Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Part II

The discussion of Kuhn in class was a little disappointing. We didn't so much focus on the deeper implications of the work in the course of science, but merely discussed the nature of how some of his thoughts work in a science (of 'today') and policy context.

Questions like, "Do you agree with the assessment that 'normal science' is intrinsically interesting or important, and unable to solve the real pressing problems (since these problems are not the 'puzzles' that 'normal science' considers)? Does this apply to your own work?" and "What are some answers that Kuhn suggests to the assessment of paradigm anomalies, and can you think of others in science or in policy?" and "What does Kuhn say about political and scientific revolutions? What is the 'relevant community' and how do we know who is in it and who is not?" were the three that were specifically focused on.

I didn't feel that these questions were really good for eliciting a high level of ivory-towered discussion. However, they did get the ball rolling on many discussion points and tangents that I did find interesting - such as the discussion of 'relevant community' in the modern sense compared to imagining to whom Kuhn was writing in 1962.

One point I thought was interesting was looking at the emergence of quantum mechanics during the early 20th Century, how it was tied to political dogma, and how both physics and political dogma had to change once it became clear that many aspects of quantum mechanics theory was entering into tangible reality (aka 'the A-bomb'). In brief (and from what I remember of such things from history), the field that became quantum mechanics was deemed as "unworthy" by totalitarian regimes in Europe, due to the (apparently) strong connections with either the Jewish identity (in Nazi Germany) or the perceived non-compatibility of quantum theory with Communist ideology (in Soviet Russia). Since it was deemed an "unworthy" avenue of study in these two countries, it wasn't for a long time that any serious public funding was given to these fields by either country until near the end of WWII (at which point it was too late for both the Nazis and the Soviets). Another example of the problem with dying paradigms and ideological politics was the impacts of Lysenkoism and (similarly) the great fervor leading to the Maoist "Great Leap Forward".

What surprised me the most was that in a room full of PhD scientists from various fields and a few Masters-in-Public-Policy students, NOT ONE [apparently] knew who Lysenko was, or what was the outfall of his ideology-based science policy. Who knew that you could get a degree in any sort of biological or agricultural science, or public health (and there were a few in these fields) and not ever hear of Lysenko? Maybe this is a good thing (for example, making sure that people work in their scientific field only along the accepted paradigms and keeping their noses out of politics), but I don't think so (since people in both policy and science backgrounds need to learn about the problems of assuming that science delivers exactly what some theories - which turn out to be based on a faulty paradigm - predict). Of course we're safe, because this would never happens these days... No. Never. Nuh-uh. Not in this day and age.

I think that a greater discussion could well have happened on the topic of what "science" really "is" and "is not"; how the mathematics-heavy sciences differ from the mathematics-lighter sciences; how social sciences are becoming more "scientific", while changing the paradigm of what constitutes a "science." Of course, all these things are topics that I - as a PhD student about to take prelims with the likely chance of having a question on the definition of science - am interested.

1 comment:

Francois said...

Actually, Stalinist Russia also turned away from nuclear physics because physics was deemed to be a 'Jewish science'. Now, I agree with the vast majority of the comments of Anonymous in response to your previous post, so I won't be long. 1) I think that pretty much all so-called philosophical models of science have to be re-evaluated in the light of the dramatic advances -not just technological and of knowledge, but also ethical- of the past few decades. But it's also notable that most if not all experimental sciences have not needed any help from epistemology to move forward. The correlation of modern industrial world/capitalism and experimental method is often commented on, and thus I think that the two things that drive science (or should drive science forward) as well as define it are: practical applications and ethics. 2) This is only part of the problem, though, as this excludes completely any science that would be only theoretical in part or entirety. I think however that it is conceivable to think of such things as either a) unsubstantiated (non-evidenced experimentally) BS (such as pseudo-science, religion, etc. -and perhaps some parts of sciences as they are about to be disproved; see for a modern debate recent controversy about string theory) or b) part of something that we don't understand yet, or don't realise the practical applicability of yet. I think , and I know that you don't agree, that this is the case of mathematics. Number theory was long thought to be purely abstract and inapplicable to reality; recent scientific history has proven otherwise (not just cryptography, but applications for quantum theory have also been found, see e.g. the work of Alain Connes).