Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Grauniad on Kuhn

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No, not an exotic Hungarian sandwich, but The Grauniad has an excellent 50th anniversary review of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions written by John Naughton in their Sundy paper. In a total paradigm shift, the comments aren’t totally trolltown, either. See also, Howard Sankey on the The Conversation.

Before Kuhn, our view of science was dominated by philosophical ideas about how it ought to develop (“the scientific method”), together with a heroic narrative of scientific progress as “the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors”

Finding science as equivalent to the truth, external of human agency, is the pre-Kuhnian ideal of what science does. The discovery that science is an all too human endeavour deeply sociological in process, many people still find very disturbing. At best, science can find small t,  truth, as opposed to capital T, TRUTH, the ideological aim of the scientific quest. The probability that t equals T may be very high in some cases, but is never unity.

Interestingly, many who wish to deny the science of climate change adhere to the pre-Kuhnian idea of science as truth. And miscast normal scientific uncertainty as failing Popper’s falsification test. ‘Cause they have a mortgage on the troof. On the other hand, those barracking for conventional scientific theories often maintain that science is not a matter of belief. This has come up on The Conversation in comments to two good articles on climate science and belief (Barry Naughten, Joseph Reser) over the past week or two. Sorry guys, but assessing the probability of t being T, is a matter of belief, as is anything that goes on in the mind regarding external evidence. But there is a difference between belief and true belief.

…take Kuhn’s portrayal of “normal” science. According to Popper, real scientists (as opposed to, say, psychoanalysts) were distinguished by the fact that they tried to refute rather than confirm their theories. And yet Kuhn’s version suggested that the last thing normal scientists seek to do is to refute the theories embedded in their paradigm!

Many people were also enraged by Kuhn’s description of most scientific activity as mere “puzzle-solving” – as if mankind’s most earnest quest for knowledge was akin to doing the Times crossword. But in fact these critics were over-sensitive. A puzzle is something to which there is a solution. That doesn’t mean that finding it is easy or that it will not require great ingenuity and sustained effort.

But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn’s account of the process of paradigm change. He argued that competing paradigms are “incommensurable”: that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits. There’s no way, for example, that one could make a checklist comparing the merits of Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) and quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level). But if rival paradigms are really incommensurable, then doesn’t that imply that scientific revolutions must be based – at least in part – on irrational grounds? In which case, are not the paradigm shifts that we celebrate as great intellectual breakthroughs merely the result of outbreaks of mob psychology?

Masterman in 1970 pointed out that Kuhn’s paradigms had several aspects, including a theoretical and sociological aspect. The sociological aspect uses evidence to distinguish between belief and true belief in a scientific community. This is carried out via the refereed literature, but is also transmitted via status, experience, world view and so on. And it is easy to abuse if evidence is lacking or can be used to support multiple conclusions.

As for his big idea – that of a “paradigm” as an intellectual framework that makes research possible –well, it quickly escaped into the wild and took on a life of its own. Hucksters, marketers and business school professors adopted it as a way of explaining the need for radical changes of world-view in their clients. And social scientists saw the adoption of a paradigm as a route to respectability and research funding, which in due course led to the emergence of pathological paradigms in fields such as economics, which came to esteem mastery of mathematics over an understanding of how banking actually works, with the consequences that we now have to endure.

Subsequent authors have taken this up, Lakatos to name one, and Sherri Roush on theories of knowledge and tracking truth is another. One of my many unfinished projects is taking this up with climate science. I think that a better understanding of the relationship between scientific practice and the sociology of the scientific project can help us build better narratives of science. These are the stories that we use to communicate and share knowledge.

Hat tip Carolyn Rasmussen.


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  1. […] than a fortnight ago, I wrote that those barracking for conventional scientific theories often maintain that science is not a […]

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