Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Part 1: The Evolution of Science

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is, it would seem, a seminal book in the philosophy of science. I admit that, while I am supportive or at least open to many of Kuhn's points and find the general concept to be extremely useful, my thoughts on the subject matter have been negatively biased by a couple of very special groups of people. This first is the small handful of insufferable bastards who, in their embrace of this structure, feel that they're members of some elite clan of practical philosophers, who regard anyone laboring under an older paradigm as their inferiors, and talk past their interlocutors, as Kuhn suggests they must, as if in validation of their superior worldview. (Such indignation is obviously a very loaded interpretation of my own, but Kuhn is very sympathetic to people reasoning in the old motif, and doesn't judge them as "wrong.") This group of people resembles the sorts of college sophomores who discover Bayesian inference and then parade around like they've personally set upon a secret of the universe revealed to all but a few, instead of understanding that these models have already been worked into the existing paradigm to the extent that they've been judged collectively useful. (It's possible that subjects in epistemology attract a generally tedious and narrowly doctrinaire lot, which would actually explain a great deal about how Kuhn came to his worldview.) As for the second group of bad influences, keep in mind that Kuhn is the guy who coined the term "paradigm shift" as a description of scientific revolutions, and we know who uses that sort of language these days, the class of leaders who found similar inspiration in such philosophical classics as Who Moved My Cheese. But it's not really the fault of the thinker that his magnum opus got reduced to a chit for buzzword bingo, and it is more likely a sign of his success. Everyone knows what "paradigm shift" is. It's deeply within the paradigm.

In his long essay, Thomas Kuhn proffers a historical interpretation of scientific progress. It is not so much a cumulative process, he argues, so much as it is an evolutionary one, where governing paradigms (the dominant way of looking at the world, that is, the set of theories, methods, tools, analogies, governing assumptions, and evidentiary standards) progress under a process that he calls "normal science" (meaning, predictive experimentation with reasonable expectation of success under the paradigm), until this process reveals sufficient anomalies, until it leads to enough doubtful interpretation to generate a crisis in the field under which new, competing paradigms can be generated and normalized. Some of his favorite examples of scientific revolutions of this sort are Newtonian mechanics (adios, Aristotle), Lavoisier's discovery of oxygen (farewell, phlogiston) and Copernicus' description of celestial motion (toodles, Ptolemy). Current (or recent) fields in sufficient crisis to regard no paradigm as quite satisfactory may include celestial mechanics at sufficiently large scales (dark what-now?) or the continued challenge of understanding gravity in similar terms as the other forces on perhaps smaller scales (how many dimensions again?).

And I should say that basically, I agree with the Kuhn's general outline, but then again, I'm not particularly dogmatic about this sort of thing (and I'm not sure it's wise to be) despite having some strong convictions here and there. The thing is, if Kuhn did indeed help to establish a new paradigm, then I'm already 40 years into it, and it tempers my analysis a great deal, as Kuhn tells me it must. (I am always suspicious of philosophies that use this sort of self-updating definitional argument to protect themselves from criticism. If I could perceive any sense of humor in there, I'd suspect Kuhn was getting a laugh out of it.) I wonder, for example, how a community can be so wed to any set of theories, so closed to alternatives, that it discards them in all available circumstances. But see, I would say that in the post-Kuhn paradigm. Anyway, I apologize for what is shaping up to be an exceedingly long post. For those who are already bored, consider the above the "book review" and go click on one of the many better blogs along the sidebar. I'm going to proceed to outline a number of specific thoughts and criticisms, that I collected while reading the book. Many of these simmered in my brain through much of the book, some of them even before I cracked it, some have been percolating for years now. Toward the end, Kuhn actually got to a good bunch of the things I've been thinking. While that all makes me look smart in my own mind, it doesn’t make me look as sharp in front of you people. To compensate, I have linked myself gratuitously, like a true schmuck.

For my own long essay, since this thing bloated up so much, and since I can only steal time in small increments, I'm going to split it into two parts. This first part includes some of the points that I could tie to an evolutionary paradigm. The second does more to rate the structure of scientific revolutions against my other thoughts on epistemology.

Kuhn's system of changing paradigms looks a lot like an evolutionary model, specifically, the stasis-and-change sorts of dynamics advanced by Stephen Jay Gould. In that, the species is better considered the evolutionary entity as opposed to the organism, locked in (that is, prevented from variation) by reproduction. A great deal of genetic intermingling helps average things out. In that sense, a species is much like a scientific paradigm, preserved by the prolific but sadly figurative intercourse of individual scientists. The sudden speciation that Gould sees is not so different from the scientific revolution that is advocated here, and is probably similarly brought on by crisis, by sudden new requirements for fitness, that tends to produce an adequacy of performance from the genetic tools at hand. Much as we like to attribute the contributions of scientist-individuals, it may be more accurate in terms of science history to think about paradigm-individuals, even while recognizing the genius (and the sometimes big brass balls) of outstanding human practitioners. Kuhn spends an entire section on discovery and attribution, noting that it's the guy who converts it to a new paradigm who tends to get the credit more than the one who found it (who is often the foil in the story), and that it's impossible really to see any aspect as the solo effort. A skim of Punctuated Equilibrium confirms that Gould definitely did see this parallel with scientific paradigms, and it informed his work. Kuhn gets half a dozen cites.

Kuhn also acknowledges the evolutionary analog somewhere late in his essay. He asserts, like Gould does with respect to genetic evolution, that it's fallacious to look at scientific progress as some sort of achievement, reaching toward some pinnacle which generally includes us, right now or soon. But in biological evolution, old species don't necessarily go away. The growth of ecological diversity of course depends on the destruction rate of species as well as their creation. Is this the case for scientific history as well? Kuhn thinks that old paradigms need to die in order to generate the new versions. I disagree with that generality.

So, did Gould's idea of punctuated equilibrium scuttle the origin of species? I think (and Kuhn would agree) that it asked and answered a different question. It used additional knowledge about the fossil record and a greater body of data about living species, it starts to touch on contemporary genetics (although I think Darwin might have readily grasped many of these logical extensions), and more importantly, it utilizes an intellectual tradition that had already thoroughly assimilated Darwin. But does it necessarily abandon the old man? Punctuated equilibrium rejects gradualism, but it doesn't (at least as far as I remember) present an alternative paradigm for species change. It observes that groups separated from mixing their genes with the rest of the species might be more likely to undergo a Darwinian selection. Which sounds more like a modification than a revolution. Kuhn presents some different cases where this has been closer to the historical process too, but his argument is that it's still a necessary reversal. He states that this idea of theory expansion is (like gradualism in biological evolution) one that the intellectual heirs to a paradigm tend to prefer, or which can appear less disruptive to scientists outside the field. His example for this is that when Roentgen advanced the understanding of x-rays, it wasn't quite so illogical to people studying electromagnetism—just a modification to what they already knew—but to chemical physicists it added some unsettling angles to chemistry, and they needed to think about their field in a new way as a consequence.

And maybe it's a better case that Einstein did strike Newton down to his very fundamentals, and the inarguably broader way of looking at the universe may have ended up including Newton, but could no longer pretend to think on his terms even if they liked his math. I don't know if there's cutting-edge research in classical mechanics, but it sure as hell survives in engineering, which I don't commit so readily as Kuhn to the rabble hovering below even normal science. (I mean, ask Buckminster Fuller.) Getting closer to modernity, statistical thermodynamics didn't quite kill off the classical version either. Even knowing that there's an information basis to thermodynamic quantities, it doesn't change a great deal of the classical understanding—or the usefulness of the classical understanding—heat is still thought of as something that flows phenomenologically with intrinsic states helpfully washed out. Neglecting the ability to predict every possible state of every damn particle in the universe, choosing the appropriate granularity is always necessary for science as well as engineering. Electrical fluid models are in Kuhn's bozo bin too, but a great deal of that analysis still works pretty damn well with the same ancient (by technological terms) differential equations, and you wouldn't have invented the transistor—an engineering-style paradigm-cracker right there—without soaking in that lowly level of (semi-)classical understanding.

I could go on. The basis of the modern understanding of chemistry is damn near entirely about the quantum behavior of electrons, and yet in teaching the paradigm, plenty of more primitive versions are held on to quite happily, and are used. For example, you don't need to get past Lewis's science to get to the plastics revolution of the 1940s. In optics, articulation of Fresnel's and Maxwell's paradigms remain on the cutting edge without invoking a single corpuscle. Now, Kuhn's answer to this is probably that by judging usefulness I'm talking mere engineering, which is not the same as the pure science revolutions he intends, but I don't agree with that. To my mind, these researchers are still busy as hell articulating the old paradigms. (Kuhn would further contend that the old paradigm didn't include an acknowledgement of a newer one, so no dice. That's a semantic purity argument that I maybe can't win.) For another example, I've spent the last couple of years researching metamaterials, possibly a small revolution on the order of Roentgen's, in that it expands (or claims to expand—a lot of scientific revolution these days is in the marketing, as hinted at in the introduction) the ideas of what materials are, and what properties they are allowed to attain. And yet it can be, and usually is, explained completely in terms of classical wave mechanics.

Some paradigms do die complete deaths, deemed too unfit for any niche. No scientist worth her salt really believes in phlogiston anymore, for example, and I very nearly reject Kuhn's idea that there were some ideas that the spooky substance was better at describing. I don't reject that there were questions more readily suggested by phlogiston theory, but (no doubt my paradigm talkin' here) I don't think it raises many interesting ones. If those ideas remained worth knowing (because we do have engineering now to make science do tricks), then chemical theory has found an alternate way of getting there. But even down there among the truly obsolete, people do seem to return to the same sorts of assumptions when confronted with a scientific crisis: maybe things interact with an invisible permeating substance; that fudge factor might amount to something; categories of things have intrinsic properties; stuff is made out of tiny essences.

Kuhn frequently cites a pre-paradigm period in which science, when practiced, was very nearly limited to the investigations of a single scientist. There just was not enough community to keep up a good correspondence, nor a tradition of communication that might reach that critical mass of feedback from your peers. But it's not as though there were only ever two modes at play.

It's interesting to look at the governing social paradigms that were involved with science. Study has moved splotchily through various settings: philosophical schools, monasteries, gentlemanly pastimes, universities, patronage, structural civic funding (with, no doubt, plenty of throwbacks to pre-paradigmatic practice along the way). There have been periods of a pure research ideal, periods burdened by philosophical and logical traditions, the weight of authority, or theological conformity, periods strangled by applied military research. Even Kuhn here is evidently male- and certainly Eurocentric, not to mention oblivious to the science still done under older paradigms, which rather limits his own point of view.

Kuhn makes a dramatic attempt to generalize the whole post-paradigm period, but my question now is whether history has been consistent enough in that time to generalize. Connecting to the evolutionary point, is there instead a larger trajectory of paradigm development? (A meta-meta-structure? Sheesh.) Maybe there really is progress, but much like the biological sort, it increases diversity more than it increases in some absolute measure of awesomeness. Science gets bigger as new paradigms evolve, especially if the old ones tend to stick around in some fashion. I'm inclined to look at the sheer amount of our usefully accurate (or paradigmatically fit) descriptive power as a less-arbitrary measure of going foward intellectually. As science has developed, the general move has been to describe more things. If there's an absolute yardstick for progress, it's that science now covers way more ground with fewer self-contradictions. It does too go somewhere.

Enough for now. I'll try and post the rest of this monster tomorrow.


Penal-Colony said...

Between me writing long posts on Coleridge and you on Kuhn, where would one be going? The difference, I suppose, is that nobody's actually bothered to read me. I was told recently to make my posts more 'user-friendly'.

I found your essay very recondite but informative. I read Kuhn's book many years ago and think you've captured its flavour very well. I used to teach Gould's Panda's Thumb and the Bully for Brontosaurus for a writing class, so I'm interested in how you developed the notion of his paradigm.

I've got one suggestion, if I could presume: remove the 'fucking' in this sentence -- "It observes that isolated groups that aren't fucking themselves into homogeneity, etc". The word has no place in an essay of this value and does nothing for this reader.

Looking forward to the next installment.


Keifus said...

Thanks for reading, John. (That line is gone. Vulgar and, worse, unfunny in hindsight.) I do try and consider my tiny audience a little, but there's a big component of just keeping myself sane, adn I didn't expect to get much traction with this one. If I wrote this stuff to be popular, I'd be even more depressed.

I've been called out on a couple separate occasions (one of which you may remember), with varying degrees of superciliousness, for my understanding of scientific progress vis a vis Kuhn. I came in with a little chip on my shoulder. Also, although I consider myself basically impaired in this department, I somehow keep poking at the philosophy of science, one of the many odd places I've found that I have convictions. What is the world in relation to us and that sort of thing. It all added up to a couple pages of angry scrawl.

I've only read Puctuated Equilibrium by Gould, which I don't think is one of his general-audience works. (I wish I knew that when I cracked the cover. Heavy jargon. Took me forever to read.) The big points are that biology doesn't progress so much as it branches, fairly suddenly; that reproduction is normally stabilizing in a big population; that gradual change isn't supported by the data. Or that's what I took home from it. The ideas were similar enough that I went and checked the index this weekend.

I hope that your dad is coming around.

Michael said...

Good Griefus, what a fine post. Took me three helpings to finish this first part.

Without pretending to understand Kuhn's superior scientific intellect, nor why paradigms (or paradigm shifts) are considered important in these exclusive scientific clubs, I would simply say that your post reminds me of why I've always admired Feynman so much. (From what you've written here, I'm tempted to call Kuhn the anti-Feynman.) Whenever RPF would come to a point where he knew his intellect was superior to that of his students, or in my case his reader, he went out of his way to stress the unimportance of what he considered minutia. That is to say, the little specifics that he understood set him apart from those whose knowledge was merely basic. He didn't want to be seen as a member of a club that looks down upon those who haven't gone as far into a subject as he. Liquid helium. Super-fluidity. He knew that stuff, and he knew that I don't know that stuff. Rather than roll his eyes and look for a more sophisticated audience, more advanced brains to communicate with, he dumbed it down for me, and in doing so made the subject matter somewhat approachable. That was his goal in teaching and writing. The idea of newer paradigms replacing older ones was certainly something he was aware of in his research or his thought experiments, but not something he would trumpet as an advancement that would alienate him from peers, or from knuckleheads like me either.

Penal-Colony said...

That's a sound comparison, Michael. Feynman did bridge a lot with his inimitable style. Gould's books are very accessible too [though I'm unfamiliar with the essay Keifus cites here], because they began as essays in Natural Science magazine, and Lewis Thomas made a similar argument for why he wrote the popular Lives of a Cell.

Speaking of science and philosophy, or the science of philosophy, or the philosophy of science, the French Marxist [?] Alain Badiou does some interesting work on their intersection: he uses and applies his knowledge of Mathematics to Ethics & Politics with some interesting results. More paradigmatics, I suppose.

Dad is doing better these last few days. Everytime he fades he rallies again but each successive battle is taking its toll. We keep him going with lots of TLC. Thanks for asking.

Michael said...

As soon as I started to read Keifus'..Keifus's...Keifusses review I thought of Celan and Heidegger. Philosophy's stultifying effect on poetry. It almost seems to me that Kuhn is trying to apply a certain philosophy that excludes others, or previous models, or prior knowledge that wasn't quite right. Which sounds very much like evolution rather than revolution. A refinement rather than a re-definition. For no other reason than I've read more Feynman than Gould, or Bob Bakker do I draw the comparison between Kuhn and Feynman. Gould is revolutionary, but still draws from the Great Big Data Base of stuff people learned before him as his starting point. I'm pretty sure that's why Feynman hated that Nobel Prize. Not only did he hate fancy schmancy pomp and pageantry, he also hated awards in general. He would kid about Wheeler or Bohr being the great Gods that he enjoy pranking, but he never failed to mention that they were the geniuses, and he a follower in their tracks.

Keifus said...

One of the things I wrote down before reading the essay was Feynman's description of (a) a bug on a wheel figuring out an accelerating frame of reference and (b) the Michelson-Morley experiment that was a crisis of physics that gave us relativity. Both would qualify as scientific revolutions. I think that that he and Kuhn agree in that description, that normal investigation took both Einstein and the ant to something that they couldn't explain with satisfaction, precipitated the need for something new.

He does talk down a little to normal science, and accuse it of some ivory-towerism, especially in teh beginning, but I think he respects it a great deal, and again, he offers a good way to interpret history. I think it took followers in the marketing department to make it really annoying.

Very interested in smart intersection between math/ethics/politics. You guys are both getting ahead of me.