Kuhn: Detours en route to normal science

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the sciences (though not in fields like medicine, technology, and law, of which the principal raison d’être is an external social need), the formation of specialized journals, the foundation of specialized journals, the foundation of specialists’ societies, and the claim for a special place in the curriculum have usually been associated with a group’s first reception of a single paradigm.

The part of this that bears further thought is the parenthesised aside. Consider macroeconomics. There’s a bunch of journals that are incomprehensible to those who haven’t learned the math and the jargon. Yet instead of a dominant paradigm, there remain a number of competing candidates that are almost, but not quite, incomprehensible to adherents of their rivals. Has macro failed to elevate one paradigm because social science data doesn’t allow a definitive winner? Or is it because the policy stakes are high?

When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced. That can be left to the writer of textbooks. Given a textbook, however, the creative scientist can begin his research where it leaves off and thus concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group.

Does this mean that if want to have influence on a field, you should write a text? Depends on the field. A textbook writer in physics doesn’t have much latitude as to what to prioritise and what to downplay — the paradigm is settled. A textbook writer in (frequentist) statistics has more room to manoeuvre. You have to talk about t-tests, because the field expects you to, but you can downplay them in a way you can’t downplay F = ma.

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