A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

A “New Paradigm”?

Posted by apgaylard on December 8, 2007

Homeopaths and their apologists seem to like the philosophy of science posited by Thomas S Kuhn, or at least they say they do.

It’s easy to understand the temptation.  Kuhn’s analysis includes some sociological factors, undermining the claim of many scientists that theory choice is driven by logic and experiment alone.  His talk of ‘paradigms‘, ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘revolution‘ speaks to homeopaths who wish to see a revolution where their views supplant current scientific orthodoxy. Also, some see in Kuhn’s relativism a way of arguing against any special status for science, and scientific theories, compared to any other sort of knowledge.  After all Kuhn did not hold with the notion of science converging towards a natural “truth“.

Finally, some seem to see in Kuhn’s treatise the possibility of a homeopathic homeland where they can be insulated from the criticisms of science; whilst still keeping a hand in the taxpayers’ pocket!

Against this philosophical backdrop a new blog has emerged: Newparadigmmedicine.  As a response to perceived difficulties with the current debate about homeopathy this blog has made the following suggestion:

“… After listening to the tone, content, and quality of assertions made from the podium of this blog during this past week I believe that without some further structure and focus the conversation will only become fatuous rant and rave.

In the spirit of inquiry I am proposing that those who are interested in the concepts of paradigms and change within science both basic and applied read the seminal work of Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. More of an extended essay than a comprehensive book this work provides a basic language and conceptual framework which we can accept, modify, or reject. With a common language, conceptual premises, and hypotheses perhaps we can have edifying dialogue. …”

A Shared Focus

Now, I don’t like “…fatuous rant and rave …” and I have had some exposure to Kuhn, along with other philosophers of science.  I am also reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR) at the moment; so I think that this is an interesting proposition.

I must say at this point that I am most certainly not a philosopher or expert on the philosophy of science.  My exposure to these ideas dates back to a short course that I was made to take as part of my Physics degree some twenty years ago.

I’d also like to point out that I do have some reservations when it comes to Kuhn.  He is too much of a relativist for my taste (though not as much as some like to think).  There is good evidence that he is too imprecise; too open to wild interpretation. This, I think, may be seen in the protest Kuhn alegedly made to Freeman Dyson in response to the highly relativistic interpretation many put on his work: “I am not a Kuhnian!”

I also think that Kuhn fails to get to grips with Karl Popper‘s ideas of falsification; mirroring the way Popper doesn’t really engage with the social aspects of science. 

I must confess that, for me, Imre Lakatos provides a more compelling model for the structure of science, as he explicitly set out to reconcile this tension. As a result there are some interesting parallels between Kuhnian Paradigms and Lakatosian Research Programmes.  I hope to explore these in subsequent posts.

I also wonder whether homeopaths and their apologists really want to engage with what Kuhn said, or what they would like him to be saying.  The article quoted from Newparadigmmedicine starts with the following quotation:

Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof.” (Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 148).

This is, quite clearly, correct.  Theory, or paradigm, choice is not a matter of proof in the logical or mathematical sense.  This does not mean, however, that such choices are mere whim or opinion.  Neither does it imply that these decisions are not founded on solid rational ground.  To quote from Kuhn’s 1969 postscript included in the third edition of SSR:

“…Debates over theory-choice cannot be cast in a form that fully resembles logical or mathematical proof … Nothing about that relatively familiar thesis implies either that there are no good reasons for being persuaded or that those reasons are not ultimately decisive for the group. Nor does it even imply that the reasons for choice are different from those usually listed by philosophers of science: accuracy, simplicity, fruitfulness and the like …”

( pp 199 – 200 )

For Kuhn such choices are about “good reasons“.  I just don’t think that homeopathy has them.  I don’t think that choosing any particular philosopher of science over another really changes that fundamental problem:  It still won’t cure what ails you.

Finally, we have to concede that no philosopher of science can claim to have devised a general and wholly successful description of this complex enterprise. They offer us evidence, analysis, argument and opinion; not holy writ.

Anyway, setting aside my reservations, I’ll try to make some contributions to this discussion. 

Next I will examine whether homeopathy can lay claim to having  paradigms and therefore be mature enough, as a discipline, to compete in Kuhn’s battle of good reasons.

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4 Responses to “A “New Paradigm”?”

  1. lecanardnoir said

    Marvelous. Homeopaths’ desperate appeals to Kuhn are one more example of their use of appeals to authority for their own validation. Hahnemann is of course their authority of choice, but he is not a shared authority with those they wish to pursuade.

    Invoking Kuhn is done in hope that it will pull the rug from under our own arguments. But as you quite rightly point out, philosophers of science do not prescribe how science should be conducted. We do not follow recipes in our activities. Rather, science is pragmatic, adaptive, and largely done without a second’s thought to what the philosophers might be thinking of us.

  2. apgaylard said

    lecanardnoir:
    Thanks for the comment. One of the best things that can be said for Kuhn is that he tried to see how science had been done and generalise that. He did skip the whole quantum mechanics thing though; odd for a physicist.

    I think the appeal to Kuhn is largely based on his relativism. I recon that the homeopaths who actually read him won’t be as impressed as they thought they might be. His commentary on scientific fields being characterised by a (very) few schools that are in short-lived conflict may also be a bit uncomfortable given the number of homeopathic schools.

    Anyway, they’ll just retreat to Feyerabend.

  3. pyjamasinbananas said

    I’ve always disliked Kuhn – I think it is the bit that (I seem to recall) he has at the beginning of SSR basically claiming that all science is done the way he learned science (out of physics textbooks apparently) – but my reading of him, particularly incommensurability, is that he is either claiming that there have been a very small number of scientific paradigms, most of which might well be characterised as pre-modern, and as such it is a trivially true claim with little modern relevance, or that there are large numbers of incommensurable paradigms, in which case that is just false.

  4. apgaylard said

    pyjamasinbananas:
    I’m not sure that I’m seeing SSR necessarily in the same light. However, there are some elements that certainly don’t convince. Like you incommensurability is something I don’t think really stands up. In the postscript to the 3rd Ed. Kuhn weakens it to a translation problem that can (with effort) be overcome. I still think that this is over-stating it. From Kuhn’s point of view I, like any other physicist, work with multiple paradigms (Newtonian and Einstinian, for example) yet we happily translate terms like mass, as we think about each. If I contrast this ‘native’ ability in translating scientific paradigms (easy) with my experiences in French(very very hard), I find it hard to see them as different examples of the same kind of process.

    The most interesting bit, for me, about the postcript is the redefinition of the ‘paradigm’ concept. The result is that what most people are thinking about when they use the term is not what Kuhn saw as a justifyable application. I’ll cover this one later.

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