Thursday, July 25, 2013

50 years of paradigm shift theory

A recent article says:
Fifty years ago, Thomas Kuhn, then a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, released a thin volume entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn challenged the traditional view of science as an accumulation of objective facts toward an ever more truthful understanding of nature. Instead, he argued, what scientists discover depends to a large extent on the sorts of questions they ask, which in turn depend in part on scientists’ philosophical commitments. Sometimes, the dominant scientific way of looking at the world becomes obviously riddled with problems; this can provoke radical and irreversible scientific revolutions that Kuhn dubbed “paradigm shifts” — introducing a term that has been much used and abused. ...

Kuhn’s thesis has been hotly debated among historians and philosophers of science since it first appeared. The book and its disparate interpretations have given rise to ongoing disagreements over the nature of science, the possibility of progress, and the availability of truth. ...

Eventually, a new exemplary solution emerges. This new solution will be “incommensurable” — another key term in Kuhn’s thesis — with the former paradigm, meaning not only that the two paradigms are mutually conflicting, but that they are asking different questions, and to some extent speaking different scientific languages. ...

Kuhn relies heavily on a “particularly famous case of paradigm change”: the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debate over whether the sun goes around the earth or the earth around the sun. (This had been the subject of Kuhn’s previous book, The Copernican Revolution [1957].) ...

It was important for Kuhn that his conception of the history and process of science was not the same as that of scientific progress. He maintained that the process of science was similar to biological evolution — not necessarily evolution toward anything, only away from previous error. In this way, Kuhn was rather skeptical about the idea of progress at all. This was the most controversial aspect of his thesis, the one that most concerned the contemporary critics of Structure, on the basis of which they accused — or celebrated — Kuhn as a champion of relativism.
String theorist Lenny Susskind sain in an interview:
Are there any philosophers of science whom you like?

I’m one of the few physicists I know who likes Thomas Kuhn. He was partly a historian of science, partly a sociologist. He got the basic idea right of what happens when the scientific paradigm shifts. A radical change of perspective suddenly occurs. Wholly new ideas, concepts, abstractions and pictures become relevant. Relativity was a big paradigm shift. Quantum mechanics was a big paradigm shift. So we keep on inventing new realisms. They never completely replace the old ideas, but they do largely replace them with concepts that work better, that describe nature better, that are often very unfamiliar, that make people question what is meant by “reality.” Then the next thing comes along and turns that on its head. And we are always surprised that the old ways of thinking, the wiring that we have or the mathematical wiring that we may have created, simply fail us.
I ownder whether Susskind understood Kuhn's notions of progress and incommensurability. Relativity and quantum mechanics were quickly confirmed by quantitative experiments. The term paradigm shift is for theories like Copernicus heliocentism that had no quantitative advantage over previous theories. Among real scientists, only fringe theorists like string theorists like Kuhn because string theory has no quantitative advantages over previous theories, and does not make progress in any objective way.

1 comment:

  1. "Among real scientists, only fringe theorists like string theorists like Kuhn because string theory has no quantitative advantages over previous theories, and does not make progress in any objective way."

    It was interesting to see this article about Kuhn. I always hated him. Well,that is an inappropriate term in our politically correct times. And to be more careful with my words, I should instead say I have very negative emotions to Kuhn and his book. Maybe that's because I had a professor in college whom I very much disliked, and who was always intoning Kuhn's work. I guess as evidence of how great the professor's work was. Trick evidence, since I didn't think much of the professor's work, though who knows, maybe if I gave it a chance, I might have. Or I might not have.
    Anyway, one use of Kuhn's work is to invoke it in a general hand-waving way to try and get the listener thinking that theory x is the next "revolutionary" theory. When in fact, there is not much evidence that theory x is anything.