A couple of days ago – maybe a couple of weeks by the time I get this posted because I keep getting interrupted by going to Tahoe and Pussy Riot – The Guardian had an interesting article on Thomas Kuhn, or, more accurately, his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I have never heard of Kuhn, but I think he has been a major shaper of my world outlook.
To quote directly from the article, But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn’s account of the process of paradigm change…. imply(s) 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?
YES! That is exactly the case. We in the West, at least my generation, have been brought up to believe in the Scientific Method (not as an ideal, but as a reality). We have been taught that part of what made The West great was coming up with a theory, testing that theory with experiments and observations -facts – and then, and only then, accepting the Theory. We are told that it is the difference between Evolutionists and Creationists. It may still be the ideal but it is not reality. In reality, scientists use the facts to justify their position even if they have to twist the facts a little.
It is only when the crowd’s idea of reality changes, when society as a whole changes, when the paradigm shifts, that the Theory changes. In most cases, the facts are known to not fit the Theory for a long time before the Theory changes. When I was in college, we had a required two year course in the physical sciences including Geology. At the end of the Geology section, the teacher presented the theory of continental drift by Alfred Wegener. They presented all the facts that teachers now use – continents fitting together, biological dispersion, blah, blah – and it all seemed so logical to me, but the teachers dismissed it as This wild theory by some crazy German who thinks the continents are floating around. Ha ha.
As an aside, I now know that I am a sucker for almost any new theory (or almost any new thing that comes down the pike for that matter). My experience is that I am almost always right because today’s hair-brained theory is soon conventional wisdom and the new thing coming down the pike is the future. But I am old enough to know that I am not always right: right when I feel in love with Ferraris when Cadillacs were the gold standard, right when I got a BMW and people were asking me in gas stations if it was Japanese, wrong when I thought Peugeot was the next BMW, but right when I thought Continental Drift just seemed right. End aside.
About 30, maybe 40, years ago, I started noticing bumper-stickers that said Shit Happens. About the same time, scientists first started proposing the Asteroid Impact Theory as the reason the dinosaur extinction came so quickly. Scientists knew the facts but didn’t come up with the theory until the concept of Shit Happens became the dominant paradigm. Until then, scientists thought dinosaurs had died off because they were stupid.
To circle back, I would postulate that good science only works because of mob psychology.