Friday, January 18, 2019

Psychiatrist blogger tries Kuhnian paradigms

Slate Star Codex is a very popular anonymous psychiatrist blog, and he takes a deep dive:
When I hear scientists talk about Thomas Kuhn, he sounds very reasonable. Scientists have theories that guide their work. Sometimes they run into things their theories can’t explain. Then some genius develops a new theory, and scientists are guided by that one. So the cycle repeats, knowledge gained with every step.

When I hear philosophers talk about Thomas Kuhn, he sounds like a madman. There is no such thing as ground-level truth! Only theory! No objective sense-data! Only theory! No basis for accepting or rejecting any theory over any other! Only theory! No scientists! Only theories, wearing lab coats and fake beards, hoping nobody will notice the charade!

I decided to read Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions in order to understand this better. Having finished, I have come to a conclusion: yup, I can see why this book causes so much confusion. ...

But one of my big complaints about this book is that, for a purported description of How Science Everywhere Is Always Practiced, it really just gives five examples. Ptolemy/Copernicus on astronomy. Alchemy/Dalton on chemistry. Phlogiston/Lavoisier on combustion. Aristotle/Galileo/Newton/Einstein on motion. And ???/Franklin/Coulomb on electricity.

It doesn’t explain any of the examples. If you don’t already know what Coulomb’s contribution to electricity is and what previous ideas he overturned, you’re out of luck. And don’t try looking it up in a book either. Kuhn says that all the books have been written by people so engrossed in the current paradigm that they unconsciously jam past scientists into it, removing all evidence of paradigm shift. This made parts of the book a little beyond my level, since my knowledge of Coulomb begins and ends with “one amp times one second”.

Even saying Kuhn has five examples is giving him too much credit. He usually brings in one of his five per point he’s trying to make, meaning that you never get a really full view of how any of the five examples exactly fit into his system.

And all five examples are from physics. Kuhn says at the beginning that he wished he had time to talk about how his system fits biology, but he doesn’t. He’s unsure whether any of the social sciences are sciences at all, and nothing else even gets mentioned.
Kuhn is popular becaues he allows philosophers, social scientists, and crackpot to deny truth, and to complain that their ideas are just being ignored because they do not fit the paradigm.

SSC is right that Kuhn's points are only about poorly reasoned interpretations of centuries-old physics. Kuhn does not attempt to apply his silly paradigm theory to XX century science at all.

Even tho Kuhn wrote a whole book on quantum mechanics, he could never figure out whether it was a paradigm shift, because the supposed revolution did not match his theory about scientific revolutions.

Kuhn's best example is Ptolemy/Copernicus, but that was 500 years ago, and even that is very misleading.

SSC is right that the scientists who say Kuhn is reasonable will explain by saying something like "knowledge gained with every step." But Kuhn did not really see science that way. Switching from Ptolemy to Copernicus was not an increase in knowledge, he would say, but just a different point of view.

Scientists like to think that they are part of a vast program to establish facts and develop theories that converge on truth. Kuhn firmly rejected that view.

Kuhn has fallen somewhat out of favor among philosophers today, but only because they have moved on to even nuttier ideas of science.


  1. It has been left to philosophers because the hundreds of thousands of physicists in the world have made less progress in the last 50 years than a few dozen before them. The joke is on physicists (and the taxpayer).

  2. I thought Kuhn's main point is that scientists will defend their theory even against contradictory evidence, until they are face with a phenomenon that their current theoretical framework cannot explain.

    1. Sometimes they do but who cares what Kuhn has to say? It's nothing original. They are parochial observations.

  3. No, Kuhn was mainly concerned how theories get replaced, without any contradictory evidence. He gave the impression that physicists jump on new theories like fads, even when there is no good evidence that the new theory is any better than the old.