Kuhn: Rules and fouls

February 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Often, viewing all [scientific] fields together, it seems instead a rather ramshackle structure with little coherence among its various parts… [S]ubstituting paradigms for rules should make the diversity of scientific fields and specialties easier to understand. Explicit rules, when they exist, are usually common to a very broad scientific group, but paradigms need not be.

Kuhn’s use of “rules” is broad, encompassing everything from Newton’s laws to standards for measurement. The idea that one has to show statistical significance at level 0.05 is a rule adopted by a disparate range of fields, but this doesn’t mean these fields share a paradigm. To ponder: in what ways are rules used to legitimise new paradigms?

The scientific enterprise as a whole does from time to time prove useful, open up new territory, display order, and test long-accepted belief. Nevertheless, the individual engaged on a normal research problem is almost never doing any one of these things… What then challenges him is the conviction that, if only he is skillful enough, he will succeed in solving a puzzle that no one before has solved or solved so well.

This again relies on a narrow definition of the “scientific enterprise”, excluding medicine, for instance, which is often useful. As for testing “long-accepted belief”, there’s a whole industry of contrarians, sometimes including me, that do this. While we would love for those within the paradigm to listen to us, we kind of doubt they will, and instead seek acclamation from those in other paradigms, or more perniciously, the media. Do we fall within Kuhn’s “scientific enterprise” or not?

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