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Monday, May 8, 2023

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

John Horgan
Scientific American
Originally posted 23 May 12

Here are two excerpts:

Denying the view of science as a continual building process, Kuhn held that a revolution is a destructive as well as a creative act. The proposer of a new paradigm stands on the shoulders of giants (to borrow Newton's phrase) and then bashes them over the head. He or she is often young or new to the field, that is, not fully indoctrinated. Most scientists yield to a new paradigm reluctantly. They often do not understand it, and they have no objective rules by which to judge it. Different paradigms have no common standard for comparison; they are "incommensurable," to use Kuhn's term. Proponents of different paradigms can argue forever without resolving their basic differences because they invest basic terms—motion, particle, space, time—with different meanings. The conversion of scientists is thus both a subjective and political process. It may involve sudden, intuitive understanding—like that finally achieved by Kuhn as he pondered Aristotle. Yet scientists often adopt a paradigm simply because it is backed by others with strong reputations or by a majority of the community.

Kuhn's view diverged in several important respects from the philosophy of Karl Popper, who held that theories can never be proved but only disproved, or "falsified." Like other critics of Popper, Kuhn argued that falsification is no more possible than verification; each process wrongly implies the existence of absolute standards of evidence, which transcend any individual paradigm. A new paradigm may solve puzzles better than the old one does, and it may yield more practical applications. "But you cannot simply describe the other science as false," Kuhn said. Just because modern physics has spawned computers, nuclear power and CD players, he suggested, does not mean it is truer, in an absolute sense, than Aristotle's physics. Similarly, Kuhn denied that science is constantly approaching the truth. At the end of Structure he asserted that science, like life on earth, does not evolve toward anything but only away from something.


Kuhn declared that, although his book was not intended to be pro-science, he is pro-science. It is the rigidity and discipline of science, Kuhn said, that makes it so effective at problem-solving. Moreover, science produces "the greatest and most original bursts of creativity" of any human enterprise. Kuhn conceded that he was partly to blame for some of the anti-science interpretations of his model. After all, in Structure he did call scientists committed to a paradigm "addicts"; he also compared them to the brainwashed characters in Orwell's 1984. Kuhn insisted that he did not mean to be condescending by using terms such as "mopping up" or "puzzle-solving" to describe what most scientists do. "It was meant to be descriptive." He ruminated a bit. "Maybe I should have said more about the glories that result from puzzle solving, but I thought I was doing that."

As for the word "paradigm," Kuhn conceded that it had become "hopelessly overused" and is "out of control." Like a virus, the word spread beyond the history and philosophy of science and infected the intellectual community at large, where it came to signify virtually any dominant idea. A 1974 New Yorker cartoon captured the phenomena. "Dynamite, Mr. Gerston!" gushed a woman to a smug-looking man. "You're the first person I ever heard use 'paradigm' in real life." The low point came during the Bush administration, when White House officials introduced an economic plan called "the New Paradigm" (which was really just trickle-down economics).