Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?

Does All of Science Really Move In 'Paradigm Shifts'? 265

ATKeiper writes "Thomas Kuhn's landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions just turned fifty years old. In that book, Kuhn coined the expression 'paradigm shift' to describe revolutionary changes in scientific fields — such as the replacement of the geocentric understanding of the universe with the heliocentric model of the solar system. The book was hotly debated for claiming that different scientific paradigms were 'incommensurable,' which implied (for example) that Newton was no more right about gravity than Aristotle. A new essay in The New Atlantis revisits the controversy and asks whether the fact that Kuhn based his argument almost exclusively on physics means that it does not apply as well to major developments in biology or, for that matter, to the social sciences."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Does All of Science Really Move In 'Paradigm Shifts'?

Comments Filter:
  • I see the problem (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:54PM (#42523021)

    He was talking about science. There's not much science in 'social sciences'.

  • Stupid buzz words (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:00PM (#42523093)

    Science no longer moves in "paradigm shifts". It has given way to the movement of "game changers".

    Besides, I doubt sicence has ever moved this way. The history of sicence has always seemed to me to follow no consistent path, but rather a series of incremental gains in knowledge and understanding amongst numerous fields that occasionally result in a milestone breakthrough that opens up new fields of research. But this work seems to imply that science follows, to use a visual analogy, a one dimensional line of growth in the direction of "progress" whereas I've always seen science as organically growing and spreading not in one but in many dimensions, along numerous lines of thought.

    Or maybe I'm crazy. I just hate the phrase paradigm shift.

  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:4, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:17PM (#42523327) Homepage Journal

    The Internet was a paradigm shift.

    But they are very, very rare. Most people see these shifts becasue they are unaware of the steps it took to get there.

  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:18PM (#42523345) Journal

    But even Relativity had its antecedents; in particular Lorentz. Frankly I don't think Kuhn was right at all. Paradigm shifts are, if you really look at them, pretty illusory, and part of the way we treat most history.

    It's like declaring 476 a watershed moment in European history, when in fact, the Roman decline had been going on for decades, and there wasn't much left of the Western Empire by the time Romulus Augustulus was locked away in Castellum Lucullanum.

    We mark time that way, we look for what we can describe as the Big Date or the Big Theory or the Big Innovation, and then shove everything that led up to that event to one side.

    As to SR and GR themselves, while some might describe them as paradigm shifts, modern physicists will continue to point out that while they revolutionized the way we look at the universe, they remain Classical theories, and that the real paradigm shift, if it can be called that, was Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect, which is one of the predecessors of quantum mechanics. But even with QM, there was a lot of groundwork laid before the theory itself was developed, so I have a problem with the claims that that was a paradigm shift.

    The list goes on and on. Did Darwin's theory of Natural Selection represent a paradigm shift? In some respects, yes, but at the same time you have to give due credit to some of those who came before him, in particular Linnaeus, who recognized the notion of phylogenetic relationships to some degree. Most certainly Linnaeus's work deeply informed Darwin as he worked on Natural Selection. But even Linnaeus has his antecedents, dating back to Classical Greece.

    And on and on it goes.

  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) * on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:26PM (#42523461)

    I don't know -- general relativity was a big paradigm shift

    General relativity was a far smaller shift than Newtonian Mechanics. Newton revolutionized science and engineering, and made the industrial revolution possible. General relativity, on the other hand, is routinely ignored by 99.99% of working engineers. If you design a plane and ignore Newton, you will never get off the ground. If you ignore Einstein, you will land a few nanometers further than you expected.

  • by 0111 1110 ( 518466 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:26PM (#42523469)

    I don't think Kuhn was really thinking in terms of social sciences in his book. He was thinking of traditional science which is about using the scientific method of testing hypothesis with experiments. Depending on how you define "social science" I don't think there is a lot of objective experimentation going on.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:28PM (#42523497) Journal

    Oh look. Another quack advocate trying to justify pseudoscience by calling real science into question.

  • by narcc ( 412956 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @05:09PM (#42524053) Journal

    I don't think there is a lot of objective experimentation going on.

    I've see Biology accused of the same thing. That seems silly to me.

    That's because you're not familiar with those fields. You'll find that empirical methods are the standard, just like every other science.

    There is a greater reliance on ordinal data, but that's no more wrong that the hard-sciences' dependence on induction.

    The problem on seems to appear when non-scientists repeat rubbish like this from other non-scientists. I suspect, however, that this particular bit of nonsense has its roots in good old fashioned discipline envy.

  • by narcc ( 412956 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @05:37PM (#42524409) Journal

    the social sciences are a mistake: they're really veiled branches of philosophy

    So is the whole of natural science. What we colloquially refer to as "science" is just applied epistemology.

    It always bothers me when philosophy is used as a pejorative. Not because I have some particular fondness for philosophy, but because that use stems from a shameful level of willful ignorance. Questions like "Why do the methods of science work?" and "How can they change over time and still be effective?" are decidedly philosophical questions.

    Second-rate scientists with this sort of negative attitude toward philosophy remind me of the women in this old joke: A man is helping his wife prepare a roast for dinner. The womans' husband asks here why she cuts the ends off the roast before putting it in the pan. "I don't know" she replies "that's the way my mother always did it." The wife now curious, calls her mother to ask. "I don't know" her mother replies "that's the way my mother always did it." Undaunted, she calls her grandmother and asks her why she always cut the ends off the roast before putting it in the pan. Finally, she gets the answer "Because my roasting pan was too small!" O mortal

    Just like the women in the story could produce a fine roast without any real understanding about how a roast should be prepared, so can the second-rate scientist produce acceptable output without having the faintest clue about how science works.

    In short, you can't understand science without understanding philosophy.

    This will offend a lot of people. Confronting ones own ignorance can be difficult.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @06:44PM (#42525167)

    Science once was referred as 'natural philosophy' and it is clear that even mathematics (which are the most intelectually pure endeavor) require an understanding of old philosophic problems and pose new, hard to tackle ones. The problem is that much of what is contemporarly referred as 'philosphy' is masturbatory, long winded and conclusive; tackling mostly issues of the political world and 'self-help'. Long gone are the days where Wittgenstein and Russell were read and discussed seriously in philosophy faculties.

  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @06:57PM (#42525327) Homepage Journal

    Dictionary troll powers, activate! []

    One's perspective on the world involves more than a metaphysical understanding of how it functions. It also involves how those functional elements are structured and relate to one another. By developing a ubiquitous communications medium, we were able to communicate with each other rapidly and rearrange social structures, (and that affected how we perceived the world, often oversimplified to "making it smaller") but nothing about our understanding of any mechanisms changed. It was just a convenience.

  • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @07:22PM (#42525567)

    Personally, I value the popperian hypothesis-falsification paradigm a lot, especially since it fits so nicely with classical statistical hypothesis testing, and I insist on teaching it to students (I am a biologist), but I am well aware of its limitations.

    Popper has been very influential since he provides a clear prescriptive model on how to do science, with a well defended philosophical basis.

    The problem is that it does not describe very well how science has actually progressed, in the past or the present. You can argue that there is a sub rosa Popperian process unfolding, but science has rarely advanced by applying an explicit Popperian reasoning and experimental approach.

    Kuhn was revolutionary in emphasizing the social process of scientific discovery.

  • by DragonWriter ( 970822 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @07:38PM (#42525725)

    Actually, social sciences are concerned with two questions, only one of which is scientific. The scientific question is: How do societies work. The non-scientific question is: How should societies work.

    Actually, no. Social sciences are concerned with various aspects of the first question. The second question is a philosophical question which is outside the scope of the social sciences in the same way as the question "what should we do with the world's supply of fissionables" is outside the scope of nuclear physics.

    Obviously, individual social scientists may be concerned with the second question and, moreover, once you determine a particular set of goals with regard to the second question, social science can provide insight as to the particular steps which are most likely to acheive the desired goals, just as once you have the performance requirements for an aircraft, materials science can provide insight as to what materials are most appropriate to build it out of given the requirements.

  • by narcc ( 412956 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @08:05PM (#42525997) Journal

    I wasn't attacking you. I was addressing a specific statement, made by the author, that you reference. Relax, the world isn't out to get you.

    (In fairness, my reply to your "strawman" post could be interpreted as an attack -- but one made in retaliation! You've got to admit, however, that it isn't exactly the most coherent thing you've ever written.)

    You have not refuted the claim that the social sciences are essentially unscientific

    Why should it? Would you bother to refute a nonsense claim like "marshmellows are just like pudding" or "cat's can only live on a strict diet of bicycles"? Of course not. It's not my fault that the author is a moron, nor is it my problem. (Besides, what would I offer as proof? Slowly copy/paste 50 years worth of the most popular journals?)

    It's obvious to anyone without a mental disorder that the social sciences are scientific. They do, after all, apply the same methods as other sciences (with testable hypotheses and experiments and everything!). It's like claiming that Biology isn't a science.

    I've run across that one myself. I'll bet you have as well. Discipline envy? Just get over it and laugh when the morons on internet discussion forums who bash biology or the social sciences fall all over themselves to produce this or that study (the fruits of biology or the social sciences) to support their argument with scientific research. :)

  • by Geof ( 153857 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @08:55PM (#42526507) Homepage

    the article complains at great length that the social sciences are a mistake: they're really veiled branches of philosophy

    The article says no such thing:

    Value judgments are always at the core of the social sciences. “In the end,” wrote Irving Kristol, “the only authentic criterion for judging any economic or political system, or any set of social institutions, is this: what kind of people emerge from them?” And precisely because we differ on what kind of people should emerge from our institutions, our scientific judgments about them are inevitably tied to our value commitments. But this is not to say that those values, or the scientific work that rests on them, cannot be publicly debated according to recognized standards. . . .

    The lasting value of Kuhn’s thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that it reminds us that any science, however apparently purified of the taint of philosophical speculation, is nevertheless embedded in a philosophical framework — and that the great success of physics and biology is due not to their actual independence from philosophy but rather to physicists’ and biologists’ dismissal of it.

    In other words, physics and biology sciences, just like social science, are reliant on philosophy: but there normal functioning - what Kuhn calls "normal science" - depends on them disregarding this dependence. But when a crisis is reached, philosophy becomes central. (I had to read that and the following text a few times to appreciate the important distinction between independence and dismissal.)

    Here is Kuhn in the book itself, explaining why competing paradigms are incommensurable. Arguing agains Popper's idea of falsification, his point is that scientific method cannot provide a foolproof method for deciding between them:

    No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification in direct comparison with nature. . . . anomalous experiences may not be identified with falsifying ones. Indeed, I doubt that the latter exist. As has repeatedly been emphasized before, no theory ever solves all the puzzles with which it is confronted at a given time; nor are the solutions already achieved often perfect. On the contrary, it is just the incompleteness and imperfection of the existing data-theory fit that, at any time, define many of the puzzles that characterize normal science. If any and every failure to fit were ground fo theory rejection, all theories ought to be rejected at all times. On the other hand, if only severe failure to fit justifies theory rejection, then the Popperians will require some criterion of “improbability” or of “degree of falsification”.

    (Frankly, this is probably a little unfair. Perhaps no falsifying test can be absolutely perfect, but some can come awfully close.) Ultimately, when a paradigm shift takes place it can only be resolved through consensus, not scientific objectivity. Thus the character of a scientific community is central to his inquiry and his theory:

    . . . the choice between . . . competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for those depende in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. . . . Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm's defense.

    The philosopher Juergen Habermas has explored the nature of science also. He argues that the scientific questions are decided on the basis of evidence: but that no objective method can determine what counts as evidence. It is the consensus of the community of scientists that makes this judgement. Thus the fundamental basis f

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle