Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Shifting and Filling

You may not have heard of Thomas Kuhn, but you have certainly heard the terms he made famous.

The Harvard-educated PhD in physics was the first to use the now ubiquitous terms "paradigm" and "paradigm shift" to describe the way science really works. Kuhn argued that science does not work the way most scientists say it does. Instead of open-minded scientists accumulating objective conclusions from an unbiased analysis of the evidence, Kuhn saw science as a particular kind of culture, one where scientists evaluate evidence through a reigning paradigm. Kuhn called this "normal science."

No paradigm lasts forever. Errors accumulate, and the accumulation of anomalies causes the paradigm to breakdown. This leads to philosophical and methodological arguments, often nasty ones. This is what Kuhn called "extra-ordinary science." From this kind of science emerges a new paradigm. The paradigm shifts.

Kuhn's view of science is especially important today. We are told that the science is settled on many issues, most notably the issue of climate change. But what if Kuhn was right? What if the only thing settled is the paradigm through which scientists view the evidence? Then the most responsible thing a scientist could do is not to cover up the anomalies in the data, but to look for an entirely new paradigm revealed by the anomalies. In Kuhn's words, stop thinking in terms of normal science, and think extra-ordinarily.

In the same way that commercial revolutions do not come from meekly accepting the words of those who are already commercially successful, scientific revolutions do not come from meekly accepting the words of those who are scientifically successful.

The commercial entrepreneur has much in common with his scientific cousin. Both see what other people don't. Both destabilize settled worlds. Both create work for those who exploit and extend the useful life of new ideas. In the business world, we call those people managers. In the world of science, perhaps we should distinguish between entrepreneurial and managerial scientists. One shifts the paradigm, the other just fills it in.

As the advocates of anthropomorphic climate change regularly remind us, the drama of the climate debate recalls the great scientific revolutions of the past. However, the respective roles of hero and villain are not quite as clearly defined as they would like. Just who is the new Galileo, and who is playing the part of the Catholic Church?

1 comment:

r.delaney4 said...

On target essay. Told in a tone of a gentleman and a scholar. May I be so presumptuous to suggest that a better closing line might be "Whose full of hot air now." I only say so because some might not like the religious connection although apt. Remember the Danish cartoons that caused quite a stir. I certainly did not take any offense but some may and not then appreciate the body of the essay. Don't worry about any Catholic radicals rioting over it.