So I'm almost done with Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It's very good and very rich. I think everyone knows the basic Kuhnian argument about paradigm shifts in science, but Kuhn is one of those writers that packs a lot more detail and insights into his books than just the central thesis that most people know. I recommend it, particularly for epistemologically minded people that have a tendency to think about the scientific method and the understanding that it builds in terms of pure epistemology and questions of "knowledge".
Anyway, I've seen a couple hints of Kuhn on blogs ever since I started reading it. I think that's always a good sign - when you read something, and applications of what you read seem to pop up places.
- First, a couple days ago Jonathan Catalan asked the question "what the heck does an economist study?". This is not a new question - it's been the subject of several presidential addresses to the AEA, books, commentary, etc. Answers range from "economics is whatever economists want to talk about" to more specific responses. One of the things that Jonathan notes is that economists really don't do deep epistemological work anymore. Jonathan writes:
"The book has gotten me thinking, however, about how the important epistemological questions of economics have been slowly pushed aside, in favor of more empirical, mostly historical questions. Perhaps it is a sign that most economists seem to be content with whatever foundations they base their own research on and instead trudge forward — these elementary, basic metaphysical questions seem redundant. This, however, does not satisfy me, because these questions are still relevant, especially given the fact that there is no widespread consensus on what an economist studies, and what is the best method by which to study whatever is being studied — one could go as far as to claim that these questions have not been completely answered within the Austrian School, even!"
This has never bothered me that much for the reason that Jonathan points out - we already answered that question. The question hasn't been "pushed aside" it has been answered! Kuhn talks about this process in the emergence of a "mature" science, and he notes that epistemological and metaphysical discussions are a hallmark of pre-scientific thought, or at least immature science. I think this is an important component of the case for economics as a science - that we have settled are epistemological and methodological questions fairly conclusively. It also addresses why so many people who are not satisfid with that answer are also less likely to see economics as a science.
- Second, many people have remarked on Bryan Caplan's explanation of why so many GMU professors blog. In it, he recognizes another Kuhnian concept - "normal science". Normal science, for Kuhn, is puzzle-solving. The scientific paradigm sets up a series of puzzles that are relevant for the scientist to solve: cataloguing new elements, tracking new orbits, and also just generally fitting observational data to an existing paradigm. Caplan argues that most economists are puzzle-solvers, and that apparently this is in contrast to bigger-picture thinkers that are more likely to blog. I'm noting the Kuhnian reference here, but I'm not buying the argument. Austrians and libertarians are puzzle-solvers too, they just work on slightly different puzzles than the rest of the discipline. It doesn't seem like much of an explanation for blogging behavior. Caplan also talks about GMU professors' relationship with "the life of the mind" and a deeper appreciation for the issues than you get from a typical economics class. I also don't quite buy this argument, again because I don't think GMU professors are unique in this. I attribute GMU blogging to some path depenence (early successes by a few bloggers encouraging others), and the entrepreneurial nature of the GMU department (they are well known for head-hunting big names and cultivating niche sub-fields).
- Finally, Brad DeLong had a post where he described relativity as easier to understand than essentially all other modern physics (this was in a response to a guy who said he understood evolution but had to take relativity on faith). Sean Carroll, a blogger at Cosmic Variance, agreed with Brad that relativity isn't that tough to grasp. What caught my attention was this line:
"He’s completely right, of course. While relativity has a reputation for being intimidatingly difficult, it’s a peculiar kind of difficulty. Coming at the subject without any preparation, you hear all kinds of crazy things about time dilating and space stretching, and it seems all very recondite and baffling. But anyone who studies the subject appreciates that it’s a series of epiphanies: once you get it, you can’t help but wonder what was supposed to be so all-fired difficult about this stuff."
The idea of a "series of epiphanies" is very Kuhnian. We resist understandings because we don't have an underlying paradigm that allows us to see facts in a way that is relevant to a scientific theory. One of the episodes that Kuhn talks about a lot is the development of theories of electricity in the mid 18th century. There was a time when electricity was actually thought of as a fluid. That was the dominant paradigm. Static and charges in things that had not directly touched an electrical current were simply ignored as "leaks" from the electrical fluid - complete side-shows. Not important. By changing how one understood electricity and abandoning the idea that electricity was a fluid, that which was peripheral and an oddity made perfect sense. The important thing about paradigm shifts is that they change the way you see the world. Theories that were once inconceivable then become obvious, and those that were once obvious start to look silly. The nature of time is a great example - our senses cause us to rebel against the idea of time as a dimension, but when you accept that a lot of new intuitions follow naturally. Our senses cause us to rebel against the idea that we are just like other animals, but when you accept that, a lot of new intuitions follow.
No exiting to that exit
1 hour ago