Science Doesn’t Have Kuhnian Revolutions Everyday

From the archives comes this post about the ridiculous attraction to ‘breaking paradigms’:

Every so often, intelligent design flares up like a really bad pimple. If you’re a biologist, you’re always torn between ignoring it or responding to the same old statements of belief that you or someone else has refuted over and over again. Pharyngula sums up this frustration perfectly:

I am tired, so tired. A few people have claimed we’re overreacting to Bush’s tepid endorsement of Intelligent Design creationism, but no…look at the deluge of garbage from the frauds of creationism that has followed it. There’s the ignorant Buttars, lying about science; the ‘sound science’ phony Roy Spencer (see Tim Lambert and Jan Haugland on this one) calling evolution a ‘religion’ on that dishonest piece of astro-turf, TechCentralStation; the right-wing hatemonger Pat Buchanan babbling inanely about ‘explosions’ and ‘missing links’; Peter Wood making up definitions (small-e vs. big-E evolution, the old creationist misinterpretation of micro and macro evolution in different words); the trivial James Lileks whining about being pestered to actually think about science, rather than just spluttering out emotionalisms; the usual boring Discovery Institute drones exercising their persecution complex and crying about censorship.

It’s damned dreary stuff. I enjoy hacking up the idiocies of creationists regularly, but when it comes in a flood, it’s just boring. They all say the same stupid things. Every one of those links above is to an idiot; every one is a pompous ass who knows nothing about the science, but is willing to make his incomprehension and delusions public.

I receive plently of legitimate questions about evolution and intelligent design–not obnoxious, declarative statements in the form of a question (on this blog, those are solely reserved for the Mad Biologist), but real questions–that I don’t mind answering (although I’m busy, so unfortunately I can’t get to all of them). One thing I’ve noticed about some of the ‘legit’ questioners is that there’s often an air of breathless excitement because they have ‘discovered’ a ‘new theory’ that challenges ‘existing dogma’, or some such thing.
I blame some of this on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As far as understanding the intellectual changing of the guard, it’s not bad. To oversimplify, Kuhn argues that as data against a certain hypothesis accumulate, a point is reached where the prevailing paradigm can not hold, and that paradigm is abandoned (this is where the phrase “paradigm shift” originated). While I think new data have much to do with paradigm shifts, in many cases, the retirement or death of those within a discipline who defend the existing paradigm is what triggers the shift. For instance, Darwin’s ideas about population-based species and the theory of common descent were quickly adopted (as they weren’t entirely novel), but the theory of natural selection was not widely adopted until the 1930s.
Another reason is structural. If you are a ‘paradigm-shifter’, you’re guaranteed tenure. Given the rise of the ‘star system’ in academia, there is a premium placed on standing out. A relatively easier way to stand out is to be contrary (as is the case with generally, not just academia).
Regardless of the cause of paradigm shifts, the notion that they are the primary mode by which science operates seems to be prevalent: hence the excitement of new theories that challenge existing dogma, blah, blah, blah… So I would like to offer some advice about how, in my limited experience, science actually works:

  1. Beware Dubner-itis. Most scientists have considered the obvious and not-so obvious rebuttals to their hypotheses and have already dealt with them. Not everything has to oppose the conventional wisdom.
  2. Most good science builds on previous work. There’s a reason science papers are chock full of references. Lots of good, solid work involves building something bit-by-bit.
  3. Most revolutionary science doesn’t overturn something, but explores a novel area (or a void). An example of this is Hamilton’s theory of kin selection. George Williams had already put the kabosh on Edward’s group selection model, so I don’t think Hamilton played that great a role in knocking down group selection. Hamilton’s seminal contribution was to contribute a completely novel explanation for the evolution of altruism.
  4. Paradigm shifts are very rare. Anytime you hear about a ‘novel’ theory, remember this. Einstein had one. Darwin had one. Kimura had one. Not too many other have. This is a very good thing, since if fields fundamentally shifted every month, it would be very hard to get any work done (and this would be good evidence that the work itself was very shoddy).
  5. You have to put the time in. Yes, Einstein thought of relativity while a postal clerk, but most breakthroughs come from people who know their subjects intimately. Darwin and Wallace both possessed an enormous knowledge of natural history; Darwin spent years describing barnacles in great detail. To take the opposite end, Behe doesn’t know very much about molecular evolution (after reading his book, I’m not sure he even realizes there are three journals specifically dedicated to molecular evolution, let alone read them), and his knowledge of evolution theory is limited to popular works (e.g., Gould and Dawkins).
  6. Novel ‘theories’ typically don’t change fields; novel data do. Kuhn wasn’t completely wrong, just too optimistic for my taste. ID hasn’t been successful with scientists because it can’t explain the data.
  7. There’s a difference between a perspective or worldview and a theory. Theories (and hypotheses) can be replaced by new data or analyses. Many so-called theories aren’t rigorous theories that can be falsified (and I’m not getting into an argument about Popper). How do you falsify an intelligent designer?

You might want to keep these points in mind, the next time you get all hot and bothered about some earth-shattering paradigm shift.

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15 Responses to Science Doesn’t Have Kuhnian Revolutions Everyday

  1. blf says:

    Trivial correction. You wrote “Einstein thought of relativity while a postal clerk”. No. He was an assistant examiner in the patent office.

  2. Alejandro says:

    He also knew his subject intimately, despite not having an academic position.

  3. Mike P says:

    Kuhn did address the progress-via-gravestones concept in SSR. He quoted Planck: “[A] new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

  4. SteveG says:

    John Maynard Keynes expressed the idea in his own pithy way, “We make progress one funeral at a time.”

  5. genesgalore says:

    so like how long do you think that an individual produces a virus and a vaccine that knocks of three quarters of homo sapiens?

  6. Oliver says:

    “Paradigm shifts are very rare”
    this, and the supposed consequences of paradigm shifts, of course are dependent on how you define one. Strictly speaking, Prusiner, too, had a paradigm shift, yet while the consequences were significant, they didn’t completely turn the field upside down.

  7. SLC says:

    I think that one should give consideration to Wegeners’ continental drift hypothesis as an example of a paradigm shift.

  8. toby says:

    PZ, you idea is science is probably much closer to Imre Lakatos’ “research programmes” that to Kuhn’s paradigms. See the article by Ian Hacking in “The Nation” (mentioned in one of your recent posts).
    Even the paradigmatic paradigms are fairly rare: Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy, Newtonian Physics to Relativity, Quantum Mechanics … probably once-a-century events. What happens in-between?

  9. Peter Lund says:

    Did Einstein really only have one?

  10. We discussed Behe in one of my classes today (for my reflections on that topic see, as well as intelligent design more generally. The “Wedge Document” shows that they are not about a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense taking place in science. They are about having their minds made up in advance, and seeking to promote their paradigm rather than test it. I was impressed with my students’ ability to see how antithetical this is to the spirit of scientific inquiry.

  11. David Dufty says:

    Kuhn’s landmark work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is a great read. It’s written by a scientist who loves science and knows it intimately. At the time, he provided lots of insights that nobody had really given before.
    However, his work- or certain aspects of his work- has been leapt upon with glee by people who want to show that science really doesn’t make progress, that it’s all an illusion, we can’t really know anything, blah blah… you know the drill.
    Also, who wants to do “normal science?” It sounds so boring. Every young person wants to be different and change the world, and this obsession with Kuhnian paradigm shifts gives them the illusion that this is what they need to be striving for.

  12. Andrew Wade says:

    Did Einstein really only have one?

    He did put new emphasis on the invariance of physics under symmetries (or so I hear), though invariance of physical laws under the Lorentz transformations had already been explored in considerable depth prior to his Special Relativity. Quantum Mechanics should definitely qualify as a new paradigm, but its development was gradual making it hard to identify an origin. General Relativity is very impressive, but unfortunately it’s still rather stand-alone, not (yet) being integrated with Quantum Mechanics the way Special Relativity was. It’s not clear to me how big a shift is needed to qualify as a new paradigm.

  13. Jo Presse says:

    Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy, Newtonian Physics to Relativity, Quantum Mechanics … probably once-a-century events. It sounds so boring. Every young person wants to be different and change the world, and this obsession with Kuhnian paradigm shifts gives them the illusion that this is…

  14. thanks site admins

  15. Raju says:

    Please don’t pray for a paradigm shift, you may get what you prayed for and regret it later. Along with a paradigm shift you get constant humiliating rejections and insults. A true Kuhnian paradigm shift requires exposing errors in dogmatically accepted tents. Is it hard to see why questioning such tenets (most experts profess so fondly, unchallenged for decades, accepted as pure truths), hurt professional pride & feel contemptuous or blasphemous? Someone got to endure the humiliating knee-jerk insults/rejections to expose such errors. Please remember this:
    In year 1610 letter to Kepler, Galileo said, who opposed his discoveries had refused even to look through a telescope: “My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.”

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