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

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  • Kuhn Paradigms (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Camel Pilot ( 78781 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:55PM (#42523037) Homepage Journal

    I am suspicious that Kuhn's paradigm shift were valid only during the formative years of science (specifically physics). The shifts - if they truly exist - have tended to become smaller asymptotically as science progresses.

  • Tools vs. Concepts (Score:5, Interesting)

    by swm ( 171547 ) * <> on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:24PM (#42523427) Homepage

    Thomas Kuhn in his famous book, _The Structure of Scientific
    Revolutions_, talked almost exclusively about concepts and hardly at
    all about tools. His idea of a scientific revolution is based on a
    single example, the revolution in theoretical physics that occurred in
    the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics. [...]

    Kuhn's book was so brilliantly written that it became an
    instant classic. It misled a whole generation of students and
    historians of science into believing that all scientific revolutions
    are concept-driven. [...]

    In the last 500 years, in addition to the quantum-mechanical
    revolution that Kuhn took as his model, we have had six major
    concept-driven revolutions, associated with the names of Copernicus,
    Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Freud, and Einstein. During the same period
    there have been about twenty tool-driven revolutions [...].

    Two prime examples of tool-drive revolutions are the Galilean
    revolution resulting from the use of the telescope in astronomy, and
    the Crick-Watson revolution resulting from the use of X-ray diffraction
    to determine the structure of big molecules in biology.

    The effect of a concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in
    new ways. The effect of a tool-drive revolution is to discover new
    things that have to be explained.

    -- Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds

  • by jw3 ( 99683 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:30PM (#42523527) Homepage

    Firstly, please note that Thomas Kuhn's view of how science happens is one of many possibilities. On one side of the spectrum, you have Popper and his younger collegue, Imre Lakatos; on the other end, you have Feyerabend and his "everything goes". Unfortunately, all that is philosophy, so itself is not science and cannot be verified experimentally or backed up with meaningful statistics. Thus, depending on whom you talk to, you will find arguments for Popper or for Lakatos or for Feyerabend or for Kuhn, all coming from the same field of science.

    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.

    Unfortunately, when reading texts of the great philosphers of science, one has the impression that all they really wanted to explain was "the big stuff", the grand theories, the grand revolutions or paradigm shifts. It is easy to argue for paradigm shifts if you focus on Copernicus and Einstein. It is much harder to immerse yourself in the day-to-day reality of scientific work, the millions of manuscripts generated, the propagation of ideas, their deeply intertwined relationships, as no idea, however genial, ever materializes itself from nothing.

  • by VoidEngineer ( 633446 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:33PM (#42523567)
    Wrote my senior thesis on Kuhn, positivism, etc nearly 10 years ago. My take away was that scientific and theoretical advances get disseminated throughout society. Ergo, a population undergoes memetic evolution. Drawing on biology, the obvious model is one of punctuated equilibrium. Once one reconciles the ideas of paradigm shifts with punctuated equilibrium, it becomes pretty evident how technology evolves, science is disseminated, differing rates of change in different fields, etc. All one has to do is look at the iPhone, iPad, and Leap to see modern paradigm changes in action. (Protip: The language we use to describe the punctuated equilibrium changes of the human species is that of stock markets, marketing, and market analysis.)

    As Gibson put it, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." I also highly recommend Hulls "Science as a Process". []
  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:40PM (#42523651) Homepage Journal
    No, the Internet is not a paradigm shift. It was a dramatic shift in worldview, but it did not directly cause people to re-evaluate how the world works. All of that work was done by telephones, trains, traditional mail, and radio.
  • Re:Yes (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @05:23PM (#42524225) Homepage

    Another way of putting it: Many social sciences aren't really science. Some fields of study that are described as "social sciences" are really sciences: For example, psychology is a field in which there are real experiments you can run on people and come to useful conclusions about human behavior. Some other fields of study that are described as "social sciences" are not really science.

    An example of a non-science "science": macroeconomics. The reason that macroeconomics isn't really a science is that people who's hypotheses fail to match reality can always come up with another external reason for why their hypothesis doesn't apply. For example, if you believe the Efficient Market Hypothesis (which basically argues that markets quickly sort out any mis-priced assets and re-price them correctly), and you find out that trillions of dollars worth of financial assets are mis-priced and have been for years, you can just find any kind of government intervention that hasn't really been tested as to what its effects really are and claim that this is why the mis-pricing happened, allowing the hypothesis to stand even in the face of contrary evidence.

    Another example of a non-science "social science": [historically-disadvantaged-group] studies. These aren't generally speaking sciences because they are focused on documenting and attempting to understand the history and present realities of the disadvantages the group has suffered. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing, but it does mean that it's not science. For example, there's nobody I'm aware of in those fields that's doing experimental work, just a lot of documenting and guessing at what it all means.

  • Re:I see the problem (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lgw ( 121541 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @08:08PM (#42526011) Journal

    Not to pile on but: there's a lot of science in social sciences. What there's not is engineering. Core theories are (mostly) about testible premises, and I'm not sure where you'd get the idea that they aren't.

    Take for example the oft-maligned field of "communication studies". There's no engineering there yet, but there is practical science: how do you measure "receptivity to information", how do you measure how persuasive a speech is to one group vs another, and so on. Constructing repeatable measures that give repeatable results is where all sciences begin, and even in this somewhat primitive state it's a useful science. How do you make a warning sign that people will actually be warned by? How do you ask patients in a walk-in clininc personal questions in such a way that you maximize your chance of an honest answer?

    It may all be squishy, and not the geek-loved black-and-white, but once a science has a repeatable way to measure what they study, hypotheses can make predictions, and these predictions can be falsified and science can happen.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. -- John Muir