October 21, 2010

Miscommunication of Scientific Revolutions

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I had pretty much written another column for today about something completely unrelated to this, but both a Facebook suggestion and an assignment led me to think this column might be fun to write.

So… maybe you’ve heard about this thing called Philosophy of Science, and if you have, maybe you’ve heard about Thomas Kuhn. You probably heard his name a couple weeks ago in class (I was there, so I know. Lol), or in some other class. He tends to get into classes that have nothing to do, necessarily, with PhilSci. In the broad sense, the use of the term “paradigm shift” has a lot to do with him, as are the five things that make a scientific theory a theory (accuracy, consistency, broad in scope, simplicity and fruitfulness … come on, you’ve heard this before). But his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was also extremely influential when published.

What Kuhn basically said (to a certain extent quite accurately), apart from delineating what a theory should consist of, was that whenever two ideas clashed (his example was Newtonian mechanics and relativity), the way people (i.e. scientists) support one claim over the other has a lot more to do with their own interests than the “truth” of either claim. This oversimplifies what he said a little, but I’m not exactly interested in giving a PhilSci lecture in my column (you can take the class if you’re interested).

One thing I find interesting is to go back and read the original works wherein an idea is presented. Since we read that everything is a social construction nowadays (don’t we?), it’s fun to read one of those writings that started up that debate in the first place. Because such an idea — science being a social construct — seems so obvious to me, I find it amusing to read all the commotion it caused. But it’s just like when you read Cervantes’s Novelas Ejemplares and complain that his works resemble soap operas. I just don’t know how much of what I’ve read/heard around me does that, how our contemporary environments make us think something is obvious and we forget that the idea had to originate somewhere.

But back to science being a social construction. Everywhere, from kindergarten classrooms to academia, from amateur team sports to Burger King, from office jobs to high-end enterprises, politics always play out. Science is no different. Some areas of science go unnoticed or unfunded for decades before they make an entrance, if they ever do, to the canon of things to know. A particular way of seeing things can override all the others; Chomskian linguistics, Skinnerian behaviorism, eugenics, race sciences and countless others. (I don’t think they all belong in the same category, by the way …  but they came to mind together). Things that we see as wrong or implausible today are far from what the world has always seen them.

And societies, contrary to what many of us tend to believe, change surprisingly fast, at least in little but very important ways. Look at how attention spans have grown shorter in the last 10 years or at the way our generation (at least in certain brackets) views things like birth control. My mother studied psychology 20 years ago and did black box conditioning; now, I get taught at school how wrong that is (i.e., that you can’t just measure behavior). I see nothing wrong with our understanding of things changing (after all, isn’t that the point?), but Kuhn is right inasmuch as politics play a big role in how we view things.

An amusing example to consider is sexual selection in animal behavior, where we go from the monogamy of several animals (like penguins, aww) in the 90s to Operational Sex Ratios from 2005 on. Both of these theories may actually be true (I think they are!). I am just making the point that science reflects the society that produces it. We would be naive to believe this is not the case. And funding for scientific research follows the needs of the society that produce that wealth (at least ideally) — which makes sense. It sounds logical to give more money to cancer research than to “basic” sciences that want to know things for knowing’s sake, even though I’ve heard ad nauseam that this is a mistake (you never know when a simple, seemingly impractical experiment may change the world, they say. I think there’s truth to that statement). I recently read Blackledge’s The Story of V (soooo good!) which delved deeply into the fact that social constructions may stifle the quest for truth (in this case, concerning female sexuality), since truth, after all, is dictated by social constructions that may or may not listen to scientific findings.

Where does that leave us, though? How much are we supposed to care about truth? Should we care about truth at all? Do we justify this search simply because it is in our best interests? Yes. But how can it be any other way? There is only so much we can know, only so much we can realistically learn and care about.

It is not new to say that what we believe is shaped by so many things and that our beliefs end up determining what we want to study. Given the overwhelming fields of study out there, and how they each define their terms — when I talk about term X and you talk about term X, chances are we are not talking about the same thing — how can we hope to find truth if we are not even finding a consensus?

Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at fulloa@cornellsun.com. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Florencia Ulloa