Well, Steinn has already taken my idea of constructing an entire blog post from this quote from Michael BÃ©rubÃ©, 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 Kuhnâ€”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 GÃ¶del 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, manâ€”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.