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Ian Hacking introduces Thomas Kuhn fifty years on.
June 20, 2012 2:02 PM   Subscribe

That is the structure of scientific revolutions: normal science with a paradigm and a dedication to solving puzzles; followed by serious anomalies, which lead to a crisis; and finally resolution of the crisis by a new paradigm. Another famous word does not occur in the section titles: incommensurability. This is the idea that, in the course of a revolution and paradigm shift, the new ideas and assertions cannot be strictly compared to the old ones. Even if the same words are in use, their very meaning has changed. That in turn led to the idea that a new theory was not chosen to replace an old one, because it was true but more because of a change in world view. The book ends with the disconcerting thought that progress in science is not a simple line leading to the truth. It is more progress away from less adequate conceptions of, and interactions with, the world. via 3quarksdaily
posted by cgc373 (37 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
The queen of the sciences, then, was physics...the awarding of Nobel prizes to Francis Crick and James Watson for the molecular biology of DNA and to Max Perutz and John Kendrew for the molecular biology of hemoglobin...That was the harbinger of change. Today, biotechnology rules.

WHAT!?! Watson and Crick used the tools of physics (Xray Diffraction) to do it. If you use the tools of physics to do something in science, that thing becomes physics. And all that bio revolution, single molecule stuff, that's using the tools of physics and quantitative measurement.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:07 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love this book. It changed my entire perspective on how science works and why it's important. I know the ideas might be dated to modern philosophers of science, but anyone working in a scientific field (or interested at all in science) should really pick it up.

WHAT!?! Watson and Crick used the tools of physics (Xray Diffraction) to do it. If you use the tools of physics to do something in science, that thing becomes physics. And all that bio revolution, single molecule stuff, that's using the tools of physics and quantitative measurement.

Other disciplines come and go, but physics will remain. Allow the upstarts to have their time in the spotlight.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 2:17 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Excellent! Read this book in graduate school and it changed my perception of just about everything tremendously. I'm a huge fan.
posted by absalom at 2:20 PM on June 20, 2012


Heh, I wrote a paper in high school in which this book factored in heavily. I don't think I knew what I was talking about, but it impressed the teacher!
posted by Hoopo at 2:22 PM on June 20, 2012


If you use the tools of physics to do something in science, that thing becomes physics.

That doesn't look right to me. For starters, what neutral criteria are we using to pick out the "tools of physics"? Do ordinary refracting microscopes count? How about chromatography or other physical separation techniques? Is laboratory experiment -- in the tradition of Galileo -- a tool of physics? What about mathematics and logic ... are they tools of physics? Who gets to count computers as their tools? And after you have decided on what count as the tools of physics using some neutral criteria that do not presuppose disciplinary boundaries, I suspect that too much is going to be counted as physics. For example, if laboratory experiments are tools of physics, then pencil and paper studies in experimental economics, decision theory, and game theory are going to count as physics. Weird, I think.

Now, there is a sense in which I am happy to say that every scientific investigation counts as physics. After all, biological, psychological, and sociological systems are all physical systems. But I think that to say that e.g. work on the behavior of ravens is physics -- even if that work uses lots of tools borrowed from physics -- is apt to mislead given the history of the sciences and the way academic disciplines are carved up today.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:39 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the misuse of this book is probably it's most enduring legacy.

“I’ve often said I’m much fonder of my critics than my fans.”
blogs.scientificamerican.com/what-thomas-kuhn-really-thought-about-scientific-truth
posted by PJLandis at 2:41 PM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Aristotle’s physics, understood on its own terms, was simply different from rather than inferior to Newtonian physics.

That's heresy.
posted by goethean at 2:49 PM on June 20, 2012


The brutal abuse of the work "paradigm" is probably its most enduring legacy...
posted by mr_roboto at 2:51 PM on June 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


Nice to see that Physicists' self-importance hasn't changed much since, well, Rutherford and his 'all science is either Physics or stamp collecting.'

(Interestingly, the human genome project's initial funding came from the Department of Energy, which had had a biology programme since the 50s, mainly relating to the effects of radiation on cells and genetic material.)
posted by Jakob at 2:55 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are some people who levy criticism against "Kuhnian"-style revolution/crisis/new paradigm descriptions of science history, but mainly those are usually due to misunderstandings of the work as a whole.

The core of the book is in the lede of the post; it is progress from less adequate to more adequate descriptions of the world we observe around us. Einsteinian Relativity is legitimately an entirely different paradigm from Newtonian mechanics, and unfortunately requires math a couple years more advanced (school-wise) to properly grasp.

Certain philosophers of a stubbornly postmodern bent seem to consider science too much as an outgrowth of culture, but there's no getting around the fact that, at least since the Renaissance and Enlightenment put science (natural philosophy) on firm footing, it was and remains *empiricism* that is king.

Many religious people believe that "faith" in science is the same as that of religion (rather than a guy in a frock saying "believe me" it's a bunch of guys in white coats saying "believe me" but I believe in science because you can do (most of) it yourself. I've done it myself. I've measured spectra from stars, the sun and various gases, I've measured the speed of sound, I've measured the speed of light, I've measured Avogadro's number. Empiricism is king.

Einstein's glorious theories of Relativity would have been little more than interesting mathematical exercises (string theory, anyone?) if they didn't happen to be massively successful in being in tune with empirical data.
posted by chimaera at 2:56 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


what neutral criteria are we using to pick out the "tools of physics"

Well, a somewhat ruder criteria is that if physicists are being paid to do that field, and doing things that other scientists trained in that actual field haven't managed to do, then it's physics, at least the part of it that they're doing. And if using the tool really well demands understanding the tool in a deep, physically motivated way, that probably means it should be folded into physics. If making your measurement means improving the tool in a bleeding edge of fashion, say an electrical engineer whose work is uses a quantum limited josephson amplifier or something, then I would say that that electrical engineer is a physicist who is doing physics.

It's gets fuzzy sure, but physics people tend to have a very different mindset from every other field, and it's that quantitaive-mathematical-reductionist view that's winning, even if the noble prize is in NOT explicity physics.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:58 PM on June 20, 2012


Great post, thank you.

For more reading on and around Kuhn and scientific revolutions, I highly recommend Scientific Revolutions, edited by Hacking and including papers by Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper and Feyerabend among others.
posted by jonnyploy at 3:01 PM on June 20, 2012


then it's physics, at least the part of it that they're doing.

It's not physics, it's applied mathematics.
posted by benzenedream at 3:02 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's applied mathematics.

Just don't tell the mathematicians that. They no likey.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:07 PM on June 20, 2012


It's not physics, it's applied mathematics.
Yeah but mathematics is just applied chalk.
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:13 PM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


If making your measurement means improving the tool in a bleeding edge of fashion, say an electrical engineer whose work is uses a quantum limited josephson amplifier or something, then I would say that that electrical engineer is a physicist who is doing physics.

That seems right, but I think it subtly shifts your initial claim. In that kind of case, you have the same person wearing two different hats -- a physics hat for working on the instrument and a biology (or whatever) hat for applying the instrument to a biological (or whatever) subject.

My memory here is a little fuzzy (so correct me if I'm wrong on the details), but I don't think Watson and Crick were doing the sort of bleeding edge work on x-ray crystallography that you're describing. They didn't do anything to make the instrument work better. (If I'm remembering correctly, Franklin had all the technical chops with the x-ray instrumentation.)

Other cases that I know better certainly fit the story. Consider the Russian botanist M.S. Tswett. He basically invented liquid-solid chromatography around 1903 in order to study chlorophyll. He had no theory of the instrument to speak of, and he didn't seem to be too concerned to provide a theory of his instrument. He was concerned with some physical/chemical properties of chlorophyll because they mattered to theories of photosynthesis. Perhaps one could call him a physicist because he worked with a physical separation technique to learn about physical properties of plants. But that just seems misleading as a description of what he was actually doing. A better description, I think, is that he was a botanist engaged in a botanical inquiry using physical tools. That doesn't make him a physicist any more than it makes me a computer scientist when I use R to analyze data from psychological experiments I sometimes run.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:23 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The phrase 'all science is either Physics or stamp collecting' significantly undervalues the importance of stamp collecting.
posted by pmb at 3:26 PM on June 20, 2012


My memory here is a little fuzzy (so correct me if I'm wrong on the details)...If my equally fuzzy memory is correct, the hard part they did was the analysis of the diffraction data. Diffraction when you have a big clean single crystal sample is easy peasy, getting the data I mean. But interpreting it when you have something complex can be really hard.

For the sake of argument, lets assume that Watson and Crick did hard math on noisy data to get at the helical structure, that's still physics, even if they didn't push the buttons. And to keep with fuzzy stuff, I would lump their "analysis work" into "use of the machine", in the sense that the data would have been useless without someone to reverse engineer the results.

Oh Xrays...you're so hard to get phase information from...
posted by Chekhovian at 3:37 PM on June 20, 2012


I hate this book. It's full of ponderous mock-philosophizing by someone who doesn't believe in philosophy. "Science" isn't a thing, it's a word. Knowledge, the nature of the knowledge, how knowledge is possible are all big questions that Kuhn just isn't equipped to answer and is barely aware of the history of people's attempts to answer them. Also, any review which says The Cold War is long over, and physics is no longer where the action is. is too glib to take seriously.

The core of the book is in the lede of the post; it is progress from less adequate to more adequate descriptions of the world we observe around us. Einsteinian Relativity is legitimately an entirely different paradigm from Newtonian mechanics, and unfortunately requires math a couple years more advanced (school-wise) to properly grasp.


Just to nit-pick, relativity, particularly Einstein's relativity employs mathematics a great deal cruder than what Laplace or Lagrange (much less later Newtonian mechanics such as W. R. Hamilton) were capable of 150 years prior. Intellectually, it's really Newton + 1, where 1 is replacing the "Galilean" group of symmetries with the "Lorentzian" group of symmetries. It's possible to even fit general relativity within the framework of Hamiltonian mechanics. In some sense, you could argue the paradigm shift was from Newtonian mechanics to Hamiltonian mechanics. But ultimately, the "idea" of a paradigm is pop-sociology at best: new ideas are resisted by believers in the old ideas, so why bother....
posted by ennui.bz at 3:40 PM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


As for liquid-solid chromatography, I know absolutely nothing about it. How did he design his machine? Did he start from physical principles and use math? Or did it just kludge something together that did something?

A neighbor of mine designed what was at one point the worlds largest whistle, which even worked underwater or something. So for a while he was getting big Navy contracts for them, as you can imagine. But he was not exactly "physically minded", he just fucked around with something that seemed plausible during the design process, and gotten something to work. So then eventually some rival company analyzed the design, did the physics (math) that he couldn't do, and made improvements that hugely increased the loudness. So my neighbor built something that did something, but was not a physicist. Then some physicists came along, did the math, and killed his business.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:42 PM on June 20, 2012


Oops, replace "largest" with "loudest".
posted by Chekhovian at 3:43 PM on June 20, 2012


Y'all know we did this last year and it was a real doozey, right?
posted by bukvich at 3:48 PM on June 20, 2012


It was of the fucking-around sort. Roughly from 1900 to 1903, he tried about a hundred fifty different adsorbing materials and how they interacted with raw chlorophyll (a mixture of pigments) in solution. He got a couple of them (sucrose and chalk) to give him really pretty bands of different colors, which he could then re-dissolve one by one and analyze with a spectroscope. Initially, he did the adsorption by gravitation alone. So, the machine here would have been a small glass cylinder open on both ends and some finely ground sugar or chalk packed into the tube. Nothing fancy. Later, he built apparatus that put the whole process under vacuum.

He did not develop any mathematical description. No early version of plate theory, for example. And he didn't have a theory of how adsorption worked on a physical level, though he did conduct a couple of experiments that gave him reason to think that whatever adsorption did it didn't alter the physical (or chemical) structure of the sample.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:04 PM on June 20, 2012


For the sake of argument, lets assume that Watson and Crick did hard math on noisy data to get at the helical structure, that's still physics, even if they didn't push the buttons. And to keep with fuzzy stuff, I would lump their "analysis work" into "use of the machine", in the sense that the data would have been useless without someone to reverse engineer the results.

That seems fair. I reserve the right to change my mind after giving it some thought, though. ;)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:05 PM on June 20, 2012


I was always taught that it was the subject of study that defined an academic discipline, not the method of study.

If you're designing a new instrument to measure something biological, then when you apply the finished instrument, you are doing biology. If you have to come up with some new theory in order to design the instrument, you might be doing physics, but if you are just applying known theory (even perhaps in a novel way), then you are doing engineering.
posted by eviemath at 4:07 PM on June 20, 2012


but if you are just applying known theory (even perhaps in a novel way), then you are doing engineering.

Depends on how you define "applying" and "known theory". Certainly most of the engineers I've known tend to the kind that just take an equation or better yet a table or a simulation, plug things in, get things out, and run with it, even when those numbers are faster then the speed of light, or hotter then the surface of the sun, etc. But I've never met any real famous bad ass engineers, wait scratch that, I did meet Barrie Gilbert, a hugely famous EE and designer of the Gilbert cell, but the older generations of engineers don't count in this argument. The newer ones generally seem to all think that they don't need to know any physics and that they should be just able to plug numbers into a calculator and not have to think too hard.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:15 PM on June 20, 2012


On Relativity vs Newtonian physics -- consider that even if relativity had been discovered first, (something that I'm not entirely sure would have been possible, but just for the sake of argument), Newtonian mechanics still would have been a revolution.
posted by empath at 5:11 PM on June 20, 2012


This is as good a place as any to mention that Thomas Kuhn once threw an ashtray at Errol Morris.
posted by scunning at 6:00 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to nit-pick, relativity, particularly Einstein's relativity employs mathematics a great deal cruder than what Laplace or Lagrange (much less later Newtonian mechanics such as W. R. Hamilton) were capable of 150 years prior.

For sure -- Hamiltonian/Lagrangian mechanics is also, I think, a legit paradigm shift in mechanics. If it weren't for the fact that the math is a fair bit more difficult (harder in some ways than Relativity, but then Relativity has all that fun tensor math, which I only properly understood years after I was done with it), I wish people could learn "Classical" Hamiltonian/Lagrangian mechanics first. But since Newtonian mechanics can be grasped reasonably well with algebra, that's where they start. For me, though, understanding Lagrange and Hamilton was the point in my education when I fully "got" what was happening, in dynamics.
posted by chimaera at 1:01 AM on June 21, 2012


Simon Blackburn, in his book "Truth", makes an interesting point about skepticism, which many people seem to take Kuhn's work as an argument for. The ancient skeptics, he said, concluded that since knowledge was not possible, the reasonable thing to do was to suspend judgement in order to attain a kind of serenity. We can't know anything, but we can tend our garden, I suppose. Contemporary skepticism seems to have an opposite effect: since we can't know anything, all beliefs are equally good, so I'll pick the ones I like the best and passionately commit to them.
posted by thelonius at 4:15 AM on June 21, 2012


Checkovian: let me guess, you're a physicist? I suspect, like everything else, engineers obey Sturgeon's Law; that picture doesn't accurately portray the working engineers of my acquaintance.

There's an argument that the differing standards of engineering knowledge are essentially down to the pragmatic nature of the job; at the end of the day, bridges and planes have to stay up, even though the basic physics are too complicated to be solveable.
posted by Jakob at 5:49 AM on June 21, 2012


SSR is unquestionably an interesting and important book, but the consensus in the philosophy of science is that the view simply doesn't hold up. I worked with Kuhn's view pretty carefully 15 years ago or so, and I agreed with the consensus: exciting/interesting, but false. It continues to be influential outside of philosophy largely because it's exciting, accessible, famous, and coheres with fashionable po-mo-y views and other positions oriented toward "debunking" reason. But the position just doesn't hold up.

Here I'll plug the SEP, a good place to start if you're looking for up-to-date secondary sources on Kuhn:

http://plato.stanford.edu/search/searcher.py?query=kuhn
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:49 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


SSR is unquestionably an interesting and important book, but the consensus in the philosophy of science is that the view simply doesn't hold up.

If you could recommend one book as an overview of modern thinking on Phil. of S., including a textbook or a compilation of essays or whatever, to someone with a physics background but only a very basic grounding in philosophy - what would it be?
posted by atrazine at 7:40 AM on June 21, 2012


Alan Chalmers's 'What is this Thing called Science' is the standard overview used in most History and Philosophy of Science departments I'm familiar with; I think there's a new (4th?) edition out very soon.
posted by Jakob at 8:07 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


the consensus in the philosophy of science is that the view simply doesn't hold up
This is maybe partly because Kuhn is not really a hard-core philosopher - but outside of that, I think a lot of his overall ideas - especially the later postscript, incommensurability, and some of the discussion built around references to the later Wittgenstein - are interesting, and are useful in the field.
posted by carter at 2:01 PM on June 21, 2012


like everything else, engineers obey Sturgeon's Law; that picture doesn't accurately portray the working engineers of my acquaintance.

I probably shouldn't make this into a rag on engineers thread, but you did ask...So my theory is that there's a generational divide among them. The older generations, you know, NASA moonshot types, got into the field(s) because they fucking loved it. So when you talk with old engineers, they usually love physics, have interest in science stuff, etc.

Then in last couple decades engineering became the "safe career choice" if you were reasonably smart and wanted a good income with minimal risk. Then the asshole types started flocking in, the "is this going to be on the test?" or "Ugh, I don't need to know that for my desired future job" or "I don't like algebra and just want to put things into my calculator and not think".

The other possibility is that those types get culled in the workforce somehow. Maybe their bridges fall down on them? That could also explain why old engineers are generally awesome, and young ones are complete asshats.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:35 PM on June 21, 2012


those types get culled in the workforce somehow. Maybe their bridges fall down on them?

It would also be tremendously amusing, if given sufficiently poorly written code to run, your computer would explode like a display panel in Star Trek. "Safety First!. Double check before you compile."
posted by Chekhovian at 2:42 PM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


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