Monday, 4 March 2013

Thomas Kuhn, Science and that dreaded word “Culture”

Should we pay more attention to the relativists?

A correspondent on one of my reviews recently remarked, “Oh yes, of course objective reality exists”, in exasperation at my hesitation before that thought. 

Though few trees fall in the internet forest which make less sound than my blog posts, I thought it would be worth expanding on this comment, if just to see if anyone at all was listening.

While Thomas Kuhn, whose book I was reviewing, never said anything quite as incautious as I tend to, the chain of thought that leads there can be traced back Kuhn’s wonderful The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as short and elegant a book of philosophy as you could hope to read.

It is also is something of a bête noire amongst a certain group of scientists who regard it as the cause of much modern (or post-modern) mischief.

Kuhn argued that the direction scientific development must be significantly influenced by the environment in which it is produced. For one thing, a scientific discipline of any sophistication will have developed its own institutions, social structure and hierarchy. The social rules surrounding credentialised practice and discourse within the discipline will be quite complex and very formal.

This observation (which ought to be familiar to anyone with any experience of organisational hierarchy) puts certain scientists into quite a flap, especially when the dread word “culture” is used in place of “environment”. That science is objective, and not culturally determined, is something of – well – an article of faith.

But in this context “culture” is simply shorthand for all those necessary conditions for science even to be carried out: the body of established knowledge; the rules of acceptable scientific procedure; the academic institutions and research institutions; the journals and societies; the undergraduate and postgraduate community which trains, credentialises, develops and evaluates developing science and the practical work of scientists in the field: All of those things which distinguish between neurobiology and homoeopathy1.

Thomas Kuhns insight was that this picture of inexorable progress towards an unchanging goal doesn’t seem very well to fit the historical record. 

Nonetheless the proposition that science is coloured by its necessarily human context – is a product of its culture – undermines the supposition, taken as read since the enlightenment, that the journey of science is one of progressive truth-revelation. Science (courtesy of which plants photosynthesise, aeroplanes stay in the sky and planets orbit the sun) surely progresses: inexorably, it zeroes in on transcendental laws of the cosmos: Aristotle had a good old go, Ptolemy got a bit closer, Copernicus and Tycho Brahe really started to get warm, Newton got it largely right and, since Einstein the process has been one of ever more infinitesimal fiddling around the edges.

Thomas Kuhn was a historian, and his insight was to observe that the picture of inexorable progress towards an unchanging goal doesn’t seem very well to fit the historical record. Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the cosmos, which must have seemed eminently satisfactory at one point (for 1,600 years, as a matter of fact), bears almost no relation even to Copernicus’ heliocentric model, let alone to Linde’s Multiverse model, in which bubble universes nucleate in a space-time foam2. In the language of evolution, these succeeding theories are not adaptations of their predecessors, but new organisms wiping the older beasts out. Extinctions. Whatever truth Ptolemy was closing in on, it was not the same one that interested Linde.

This leaves scientists in a cleft stick: either everything which went before and was believed to be science in fact wasn’t (which makes you wonder how they’re so certain this time) or it was, but it was just temporarily barking up the wrong tree (which also makes you wonder how they’re so certain this time) or it was, and they were barking up the right tree, but it’s just not a tree we’re interested in any more. Each of these options as unfortunate implications.

A less complicated reading can be arrived at by reducing science’s ambition from “sole revealer of the sacred truths of the cosmos” (which sounds a little religious, doesn’t it?) to “devising pragmatic models of how the universe appears to work, to help us get along in it”. Under this less ambitious framework, as new information comes to light prevailing models can be adjusted, and where no adjustments can save the day, models can be jettisoned entirely, something only apt to happen when a better model is to hand (a broken model is better than no model at all). Kuhn’s observation was this is how science does seem to operate.

As sensible as it is, it is still Richard Dawkins’ cue to work himself into a righteous frenzy at the thought of Kalahari bushmen examining rabbit entrails. Dawkins’ own impression of the argument goes like this:

“There is no absolute truth. You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit’s entrails, or the ravings of a prophet up a pole. what is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favour your brand of truth.” 3

The idea that we may as well consult the entrails of rabbits as Newton’s laws of mechanics when devising flying machines is, of course, absurd. And while it’s obviously a gross distortion of any actual philosophy – Dawkins quotes only his own vivid imagination – this sort of bluster has won more people over than it really ought to have.

Even without guaranteed privilege of science over non-science, good science still has a way of differentiating itself, but the richness and complexity of its account and its predictive power. Flying machines designed by reference to the configuration of rabbit entrails will stay in the sky less often than those designed according to modern aeronautics, and that should carry the day. (If, statistically, it didn’t, there might be something those rabbits know that we didn’t!)

Next time: Defending the indefensible? Relativism proper.

1Homoeopathy has its own culture too, of course.
2I have absolutely no idea what this means. And nor do I want one.
3“What Is True?” collected in A Devils Chaplain, Phoenix, 2003


  1. Danny Of Arabia10 May 2013 at 03:21

    Again, you seem to have a fundamental difficulty with understanding that each theory contains the previous theory as a limit case. So in a very precise sense, physics is "progressing" towards a single goal. 600 years ago, the "physics" wasn't even logically correct let alone consistent with experiment. After Newton, we got a physics that explained day to day life with precise numerical accuracy. You'd have to go to objects the size of the sun, speeds close to the speed of light or sizes comparable to an atom to find discrepancies. Now you'd have to go to objects the density of black holes and sub-sub-sub atomic particles to find issues with the current theories.

    400 yrs ago, a bit of thought and an apple could disprove the theories of the day. Today if you can find error in the Standard Model, global fame and Nobel Prize await you.

    BTW Ptolemy's model of the solar system was known to have problems before Ptolemy lived. 30 seconds thought shows Aristotle's claim that heavier objects hit the ground faster is false. Their models survived for the same reason Lysenko's models did and it aint because they were equally credible

  2. That's an interesting post and an interesting response comment. Thank you both. Is there a debate here about what "progress" means? At this point in time, such miniscule, theoretical "scientific progress" as it is now humanly possible to make necessarily comes at such enormous expense and depends on the most incredible technology (CERN etc) that it is not necessarily "progress" for humanity any more than religion or art or anything else with a purpose is. Would science contribute more to "human progress" by knowing when to stop?

    Perhaps scientists can discover how to generate the big bang and provide enough energy to sustain mankind at present birth-rate for a million years. Perhaps. [Pause for respect. Pause for thought about the implications. And possible unintended consequences.] But what will mankind itself become? [Is that life real or artificial?] C P Snow in "The Two Cultures" suggests that "scientific progress", the theoretical variety, has no interest in "social" considerations like that.

    The "best minds" scientists may be. Like the best sportsmen, with complex technology and vast support staff, they are getting incomprehensibly better all the time. For global fame and trophies, or for the pure achievement? Maybe either, but even so, what an expensive vanity. Since the Atom Bomb, I don't think scientists should be excused all social responsibility in the name of "scientific progress". At least sport makes people happy.

  3. PS. Wikipedia article on Quantum Mechanics:

    Stephen Hawking was initially a believer in the Theory of Everything, after considering Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, he has concluded that one is not obtainable, and has stated so publicly in his lecture "Gödel and the End of Physics" (2002).