I don't have any examples to point to, but for a while now I've meant to post on two tendencies to disparage certain concepts that people seem to have when talking about science that I think misunderstand Kuhn's attitude - one tendency touches directly on Kuhn, and the other somewhat more indirectly.
- The one that touches directly on Kuhn is disparaging references to "puzzle solving" scientists. This is what Kuhn thought the normal business of science amounted to - solving puzzles. You can think of puzzle-solving science as the normal hypothesize-test-falsify-rehypothesize iteration of the scientific method. Since Kuhn identified more totalizing paradigm shifts as the source of progress in science, people often scoff at puzzle-solving as missing the point, banal, boring, etc. I don't think that was Kuhn's perspective. First, puzzle-solving is the normal disposition of the scientist. Paradigm shifts don't come around all the time, after all! But more importantly, puzzle-solving facilitates paradigm shift by pushing the utility of a given body of theory to its limit. It doesn't require the same intuition and genius and ability to think outside the box that paradigm shift does, but I don't think he saw it in the diminutive way that people often talk about it.
- The second thing that people do touches more indirectly on Kuhnian themes, and that's the tendency to use "Potlemaic" or "phlogiston" as insults. In a way, this one bothers me more than the previous one. It's true that modern chemistry and cosmology are unambiguously considered progress from the Ptolemaic system or phlogiston chemistry to Kuhn. But part of his point was precisely that prior paradigms aren't wrong so much as immature. They only seem bizarre to us if we ignore the idea of a discontinuous shift in perspective. This passage from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is especially good at illustrating the point with respect to Newton:
"Yet, though much of Newton’s work was directed to problems and embodied standards derived from the mechanico-corpuscular world view, the effect of the paradigm that resulted from his work was a further and partially destructive change in the problems and standards legitimate for science. Gravity, interpreted as an innate attraction between every pair of particles of matter, was an occult quality in the same sense as the scholastics’ “tendency to fall” had been. Therefore, while the standards of corpuscularism remained in effect, the search for a mechanical explanation of gravity was one of the most challenging problems for those who accepted the Principia as paradigm. Newton devoted much attention to it and so did many of his eighteenth-century successors. The only apparent option was to reject Newton’s theory for its failure to explain gravity, and that alternative, too, was widely adopted. Yet neither of these views ultimately triumphed. Unable either to practice science without the Principia or to make that work conform to the corpuscular standards of the seventeenth century, scientists gradually accepted the view that gravity was indeed innate. By the mid-eighteenth century that interpretation had been almost universally accepted, and the result was a genuine reversion (which is not the same as a retrogression) to a scholastic standard. Innate attractions and repulsions joined size, shape, position, and motion as physically irreducible primary properties of matter."
In another passage I can't put my fingers on right now, he talks about how Einstein then "reverted" back to pre-Newtonian physics by explaining the source of gravity rather than just taking it as an innate, given quality. Accusing Newton of retrogression for thinking of gravity as an innate quality is in a lot of ways like criticizing Keynes's citation of the mercantilists. If Keynes just said "you know - forget the nineteenth century, let's just take the mercantilists as is" there would be cause for concern I think. But seeing problems in a somewhat similar light to past paradigms itself is not a fault, because past paradigms are never really "wrong" so much as they are interpretatively immature. I don't think there's any chance of stopping people from using "Ptolemaic" or "phlogiston" as insults and I have even made use of "Ptolemaic" on occasion. That's OK as shorthand, so long as we understand the point I'm trying to make here. The idea of science as being "wrong" doesn't really make sense. Science is developmental. In the way that people call the Ptolemaic system "wrong" there's probably a lot now that we think that is "wrong". This isn't to say that the Ptolemaic system is "right" either of course! As Kuhn protested - he's not a relativist! Planets simply don't move the way Ptolemy said they moved. The point is that instead of thinking of the Ptolemaic system as a thumbs up or thumbs down idea we need to instead (or in addition?) think of it as a conceptual framework that we have simply transcended because we figured out a more useful conceptual framework.
In a lot of ways it's like why we think (well at least I think) Louis CK is funny when he talks about his kids. He's got a lot of jokes where the basic approach is to judge his kids by adult standards and highlight how miserably the fail. It's funny, but why is it funny? It's funny because kids aren't "stupid" per se - they're simply still developing. The standard he holds them to is instinctively off for us and we don't naturally judge children that way, so it's funny to think of them by that standard. Ptolemaic cosmologists and phlogiston chemists, of course, are not children - which is why we judge them so harshly. But it's still important to remember the developmental character of conceptual frameworks in science as well as the self-referentialism of these conceptual frameworks. Within the framework of the Ptolemaic system the world makes a lot more sense than the Ptolemaic system does from the perspective of the Copernican system. The Copernican system is progress but that does not mean that we fully understand the Ptolemaic system if we try to understand it from a more modern perspective. We miss something. That's really the whole point of Kuhn, after all - we miss something if we do that.
Chesterton spinning in his grave
9 hours ago