Kuhn without incommensurability 
[cross-posted at It's Only a Theory]

We are finishing the close reading of Kuhn's Structure in my Scientific Revolutions course.

On Wednesday, we talked about Kuhn's claim that different paradigms are incommensurable, and today we talked about the considerations which might convince scientists to shift from the old paradigm to a new one. Kuhn characterizes the shift as a conversion experience, but not one that is totally unmotivated by reasons. Kuhn reviews a whole range of possible reasons, including puzzle-solving power, precision, novel prediction, and simplicity.

He insists that none of these reasons are necessarily decisive, however. He writes that
paradigm debates are not really about relative problem-solving ability.... Instead, the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. (p. 156)

Because a paradigm serves to guide normal science, accepting a paradigm means committing to do normal science in that way. So the choice is forward-looking, while all of the reasons are backward-looking. So, one might say, the choice of paradigm is strategic rather than simply evidential.

While discussing this passage, I realized that the conclusion does not rely on incommensurability at all. Rather, it just relies on the problem of induction: Past performance of a paradigm provides no guarantee of future results. So proceeding with one paradigm rather than the other is a kind of gamble. Reasonable people with different hunches or different tolerance for risk might disagree about which way to go.

This allows for a philosophically conservative reading of Kuhn which accepts that revolution is different than normal science, because different paradigms would guide scientific practice in substantially different ways. The conservative reading also accepts that the choice between paradigms cannot be determined by the relevant reasons, especially during the period of crisis.

The conservative reading isn't adequate as a reading of Kuhn, because it accepts those things without any appeal to incommensurability. The change between paradigms might be like a conversion experience, as Kuhn would have it, because some strategic choices are; consider choosing a career, choosing to get married, or choosing whether or not to have children. But it might instead be a self-conscious choice, like choosing between mutual funds for your retirement account.

I think that this recommends the conservative reading as a philosophical position, even if it disqualifies it as a reading of Kuhn. The description of normal science and crisis is the really insightful part of Structure, while the stuff about incommensurability is the most problematic.

It occurs to me that what I've called here the conservative reading of Kuhn, in which underdetermination comes from the problem of induction rather than incommensurability, looks a lot like Lakatos' Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. We're doing Lakatos next week in class, so I'll see if that idea holds up.

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Read and Woolley on Wray on Kuhn 
In a recent issue of BJPS, Rupert Read and Jessica Woolley review Brad Wray's book Kuhn's Evolutionary Social Epistemology.* I've been thinking about Kuhn recently, too, because I'm teaching Scientific Revolutions this term.

Read and Woolley survey Wray's argument against critics of Kuhn who would say that there is no sharp different between normal science and revolution. Wray appeals to the fact, mentioned in Structure and developed by Kuhn in more detail later, that revolutions involve a substantial change in taxonomy. The world seen after the revolution is divided along different lines than it was before. Shared standards and data can be (perhaps must be) insufficient to determine the choice between rival taxonomies. So these transitions are importantly different than normal science.

This line of reasoning relies on underdetermination at the object-level of scientific theories and taxonomies. Read and Woolley note that it applies just as well at the meta-level, to the theories and taxonomies used in science studies. Yet the difference between normal science and revolution is just part of the taxonomy of Kuhn's account of science. Contra Wray, they conclude that we are not entitled to the conclusion that there really are revolutions.

They put the point this way:
Wray defends Kuhn’s account in the way that he does, aiming to show that there 'really are' Kuhnian revolutions in science (p. 34). If overall taxonomies are underdetermined even in disciplines such as physics where there is ordinarily widespread agreement, it seems unclear what standards Wray could appeal to in order to justify the socio-historical claim that there 'really' are Kuhnian revolutions.


That much seems right to me, and it is anticipated in Structure. In Section VIII, Kuhn treats Hypothetico-Deductive philosophy of science as if it were a paradigm. It does not fit the history of science very well, so it faces anomalies. According to the the Kuhnian picture, adherents of a paradigm faced with such phenomena will make ad hoc revisions to accommodate them, but the puzzling phenomena may be tautological for a later paradigm. And (he suggests) this is just what obtains for the HD account and his proposed alternative. This does not prove that Kuhn's approach is true, however, any more than the anomaly proved that HD was false. So Kuhn himself makes the reflexive move. Just as he denies that (e.g.) a paradigm in chemistry gets to what's really real, he'd deny that his own historiographic paradigm does.

The concluding sentences of the review go wrong, however. Read and Woolley write:
'Paradigm' is not a scientific phenomenon but a term of art, a tool for enabling the historian to bring an order to the deeply challenging task of understanding defunct science without 'Whiggish' preconceptions. The idea of being a realist or an anti-realist about paradigms involves a misplaced concreteness. How, after all, could one meaningfully be a 'relativist' (or indeed a 'realist') about something that is only a term of art?

First, this seems confuse the word ('paradigm') with the things (paradigms). It's a word that's a term of art, but the question of realism arises for the things. It is coherent to ask whether there are really paradigms, just as it is coherent to ask whether there are anglerfish or pions.

Second, this seems to infer from the fact that the term is a tool crafted for a specific purpose to the conclusion that the category cannot be part of the world. This is what I call amphibolic pragmatism, and I rail against it at some length in SENK.

Third, this asks too much of underdetermination. There is no sharp boundary in uncertainty between our knowledge of commonplace stuff (which might be hidden or far away), unobservable entities (which we can't see or sense in the way that I can see or sense a burrito), or natural kinds (which are structural features of the world rather than isolated particulars). Natural kinds, which may be picked out by terms of art, have as much claim to being real as commonplace stuff does. This is what I call equity realism.

Equity realism contrasts with deep realism, the project of fundamental metaphysics. (Again, this distinction is in the book.)

If Kuhnian considerations underwrite an argument against realism, it's against deep realism. Grant that ontology should be relativized to a way of seeing the world. Even within a paradigm, we can distinguish between the substantive commitments and the parts which are self-consciously arbitrary. So we can ask whether revolutions are posited to be features of the world or merely used as wrenches to dismantle Whiggish history. We can ask whether they are real, on par with the way trees and the plague are real, even if we can't say whether they are really real in real reality.


* DOI: 10.1093/bjps/axs032 [direct link]

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The train of citations 
Some philosophers have a general picture of things which has been developed across a number of separate articles such that, every time they articulate it further, they cite all of the previous places where they've presented earlier or partial versions of it. If the view is never pulled together in a book, the self-citation just gets longer and longer with each presentation or extension of the view.

The observation is prompted by this sentence, which I wrote in a paper that I was working on today: "In earlier work, I’ve distinguished retail arguments for realism from wholesale arguments. [MC04][Mag10][Mag11][Mag12, pp. 120–3]"

It makes me think that I should write a book that serves as a retail argument manifesto, before it gets any worse.

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The open access dragnet 
In Who's Afraid of Peer Review, recently published in Science, John Bohannon reports on an experiment he did with open access science journals. He sent them a spoof paper that had the form of a serious article but was chock full of horrible errors. Only about 38% of the journals rejected it. Bohannon also talked about the paper in a recent NPR interview.

The blog Games with Words points out that this fails as a test of open access journals, because it is not clear what the acceptance rate would have been at traditional, closed-access journals. Note that it doesn't help to say (as Bohannon does) that acceptance of the spoof paper probably occurred when an open access journal simply didn't bother with peer review, even if we also accept that closed journals all genuinely conduct peer review. The study has no way of distinguishing the absence of peer review from crap peer review, and some closed journals may conduct crap peer review.

This criticism is sharpened because failure to have a control group was one of the howlers in Bohannon's spoof paper. He says in the NPR interview:
It looked like real paper, not a joke. But if you peer-reviewed it, you would within five minutes see that it was so flawed that it could never be published. ... if you're claiming to have evidence that some chemical is a promising new drug, well, you better have tested at least on healthy cells. Because even if you show that it hurts cancer cells, how do you know what you have there isn't just a poison? So that's one thing that's just awful about the paper, is that it doesn't compare cancer cells to healthy cells at all.

So GamesWithWords retorts: "Science -- which is not open access -- published an obviously flawed article about open access journals publishing obviously flawed articles."

Nevertheless, it seems that Bohannon wasn't even trying to test open-access as such. He says, "Open-access is great and everyone believes that."

Instead, he says that his results could be used to separate the sham open-access journals (which print anything so as to scam author fees) from genuine ones (which conduct authentic peer review and try to publish good science). That doesn't require a control group. If the goal is to sort rotten open-access journals from good open-access journals, then we don't need to consider anything but the open-access journals.

Yet if that's the goal, then the percentage of acceptances really doesn't matter. What matters is using a reliable sorting process and publicizing the results. Journals by the Cairo-based publisher Hindawi rejected the paper. Journals by Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage accepted it.

And the fact that the results are presented as a percentage and series of anecdotes means that numerous readers will read it instead as a poor score for open-access as such. Brian Leiter, for example, links to the NPR interview just by writing "Open access journals in science: This story is a bit worrisome!"

Also note that Bohannon's experiment only tested journals that charge author fees. He explicitly excluded journals that don't. As I've noted before, it's the author-pays model that gives publishers like Elsevier, Kluwer, and Sage the incentive to run bogus, review-free journals.

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The Batman paradigm 
I am teaching my Scientific Revolutions course this term, and so I've been rereading Kuhn. I also happened to be reading Roy Cook's recent article on canon in serial fiction.

Cook is especially interested in what he calls MSCFs: massive, serialized, collaborative fictions. Examples include long-running franchise worlds like those in comics (e.g., the DC comics multiverse) and film (e.g., Star Wars).

It occurred to me that the world of Batman, for example, is a paradigm in precisely Kuhn's sense. It begins with specific stories which are taken as canon. The stories are open-ended, in that they leave space for more stories to be told. Yet they also provide a promise of further adventure and a largely implicit constraint on what those further stores can be like.
Read More...

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