Scientific Revolution and
Scientific Progress

  1. What is Scientific Progress?

    1. Most people, including many scientists, view science as a bricklaying process

      1. Logical rational testing and observation of the world produces pieces of knowledge - "bricks"

      2. These pieces of knowledge eventually reach some critical stage in which new scientific theories emerge - "buildings"

      3. (Remember, in science a "theory" is not a guess, but a well-tested model which explains the causes of natural phenomena and makes predictions about those phenomena)

    2. However, a study of the history of science does not uphold this

      1. Scientific knowledge and technology both appear to move in fits and starts

      2. Progress is erratic, moving at different speeds at different times and often in unpredictable directions

      3. Competition between scientists also clearly is at work, sometimes advancing but also hindering development of new ideas

  2. Karl Popper (1902-1994) - Demarcation and Critical Rationalism

    1. Popper sees science advancing  because certain scientists propose bold, risky hypotheses

      1. A bold hypothesis is new, risky, and daring

      2. Risk is defined as the possibility that an idea may be false

      3. Risk can be quantified - the more possibilities for falsification, the greater the risk

      4. The more empirical tests that can be applied to a hypothesis, the more possibilities for falsification

      5. Riskier ideas advance science more than less risky ones

        1. Copernicus was bold, but he proposes no tests for his ideas, and in the short run science changes little

        2. Kepler made detailed predictions that could be tested, and his ideas advanced knowledge more rapidly

    2. Demarcation - where is the line between science and non-science?

      1. For Popper, ideas must be testable and falsifiable to be scientific

      2. Kepler's work is false, but a closer approximation of natural phenomenon than previous ideas

      3. Because it is testable, it leads to Newton's work - also false, but an improved approximation with enormous possibilities for testing and falsification

    3. Thus Popper's work proposes a methodology for advancing science

      1. Propose bold, risky ideas

      2. Seek to refute them

      3. Use failures of original idea to to develop a new one, which accounts for strengths and weakness of first idea and also proposes new tests

      4. This approximates the understanding that many scientists have about their own work, perhaps most

    4. Critical Rationalism

      1. Part of Popper's ideas on methodology

      2. An attitude necessary for scientific advance - "You may be right and I may be wrong, and with a little effort we may get nearer to the truth"

        1. Hints at the dialectic - thesis and antithesis colliding and forming a new idea, the synthesis

        2. Assumes that there is indeed an absolute truth which we can seek out

        3. Calls for both competition and cooperation in science

        4. Suggests that "authority" or "expertise" is not best guide for determining scientific truth

  3. Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) - The Paradigm Shift

    1. Most influential 20th century thinker you've never heard of (well, maybe not, but he's high on that list, anyway)

    2. Known primarily for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (first published 1962, with subsequent significant revisions)

    3. Refutes the bricklaying view of science

      1. Science is not a steady cumulative process

      2. Rather, it is characterized by punctuated equilibrium - long steady periods in which key ideas hold sway, punctuated by violent revolutions in thought that overturn conventional wisdom

      3. In times of equilibrium, science is tradition bound; in revolution, it is tradition-shattering

    4. The Paradigm - Science in times of equilibrium

      1. Paradigm - while this word has been around for a long time, Kuhn made it well known

        1. A basic framework of ideas for understanding the world around us

        2. A model for interpreting, organizing, and classifying  information

        3. Context for all thinking

        4. Often unconscious acceptance of a perceived reality

        5. Paradigms determine which questions can be asked and which can not

        6. There is not one paradigm - we all work with several, that guide our thinking about many topics

      2. Kuhn used it primarily to mean a set of beliefs shared by scientists, including a set of agreements about how problems are to be approached

      3. Paradigms are essential for Kuhn - "[N]o natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism."

    5. The Paradigm Shift

      1. Most scientific work proceeds by examining questions proposed by the reigning paradigm, to developing a richer understanding of that paradigm

      2. However, paradigms can and do encounter phenomena they can not explain, which indeed are nonsensical under the old paradigm

      3. This eventually forces a crisis, resulting in a revolution of ideas that produces a new paradigm - this is the paradigm shift

      4. Once a new paradigm is established, scientists return to equilibrium, working on problems that make sense under the new paradigm

    6.  Science as a social endeavor

      1. Scientists, in Kuhn's work, are not coolly objective but shaped by the social norms of their profession

      2. Generally, they  accept what they have been taught and work only on problems that the reigning paradigm proposes

      3. They seek to refine the accepted paradigm to bring it closer to observed fact, but do not seek to overturn it

      4. Research that threatens the old paradigm is usually ignored (until it is impossible to do so, triggering a revolution)

      5. Young scientists, not as devoted to the old paradigm (not having decades of research devoted to it) are more likely to challenge it than older ones

      6. Constant tension - every unresolved problem has the potential to overturn the paradigm

      7. Problems that can not be incorporated into the old paradigm do not usually immediately overturn the paradigm

      8. Rather, researchers are more likely to assume that the given paradigm (or measuring technology) lacks proper tools, and seek out those tools or set the problems aside for future generations

      9. What is science and what isn't? - This question can only be answered if a consensus develops among scientists as to its answer

    7. Scientific progress in Kuhn

      1. Progress occurs because the paradigm proposes clear problems to solve

      2. Different communities of scientists tackles each of these problems in cooperation and competition, advancing knowledge

      3. The move from one paradigm to the next moves science to better and more refined understandings of nature

      4. But Kuhn doubts there is an absolute scientific truth we can achieve

    8. Kuhn has been very influential in the humanities and social sciences, but severely criticized by both scientists and historians and philosophers of science