Storage 4 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society
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 Kuhn, Paul 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
- Towards a Philosophical Understanding of Agile Software Methodologies: The Case of Kuhn Versus Popper
- The Open Source Paradigm Shift (Tim O’Reilly)
- Innovation Paradigm Shift
- A Paradigm Shift in Design and Innovation
- Thomas Kuhn & Meaningful Innovation
- Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift, Christensen Disruptive Innovation and Solar Energy
- Climate Change, Sociological Theory and Paradigm Shift
- Organizational Change as Paradigm Shift
- The Paradigm Shift in Healthcare
- A Philosophical Analysis of The Evidence-Based Medicine Debate
- Paradigm Shift: The End of Normal Science in Medicine
- Leadership and Organizations for the New Millennium
- A Paradigm Shift in HR
- Outcome Based Religion: Purpose-Driven Apostasy
- Sailing the Shoals of Adaptive Management: The Case of Salmon in the Pacific Northwest
- From Marketing Mix to Relationship Marketing: Towards a Paradigm Shift in Marketing
- Paradigm Shift and Instructional Technology
- The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing
- Principles of Hypnotherapy
- Connectionism: Is It a Paradigm Shift for Psychology
- T. Kuhn Meets T. Rex: Critical Conversations and New Directions in Science Centres and Science Museums
- The Changing Context of Sexuality Education: Paradigms and Challenges for Alternative Futures
- Race and Immigration Law: A Paradigm Shift
- Global Television and the Shaping of World Politics
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
Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, appears in Wikipedia’s list of the 100 most influential books in history. In Structure, Kuhn introduced the now ubiquitous term and concept of paradigm shift. As Kuhn saw it, the scope of a paradigm was universal. A paradigm is not merely a theory, but the framework and worldview in which a theory dwells. Kuhn explained that, “successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.” His view was that paradigms guide research through periods of “normal science,” during which, any experimental results not consistent with the paradigm are deemed erratic and are discarded. This persists until overwhelming evidence against the paradigm results in its collapse, and a paradigm shift occurs.
Kuhn stressed the idea of incommensurability between associated paradigms, meaning that it is impossible to understand the new paradigm from within the conceptual framework of its predecessor. Examples include the Copernican Revolution, plate tectonics, and quantum mechanics.
Countless discussions and critiques of Kuhn and his work have been published. I’ll focus mainly on aspects of his work – and popular conceptions of it – related to its appropriation in technology and business process management; but a bit of background on popular misunderstandings of his work from a philosophy perspective will come in handy later.
Kuhn’s claim of incommensurability led many to conclude that the selection of a governing theory is fundamentally irrational, a product of consensus or politics rather than of objective criteria. This fueled flames already raging in criticism of science in postmodernist, subjectivist, and post-structuralist circles. Kuhn was an overnight sensation and placed on a pedestal by all sorts of relativism, sociology, and arts and humanities movements, despite his vigorous rejection of them, their methods, their theories, and their paradigms. Decades later (The Road Since Structure), Kuhn added that, “if it was relativism, it was an interesting sort of relativism that needed to be thought out before the tag was applied.”
Communities outside of hard science – 20th century social theory in particular – couldn’t get enough of Kuhn and his paradigm shifts. Much of the Philosophy of Science community scoffed at his book. Within hard science there was considerable debate, particularly by Karl Popper, Stephen Toulmin and Paul Feyerabend. And even in the hard science community, Kuhn found himself in constant defense not against the scientific reading of his model, but against the ideas appropriated by schools of philosophers, cultural theorists, and literary critics calling themselves Kuhnians. Freeman Dyson recall s having confronted Kuhn about these schools of thought:
“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
Postmodern deconstructionists are certainly right about one thing; there are many ways to read Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structure – if interpreted outside the narrow realm in which he intended it to operate – becomes strangely self-referential and self-exemplifying. Different communities consumed it as constrained by their existing paradigms. In The Road Since Structure Kuhn reflected that, regarding Structure‘s uptake, he had disappointments but not regrets. He suggested that if he had it do over, he would have sought to prevent readings such as the view that paradigms are sources of oppression to be destroyed.
Kuhn would have to have been extremely naive to fail to consider the consequences – in the socially precarious 1960s – of describing scientific change in terms of a sociological, political, and Gestalt-psychology models in a book having “revolution” in its title. Or perhaps it was a scientist’s humility (he was educated as a physicist) that allowed him to not anticipate that a book on history of science would ever be read outside the communities of science. Despite the incredulity of such claims – and independent of accuracy of his position on science – my reading of Kuhn’s interviews and commentary on the impact of Structure leads me to conclude that Kuhn is truly an accidental guru – misread, misunderstood, and misused by adoring postmodernist theorists and business strategists alike. Without Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shift would not rank in CNET’s top 10 dot-com buzzwords, futurist Joel Barker and motivator Stephen Covey would have had very different careers, and postmodern relativists might still be desperately craving some shred of external validation.
“You talk about misuses of Kuhn’s work. I think it is wildly misused outside of natural sciences. The number of scientific revolutions is extremely small… To find one outside the natural sciences is very hard. There are just not enough interesting and signficant ideas around, but it is curious if you read the sociological or linguistic literate, that people are finding revolutions everywhere.” – Noam Chomsky, The Generative Enterprise Revisited
“Let us now turn our atention towards some historical analyses that have apparently provided grist for the mill of contemporary relativism. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” – Alan Sokol, Beyond the Hoax
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