Misunderstanding Thomas Kuhn

Thomas KuhnThe great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn was born on this day in 1922. He is best know, of course, for his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argued that science doesn’t so much evolve slowly but rather lurches from one paradigm to another. I think this is often misunderstood to mean that it is random, but that’s not it at all. Scientists create one paradigm like, “radiation is continuous like a river flowing rather than a rock slide.” And we learned much using this paradigm. But then we learned about the ultraviolet catastrophe, where increasing an objects temperature didn’t cause the frequency of light to just get higher and higher. And so, a scientific revolution took place and we moved to a new paradign, “radiation is not continuous; it is like a rock slide and not a flowing river.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything we learned in the old paradigm was now wrong. It all became a special case of the new paradigm. In my example, the truth is that the “rocks” are so small that they usually look like a river flowing. Unfortunately, a lot of people have used Kuhn and people who have followed him to argue for relativism. We see this in the worst excesses of postmodernism. A lot of that comes from a misunderstanding of what science itself is. And sadly, I see this misunderstanding in notable scientists all time. Science isn’t reality or even what causes reality. It is simply an endeavor to create models of how reality works.

I’m very interested in the uncertainty principle, which states that we can only know an object’s velocity and position to a certain level. It is named after Werner Heisenberg, because it falls out rather simply from his formalism of quantum mechanics. Does that mean that there is an inherent uncertainty in the universe? No! (But as far as we humans living inside the universe it probably does.) What it means is in the very best model we have of mechanics, there are limits to how accurately we can measure objects.

So Kuhn was not arguing for relativism. In fact, he argued just the opposite and pushed back against that reading of his work. It is funny, though. In the world of normal people who don’t deal with the philosophy of science, it was initially the liberals who were most interested in relativism. In the conservative Paul Johnson’s book Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s, he spends much time attacking relativism among liberals. (Johnson is also a Catholic.) But if you look at modern America, you will see that it is the conservative movement that has fully embraced relativism. The conservative argument against global warming is the same as The Dude’s in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just like, your opinion, man.”

What is perhaps most interesting about Thomas Kuhn’s work is that it created a revolution in the history of science. So it was an example of what it was talking about. It has done an enormous amount to increase our knowledge of how we advance intellectually. It has also had a bad effect on the way some people look at the whole intellectual endeavor. But I certainly don’t think that Kuhn can be blamed for people misunderstanding his work.

Happy birthday Thomas Kuhn!

4 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Thomas Kuhn

  1. Kuhn: overrated, but I can’t ignore him. Maybe I’ll finish my dissertation next year – philosophy of science.

    Careful, though, when you say that Kuhn was not a relativist. He didn’t mean to be one, and he said so, but it could be that this is a correct inference from his premises.

    Similarly, neither John Rawls nor Ronald Dworkin considered themselves leftists, but it could be, and I agree with this, that their political theories lead to much more left-wing conclusions than they intended. Two of my favorite authors.

    As to Kuhn, the main problem (with his initial work anyway) is hasty generalization. Then again, a lot of the people he argued against committed the same fallacy. Kuhn’s not that fun to read because his interpretations of science history are so tendentious that they are irritating. Still, at least he looked at real history of science rather than the sanitized versions favoured by Popper and the English positivists (the Germans typically had real scientific training).

    Which is better then, philosophy or vanilla-and-chocolate? Who can say? I haven’t had a sundae in maybe ten years, but the cravings are strong the last few days.

  2. @RJ – Yeah, I was aware of a lot of the criticism of Kuhn. But I still think his work was good and it was very important to me, growing up with the "evolutionary model" of science. Of course, you can’t get very far in physics without noticing around the start of the 20th century a revolution was going on. The biggest problem is that a lot of people don’t understand that there wasn’t a revolution against classical mechanics, but a revolution that expanded mechanics so that classical mechanics was a special case.

    Are you a grad student? When I first started this site, I was afraid that lit grad students would come to site and tell me I was all wrong about [i]Don Quixote[/i]. Now I’d be glad for that! Now the "best" I get are cranks who come on tell me that my analysis of a particular film is "wrong," because of course they alone know the Truth (TM).

    Maybe I’ll write more abut the philosophy of science to see if I can get you riled!

  3. As a scholar (lapsed grad student) my judgments of scholarly quality are apart from judgments of agreement.

    I’m looking at views of history of science in which there is historical continuity of practice alongside theory-change. Thus largely in disagreement with Kuhn; but this is a strand of philosophy largely kicked off by Kuhn’s work.

    But I’ve also been influenced by right-wing philosopher of science David Stove; good if you ignore the crazy stuff. Dude shows in simple ways some fallacious inferential methods heavily used by Popper, Kuhn, and successors. Very cogent when strictly criticizing argumentative strategies, but smug (right-wing, yeah).

  4. @RJ – You need to explain to me more how Kuhn is wrong in this way, because he [i]did[/i] say that the process was "normal science" then "revolution" and then "new normal science." I mean, I do understand that in many ways, science is constantly in revolution mode. The high energy physicists are perhaps a good analogy: scientists are constantly hammering away at the existing theory to break it. (This is something that really annoys me about global change deniers who claim scientists have an incentive to hide contrary evidence–it’s just the opposite.)

    As for Popper, it always seemed to me that conservatives loved him. Of course, as I’ve noted, recently they have given up on the idea that evidence might be the key to understanding the world.

    I’ve had my own experiences with bad science history. For many years now, I’ve been trying to write a play about Evariste Galois. But for years, the story everyone knew was E T Bell’s highly Romantic version of his life. It was only recently that I found Rigatelli’s biography that I got what reads like real scholarship (and a real life).

    A constant problem in writing about science at all, is that the Romantic notion of great men making great breakthroughs is largely false. If you look at quantum mechanics, you have dozens of really important people that are absolutely critical. And I could say much the same thing in any intellectual endeavor.

    As a result of this, I’ve thought about not doing the birthday posts. Just the same, it is such an excellent opportunity to introduce people to new ideas and works. But I try not to overstate what people have done. It’s usually more "pioneer of whatever" than "founder of whatever."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *