The line below is taken from my undergrad revision notes, it is the same conclusion reached in a profile of Thomas Kuhn posted yesterday on the Scientific American blog.
“Kuhn described what science tends to be, Popper described what it ought to be”
Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper were two philosophers with opposing views of the nature of science. Popper believed that the only way for science to progress is through testing falsifiable ideas, this theory has become the bedrock of scientific progress. Kuhn argued that this isn’t how science works in practice – according to Kuhn, scientists in reality tend to spend most of their time “mopping up”, which means producing results that fit in with the established view point. Kuhn popularised the term “paradigm shift”, used to describe the event that occurs when a new discovery blows previously held beliefs out of the water, for example when the theory of evolution won the argument over theories based around intelligent design. I’ve always struggled to see why the two theories (Kuhn’s and Poppers’) are so often seen as mutually exclusive, from my perspective both theories are indeed correct and in fact complement each other to serve important lessons in their own right. Testing falsifiable theories is clearly the way forward but at the very same time this must be complemented by replicating results, if this does not happen then we have no way of knowing that we are on the right track and this is a very bad thing for science.
The Scientific American piece adds an interesting angle to the Kuhn-Popper debate, both philosophers are now deceased but the piece describes a fascinating account of how Thomas Kuhn really felt about how his writings were percieved. The piece reveals Kuhn’s sentiment that he was “much fonder of (his) critics than (his) fans”, this will ring true for many that have written about science and felt the frustration of having their views misunderstood. For Kuhn it seems, the frustration really got to him. He was left isolated, frustrated by students who misunderstood his message and fearing to speak to journalists who he felt would only misrepresent his viewpoint. The SciAm piece adds an often neglected aspect to the debate, perhaps “scientists can never truly understand the ‘real world’ or even each other”, the way forward is to balance a healthy scepticism with a genuine openness to new ideas. This argument, was made in a fantastic essay by the late Carl Sagan:
“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.
If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.
On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.
Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”
I’ll leave this discussion there and implore you to go ahead and read John Horgan’s SciAm piece and Carl Sagan’s essay as well as Ed Yong’s Nature Magazine piece, the debates complement each other perfectly leaving a great deal worth pondering.
Horgan, J. (2012). What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific “Truth” Scientific American, Cross-Check
Sagan, C. (1987). The Burden of Skepticism Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12
Yong E (2012). Replication studies: Bad copy. Nature, 485 (7398), 298-300 PMID: 22596136
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