I just like saying "phlogiston"

By Sean Carroll | October 22, 2005 1:18 pm

Well, Steinn has already taken my idea of constructing an entire blog post from this quote from Michael Bérubé, but I’ve decided I’m not too proud to do it anyway. (Andrew Jaffe actually has some things to say.)

Now, the last time I got together with my editor, on a weekday evening in a midtown restaurant in New York, he flagged the opening pages of the chapter on my postmodernism seminar and said, you might want to watch the mention of Kuhn—because, as you know, there are any number of readers out there who are really tired of humanities professors citing Kuhn and getting him wrong. Likewise with Gödel and Heisenberg on “incompleteness” and “uncertainty.”

As you might imagine, this remark made me violently angry. Yanking the bottle of pinot grigio from the ice bucket to my right, I smashed it on the edge of the table, stood up, and said, “All right, man. I know all about those readers. And I’m as pissed off about sloppy appropriations of Kuhn as anyone. But let me say one thing.” At this point I had drawn the alarmed attention of all the diners-and-drinkers in the place, not least because I was waving the broken bottle around and making random stabbing motions. “I’ll put my reading of Kuhn up against anyone’s. Anyone’s, do you hear me? DO YOU HEAR ME? I’m serious, man—I don’t just go on about ‘paradigm’ this and ‘incommensurability’ that, people. I can take Kuhn’s examples about phlogiston and X-rays and shit, and I can extrapolate them to Charles Messier’s late-eighteenth century catalog of stellar objects, or the early controversy over the determination of the Hubble constant, or the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson. GET IT? So don’t mess with my goddamn reading of Kuhn. Any of you.”

There were a few moments of silence, punctuated only by some nervous clattering of silverware. Then a conservatively-dressed man in his early fifties got up from a table fifteen or twenty feet away. “People like you,” he said, trying to stare me down, “read Kuhn backwards by means of Feyerabend’s Against Method, and as a result, you make him out to be some kind of Age of Aquarius irrationalist who thinks that scientists run from paradigm to paradigm for no damn reason.” Then he tossed his napkin across the table. “And if you want to deny it, I suggest we step outside.”

In my experience, it’s scientists who get The Structure of Scientific Revolutions wrong more than humanists (or at least as much). Both of them lazily envision Kuhn as a screaming relativist; the difference is that scientists do so with disdain, while humanists do so with approval. Although he wasn’t really very clear about it, Kuhn wasn’t a relativist of any sort; he thought that scientific progress was very real. It’s just not clean and algorithmic, at least during those moments of “revolutionary” science when two very different sets of ideas seem equally plausible. The good news is, the dust always settles, and one paradigm doesn’t overthrow another paradigm just because the new paradigm’s supporters take the old paradigm’s supporters out back and beat them up. Ultimately Nature makes it clear that one idea is just better than another, and all but a few lonely cranks hop on the bandwagon. It’s guessing which bandwagon to hop on in the early stages that is the real fun.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Science
  • Elliot

    I have always felt that what Kuhn was “saying” was that the philosophy progress of scientific ideas has a “quantum” flavor to it vs. classical progress. I could be totally wrong here. Perhaps the fact that his writings are interpreted by so many in so many different ways maybe illustrates the significance of his work.

    The story reminds me of Annie Hall when they are waiting in line for the movie and the discussion about McLuhan…..

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Excellent! In my dream world, that’s the kind of conversation topic -with the passion- I want happening at dinner everywhere right alongside your sports and popular culture… Great!


  • Sam Gralla

    I hereby request a sequential reading list of important works in the philosophy of science.

  • spyder

    “Ultimately Nature makes it clear that one idea is just better than another”

    Yes, and herein lies the relativistic tweaking. I have always found it personally inspiring that human beings continue to ask the same essential questions about their own existence and the existence of reality–and have done so for tens of thousands of years (evidenced by “symbolically” arranged artifacts rather than just this shard or that). The “progress” of science is manifested in the public’s consciousness as the history of responses to these questions. As we ask ever more detailed and complex questions, given the sets of responses and previously asked questions, we still are struggling with the basics. That is what makes it all so beautiful.

  • http://gracchus.typepad.com/gracchus Patrick

    Kuhn has a fairly precarious position in philosophy of science because there are really two of him. Kuhn (like many philosophers who are accuused of relativism) is either saying something trivial or absurd. And it should be noted that the “humanists” who love his relativism are, by and large, not philosophers of science. Then again, lit crit people have a lot more contempt for philosophers than they do for scientists.

  • http://gracchus.typepad.com/gracchus Patrick

    Scratch “trivial” and put “obviously correct.” I didn’t want to imply Kuhn didn’t do any important work.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    Passion for truth for sure. Loud and with conviction? Okay, so the guy at the table is really only five feet tall :)

    While IN context of Sokal Affair, a purposeful misleading and thrown together computer mash of an idea to mislead, in regards to the test of whether anyone understood quantum gravity(?), not the same as, recognizing the anomalies of perception.

    Even a keen eyed scientist would know better then to tangle with the obvious? Right?

    Thinking one had the elephant by the trunk, could one really had him by the tail, and if anything required a truer sense of what might wafer his way, lets say his nose, will be a better truth, then any story Sokal could have ever invented.

    Moral: Some just have a better sense about them?:)

  • Fyodor

    “I hereby request a sequential reading list of important works in the philosophy of science. ”

    No problemo! HERE IT IS:

  • The Anti-Fyodor

    Even I laughed at that one, Fyodor.

  • Doug

    But it was Weinberg who pointed out that Kuhn’s “paradigm,” whatever you call it, is a “consensus view,” so it is as much about culture as it is about science. Scientists don’t like to believe that their ideas are driven by culture. They want to believe that their scientific objectivity places them above the currents of cultural persuasion, but Kuhn wasn’t convinced, and he described a cultural process revolving around science. Weinberg summarizes the cycle beautifully:

    Near the end of a period of normal science a crisis occurs—experiments give results that don’t fit existing theories, or internal contradictions are discovered in these theories. There is alarm and confusion. Strange ideas fill the scientific literature. Eventually there is a revolution. Scientists become converted to a new way of looking at nature, resulting eventually in a new period of normal science. The “paradigm” has shifted.

    But Weinberg doesn’t take issue with this. What he dislikes is Khun’s “radically skeptical conclusions about what is accomplished in the work of science,” because it serves to provide humanists with a scientific rationale to “question the character of scientific knowledge,” and thus make it easier for them to describe scientific theories as “social constructions, not so different from democracy or baseball.” He explains:

    Kuhn made the shift from one paradigm to another seem more like a religious conversion than an exercise of reason. He argued that our theories change so much in a paradigm shift that it is nearly impossible for scientists after a scientific revolution to see things as they had been seen under the previous paradigm. Kuhn compared the shift from one paradigm to another to a gestalt flip, like the optical illusion created by pictures in which what had seemed to be white rabbits against a black background suddenly appear as black goats against a white background. But for Kuhn the shift is more profound; he added that “the scientist does not preserve the gestalt subject’s freedom to switch back and forth between ways of seeing.”

    It is this gulf, that separates the science of one paradigm from the science of the succeeding paradigm, which seems to provoke Weinberg the most:

    Kuhn argued further that in scientific revolutions it is not only our scientific theories that change but the very standards by which scientific theories are judged, so that the paradigms that govern successive periods of normal science are incommensurable. He went on to reason that since a paradigm shift means complete abandonment of an earlier paradigm, and there is no common standard to judge scientific theories developed under different paradigms, there can be no sense in which theories developed after a scientific revolution can be said to add cumulatively to what was known before the revolution. Only within the context of a paradigm can we speak of one theory being true or false. Kuhn in Structure concluded, tentatively, “We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion explicit or implicit that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.” More recently, in his Rothschild Lecture at Harvard in 1992, Kuhn remarked that it is hard to imagine what can be meant by the phrase that a scientific theory takes us “closer to the truth.”
    So, it’s the teleological aspect, or lack of it, that Weinberg takes such exception to:

    All this is wormwood to scientists like myself, who think the task of science is to bring us closer and closer to objective truth. But Kuhn’s conclusions are delicious to those who take a more skeptical view of the pretensions of science. If scientific theories can only be judged within the context of a particular paradigm, then in this respect the scientific theories of any one paradigm are not privileged over other ways of looking at the world, such as shamanism or astrology or creationism. If the transition from one paradigm to another cannot be judged by any external standard, then perhaps it is culture rather than nature that dictates the content of scientific theories.

    In the light (Peter’s light especially) of the string theory debate, these sentiments are simply to be relished.


  • Ijon Tichy

    A philosophy (and history) of science reading list:


  • Simon

    Here is a good philosophy of science reading list:


  • http://www.dcorfield.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/blog.html David Corfield

    There is certainly little consistency between interpreters of Kuhn. Not only is he taken as a relativist, both approvingly and disapprovingly, I have heard a prominent historian of science call him a ‘progressivist’ (disapprovingly), not an atypical reaction from this community. Part of the problem lies with Kuhn, but to my mind a larger part comes from the difficulty philosophers have had in constructing a position which recognises that all thought takes place in a social, historical setting, while allowing a place for a concept of truth. I would be very interesting to hear reactions to a paper on this theme, which I delivered to a group of mathematicians, historians and writers at the ‘Mathematics and Narrative’ conference this summer. It’s available at:



  • Bill Unruh

    I think it is pretty hard to defend Kuhn against the charges of relativism. His claims that the new “paradigm” takes over only as the old one’s proponents die (not “are convinced” , but die) is hardly a statement about the advancement of truth. To compare scientific changes to political revolutions, where opponents are won over by force is not a statement about the advancement of truth.

    To quote Kuhn:

    This genetic aspect of the parallel between political and scientific development should no longer be open to doubt. The parallel has, however, a second and more profound aspect upon which the significance of the first depends. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favour of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarisation has occurred, political recourse fails. Because they differ about the institutional matrix within which political change is to be achieved and evaluated, because they acknowledge no supra-institutional framework for the adjudication of revolutionary difference, the parties to a revolutionary conflict must finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion, often including force. Though revolutions have had a vital role in the evolution of political institutions, that role depends upon their being partially extrapolitical or extrainstitutional events. The remainder of this essay aims to demonstrate that the historical study of paradigm change reveals very similar characteristics in the evolution of the sciences. Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defence.

    As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice — there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.

    I think those statements and others like it are pretty hard to “get wrong”.

    I think many scientists (including me many years ago when I first read him) , having been woken up, by reading Kuhn to the social dimension of science, and then want to water down what he says to wishy-washy self evident things like “Science also has a social dimension” or “all thought takes place in a social, historical setting, while allowing a place for a concept of truth.”

    His statements as, in the quotes above, are a lot harsher than that.

    And his idea that the shift is a irreversible shift of conciousness is silly. “the scientist does not preserve the gestalt subject’s freedom to switch back and forth between ways of seeing.” All of us are capable of thinking exactly line a 19th century Newtonian. And we have to do so when we teach our students Mechanics or Electrodynamics. It is not some foreign suit we put on to act a part. We can and do throughout our careers look at the world exactly through those lenses. We believe it describes the world. Only not completely. We also look at the world as Special Relativists, or General Relativists, or a quantum mechanician. It perfectly possible to see the world, as in the ambiguous pictures, in two different ways at different times. Do we believe that one is an approximation of the other? Yes, whatever that means. Could we prove it? Usually no. So in that sense we buy into the new world view. But we do so because we believe and have evidence that one is better than the other, because one explains the observations we have made of the world better than the other does, and not because we have caught the faith from our professors.


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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