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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Kuhn’

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.”

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Posted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, unpublished | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

I’ve got an entry in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2008

Posted by apgaylard on January 4, 2009

Just a short bit of boasting.  I’ve had an entry selected for, “The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2008”.  I immodestly submitted a three pieces (this, this and this) for consideration.  One has scraped in (note that it appears last on the list!):

Expect The Unexpected

It’s an exploration of the role of anomalies in science seen through the lens of Thomas Kuhn‘s much-misrepresented philosophy.   In retrospect I really wish that I’d called it “resistance is useful“!  It will need some tidying up (and sharpening up) before it goes into print; but still I’m happy to have been chosen.

My thanks go to all the authors of the entertaining ‘Memory of Water’ issue of Homeopathy, and every CAM advocate who has ever quoted Kuhn at me.  Thank you for prompting me to check things out for myself.

At the risk of sounding like Gwyneth Paltrow accepting an Oscar I’d really like to thank Ben Goldacre for getting me interested in the whole memory of water thing and the few kind readers of this blog who have helped me keep my motivation up.

Posted in Blog | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Blind Anger

Posted by apgaylard on July 13, 2008



In the second part of my journey through the arid valley of the recent ‘Scientific Research in Homeopathy’ conference under the guidance of the philosophically myopic Lionel Milgrom we’ll see that the philosophical element of his apologia (powerpoint file) is empty, inconsistent, contradictory, inept and misleading.

The other bits are no better either.  (Milgrom’s lecture has been skillfully deconstructed on the quackometer by Andy Lewis)

Milgrom claims that it’s time for homeopaths and other CAM advocates to get angry: it seems his anger has blinded him to the weakness of his arguments.

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Posted in homeopathy, Logical Fallacies, Philosophy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

Lost In Translation? Part II: Kuhnian Incommensurability

Posted by apgaylard on March 5, 2008

In part I we saw that the partisan incommensurability many CAM proponents and apologists like to invoke is vacuous: self-refuting.  Therefore, it should not be surprising that this does not figure in the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn; it only appears as a straw man in the work of Kuhn’s critics: or a facile philosophical redoubt for those who want an excuse to believe in the demonstrably false.

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Posted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

Lost In Translation? Part I: What Is Incommensurability And Why Should I Care?

Posted by apgaylard on March 1, 2008

I have some family and friends who are well disposed towards CAM in general and homeopathy in particular.  I’ve noticed that discussions of the relationship between their views and science are fraught.  At times it’s because they don’t really understand the CAM ‘therapy’ or science; at other times it’s like we’re talking in different languages.

The latter can be thought of as incommensurability: the lack of common units of measure shared by concepts that we’d like to compare.  Apparantly, this idea reaches back in time to Pythagorean geometers who had the notion that any two lengths were measurable by multiples of some common unit, hence are “commensurable“. One of their number subsequently discovered that this is not so, legend has it that the discoverer of “incommensurable” quantities (irrational numbers) was killed by his fellows.  Incommensurability is only a little less controversial today!

The cry of “incommensurable” is often heard when CAM modalities are threatened with a fair test of their claims, it’s become a standard ‘defensive’ gambit.  How valid is this defence along with the common invocation of the work of philosophers like Kuhn?

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Posted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments »

Expect The Unexpected

Posted by apgaylard on February 3, 2008

In science unexpected results occur more often than we might think. These anomalies, the black swans of legend, range from the trivial to the momentous. They can be nails in the coffin of a cherished theory; more grist for the mathematical mill, or just simply errors.

Some are ignored by busy scientists as they pursue more fruitful lines of inquiry, while others are swept under the carpet by the lazy or unethical. In contrast, some are delivered prematurely into the full glare of publicity by those seeking fame and, perhaps, fortune.

So, how seriously should we take the ‘support’ that an unexpected result may appear to give an implausible therapy; like apparantly anomalous properties of water invoked in support of homeopathy, for example?

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Posted in The Memory of Water, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Homeopathy: science or religion?

Posted by apgaylard on January 11, 2008

It was pointed out to me recently that the homeopathy looks more like a religious community than a scientific one.  Yet many homeopaths and their apologists say that they represent a new scientific or medical paradigm; implicit in this claim is that their community is scientific.

Examining this question gives me the chance to talk about my philosophical muse of the moment, T S Kuhn, and show that he sets the bar too high for homeopathy to claim to be a scientific community.

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

A House Divided

Posted by apgaylard on December 26, 2007

 “…Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand“.

Matthew 12:25 (King James Version)

This piece of ancient wisdom has made its way into common usage.  It nicely expresses the observation that for any group to endure, let alone progress, unity is required.

This theme runs through the analysis by Thomas Kuhn of scientific communities and the progressive nature of science.  In particular Kuhn took the view that different schools were “far rarer” in the sciences than in other fields; and were always in a competition that is “usually quickly ended” [p.177 – all page numbers in sqaure brackets refer to Thomas S Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, 3rd Ed., 1996 ].

A review of the schools still present in homeopathy will enable us to dismiss on purely Kuhnian grounds the idea that homeopathy has paradigms, or any claim to be mature, or a legitimate competitor to modern scientific medicine.

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Homeopathy and the Paradigm Problem

Posted by apgaylard on December 14, 2007

Once Thomas Kuhn applied the term ‘paradigm’ to science in his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” it quickly entered into common usage.  It’s often used as a way of describing the conservative nature of science; or the incompatibility of a new idea with orthodox science (new paradigm).  It’s also used to describe the way science can radically change over a short period of time (paradigm shift).

It struck a chord with groups who had been, by and large, excluded from being classified as part of “science”: psychoanalysts, sociologists and even economists.  If a discipline could lay claim to “…being dominated by a paradigm that generated sui generis puzzles and criteria for assessing solutions to them…” then it would seem, according to Kuhn’s philosophy, that it could really be a mature science.  Because of the outstanding successes of the natural sciences this categorisation would, by association, increase their status and access to public funds.  Even if a discipline were riven by inter-Nicene feuding between competing schools it could claim to be an emerging science in its pre-paradigm state; a reasonable candidate for research funding from the public purse no doubt.

This early trend has continued.  Now homeopaths and their apologists make similar claims.  They seek to enhance their status, image and access to public funds by claiming to be part of a ‘new paradigm’ for medicine.

Some are even so bold as to contend that their paradigm is a ready replacement for, or at least an amendment to, the prevailing pharmacological medical paradigm.

We shall see that Kuhn’s ideas moved on; unlike the reading of Kuhn by some who invoke his authority.  Therefore it is important to understand how his ideas developed.

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on Homeopathy and the Paradigm Problem

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

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »