Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

“Everyone” knows this book, even those who have not read it.  “Paradigm shift” is an idea within our common culture. This month, I made the time to read it (third edition) cover-to-cover and make notes, both marginalia and on eight pages from a notepad.  The Wikipedia summary (here)  is accurate.  What I took away – and what you find – is necessarily different. 

In the Postscript answering his critics (and supporters), Kuhn points out that his thesis resonates with similar ideas from other fields, such as art and politics.  Those other fields informed his view of science.  That thesis may appear to have been assimilated broadly considering the common understanding of paradigms today. But having completed classes in sciences several times since I first read the book for a community college seminar in 1976, we still do not learn about science this way. 

Standard textbooks in physics – Sears and Zemansky (and the successors), Tipler, Halliday and Resnick – and the professors who lecture from them, do not admit to the existence of paradigm shifts. They deliver the intellectual development of electricity and other topics in the traditional mode.  In the freshman lab, we have the electroscope, but not as a Leyden jar to collect electric fluid.  Kuhn’s claim that Maxwell’s Equations and even Ohm’s Law were not accepted on their merits finds no voice in the typical college classroom. 

Kuhn cites "Resistance to Ohm's Law" by Morton L. Schagrin (American Journal of Physics, July 1963, Volume 31, Issue 7, pp. 536. ) The abstract at American Association of Physics Teachers here  says:
“It is argued that the usual account of the discovery and subsequent rejection, or criticism, of Ohm's law is both a misleading and an inadequate explanation. A close logical examination of Ohm's experimental work reveals a conceptual structure quite different from that of the electrical science of his time. As a result of this analysis, it is claimed that the conceptual shift in Ohm's experimental work was the basis for the reaction of his contemporaries.”

Kuhn also points out that while art evolved past representation, painters today still create realistic portraits, still lifes, and landscapes.  No physicist or chemist investigates phlogiston.  Kuhn also identifies the fact that debates in social science are rooted in incommensurable paradigms.  Here on Necessary Facts is a list of about 30 different theories of crime. 
Some can be reconciled to each other, especially in context.  Most cannot. Also here on Necessary Facts is Rom Harre's Great Scientific Experiments. Some reflect paradigm shifts; others reinforce Kuhn's suggestions about "normal science." Some of them - Robert Norman on the dip of the magnetic field; and Konrad Lorenz on imprinting - offer contrary evidence that does not decide between rival paradigms.

Those cannot invalidate the facts cited here.  Kuhn is clear about his commitment to objective reality.  He argues against interpreters who accuse (or praise) him for subjectivism and relativism.  We do perceive differently, but we do perceive something, not just anything.  Moreover, the supposed weakness in circularity and tautology, are only identifications: A is A, as another philosopher put it.  Kuhn is clear that not just anything can be an identification. Between the perceptions, he says, are gaps, or lacunae, or nothing: conceptual and perceptual voids against which or contrasted with which we perceive.

Last night coming home from work on the bus, I sat next to a man reading The IliadThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that kind of book: if you have not read it (for some years passed) you deserve the opportunity.

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