31 August 2009

A Bit More on Kuhn

I asked Dr. Wahl about Kuhn at the end of class today. Essentially, he thinks that there is a body of assumptions that contribute to the decision about how to test a hypothesis, and some of those assumptions are ones that no one would ever think of questioning.

On a certain level, he's correct. In the normal course of things, such assumptions exist. However, every time they are used, that is a test. If a consistent difficulty is noticed by many researchers, in many different labs, the assumptions will eventually be looked at. Examples that come to mind immediately are the orbit of Mercury and Newtonian gravity's failure to explain it and Conservation of Mass (which does not hold when mass changes to energy or at speeds near c). Yes, assumptions were made and held onto tenaciously, but, in the end, those assumptions were overturned.

So I profess myself still unimpressed with Kuhn.

ADDENDUM: I'll probably have more to say after class next Wednesday, but I finally got some idea of why Popper might need some criticism from Dr. Wahl yesterday. The problem is that Popper leans on falsification to the exclusion of all else. In his view the goal of any test done by any scientist should be to falsify the theory. He wants to downplay any role of confirmation/corroboration. In other words, if the test goes as the theory predicts, Popper would see it as a failure.

So possibly what Kuhn is getting at is that the first reaction of a scientist who gets a result that does not accord with the prevailing theory is not to discard the theory, but, rather, to see what else might have gone wrong. But he still writes as though the theory itself is sacrosanct, which just isn't the case. It's held as true until some discrepancy becomes noticeable, and then it's either adapted or replaced. The process may be slow and painful, and full of argument, but if there is a genuine discrepancy, it will eventually be examined, and, more eventually, fixed in some fashion.

One sidenote. We discussed the case of Mercury in class, and Wahl pointed out that the response of 19th century scientists was not to abandon Newtonian gravitation, which, if they operated according to strict Popperian principles, they should have. After several failed attempts to solve the problem, it was largely ignored, until Einstein's theory of General Relativity turned out to give the correct solution. The problem with simply throwing out Newtonian gravitation was that it worked in most situations. The one discrepancy revealed its limitations, but it had so much corroborating evidence from other sources that no one was going to just give up on it. In other words, falsification is not the whole story, but it's an important part of the story.

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