A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

In search of the black swans

Posted by apgaylard on June 20, 2009


The April edition of Physics World carried an interesting article on risk-taking in science.  The central question posed by the author was, “are [we] pushing revolutionary ideas to the margins. “

Unfortunately in this thought-provoking and otherwise excellent article the author asserted that “utterly profound discoveries”:

“[…] do not flow out of what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” — the paradigm-supporting and largely mechanical working out of established ideas — but from “revolutionary”, disruptive and risky science.”

I think that this misrepresents the philosophy of Kuhn.  So I sent in a letter.  Unfortunately it never made it into print.  So, applying the principle of ‘waste-not-want-not’ to blogging, I’ve published it here.

Mark Buchanan raises important issues in his discussion of the dangers of risk-averse science. (April pp22-26) Unfortunately, he also misrepresents the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn – at least that described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – by stating that profound discoveries do not flow out of Kuhn’s normal science: Kuhn would disagree.  He saw normal science as an effective generator of novelties.  Kuhn attributed this to the, “detail of information and to a precision of the observation-theory match that could be achieved in no other way.”  For Kuhn, scientists who generate new ideas are able to do so because they know, “with precision what [they] should expect” and are, “able to know that something has gone wrong.”  In other words the kind of science that generates revolutionary ideas has at its heart careful and rigorous “normal science”.  

He also saw an important role for the inevitable resistance to these new ideas: “resistance guarantees that scientists will not be lightly distracted and that the anomalies that lead to paradigm change will penetrate existing knowledge to the core.” 

If we accept Kuhn’s analysis, then the rigour and conservatism of normal science are to be embraced as key elements in any strategy which seeks to encourage innovation.  In fact Kuhn remarked on the, “completeness with which that traditional pursuit prepares the way for its own change.”

I think that Buchanan’s article raised some interesting and important issues.  However, I don’t think that good arguments benefit from misapplied philosophy.



Kuhn, Thomas S.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, 3rd Ed.  


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One Response to “In search of the black swans”

  1. pleick said

    Buchanan’s piece is really worth reading, thanks for the link. So are some of the comments, even though the essay (predictably) has attracted its share of cranks.

    I really liked one attempt to find a criterion that separates true maverick scientists from cranks: They both try to think “outside the box”, but only the true maverick has deep knowledge of and respect for what is “inside the box”.

    Still, I think that more questions are raised than answered: Is science too conservative? Is it not supportive enough of true mavericks? And if yes, what can and what should be done about it? My impression is that some people seem to “know” how science should be organized and are trying to back up their ideas with arguments and examples.

    The three examples (Planck, Röntgen, Penzias & Wilson) really are cases in point: none of them actually tried to revolutionize science. However, they all worked on relatively new (some would say: “hot”), not well-established subjects and it seems they had the freedom necessary to carefully investigate the anomalies they had discovered. I’m not too familiar with the history of science, but at least Planck is somebody that is usually described as the exact opposite of a maverick.
    One thing seems sure, a scientific/engineering culture
    – that doesn’t really care about anomalies as long as the product works, at least kind of;
    – where glitches are not openly discussed, in the hope that nobody else will notice them;
    – tries to micro-manage the daily work of its participants;
    – tries to precisely plan every step of the innovation process;
    … is probably not going to be very effective at finding the proverbial black swans.

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