A “New Paradigm”?
Posted by apgaylard on December 8, 2007
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. …”
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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