Kuhn Vs Popper Hardcover – May 27 2003
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Karl Popper is about my favorite modern philosopher. His view of what science should be like, and the kind of liberating cultural role it should play, is inspiring. Thomas Kuhn, on the other hand, provided a very different, and much less exhilarating, picture of how science does, in fact, operate. In my experience, Kuhn's description is largely accurate, something Popper himself did not deny. If that is so, then this "debate" is between a normative theorist of how science should function (Popper) and an observer/analyst of how science does function (Kuhn). In a debate like that, the queston of "Who's right?" is not destined to lead much of anywhere.
Fuller is critical of Kuhn for being a repesentative of, or even an apologist for, establishment "big science" that tends to operate beyond democratic political controls; Fuller's sympathies are all with Popper's refusal to countenance orthodoxies or establishments of any kind, with science properly serving as an integral part of and support for the rational and critical Open Society. As much as I would like Popperian ideals to guide scientific practice, Fuller's attack on Kuhn seems to me a case of killing the messenger for delivering an unwelcome message about how science actually goes about its business. Science is like it is for reasons that have nothing to do with Thomas Kuhn, and it would be this way even if Kuhn had never been born.
If the problem is the gap between Kuhnian reality and Popperian ideal, then the important question is how to get from the one to the other. Fuller's suggestions about that are pathetically weak. For example, he notes that "Paul Feyerabend advocated the devolution of science funding from nation-states to local communities as the surest way to increase science's capacity for good and lower its capacity for evil." When Fuller refers to the voicing of this fantasy as a "public intervention by a philosopher of science," you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Even if you accept Fuller's ideological commitments, he fails to describe any credible scenario by which modern science, with its vast funding requirements, its national security role, and its industrial entanglements, could conceivably be transformed into the kind of enterprise that he, and Popper, would approve of.
Fuller is a sociologist and perhaps that is one reason Kuhn irks him so, for Kuhn also seems to be offering a paradigm challenge to the science of sociology itself. "Normal" (i.e. mainstream) sociologists like Fuller take it for granted that ideology should guide the process. But to Kuhn, sociology is more of a necessary evil; akin to group psychology, and as such it is but one factor out of many in paradigm struggles in science. One such group, the scientific community, plays a crucial role during such periods. In settling scientific debates the final authority is and must be the community of scientists. There is no other--unless one prefers a head of state to render a verdict; or better yet, as in Fuller's fantasy, the sociologist-as-philosopher-of-science should have the final word. This is why it is so important to keep science and politics separate.
Fuller criticizes Kuhn for not taking a stand on political issues, making him into something akin to a "Nazi sympathizer," (in this case a Conservative sympathizer, no doubt), for how else are we to read the analogy to Heidegger? There is little doubt where Fuller's sympathies and priorities lie. In a perverse sort of way I can see Fuller's point. Several notable philosophers and scientists, "intellectuals" of the early to mid-twentieth century like Russell and Einstein, took (left wing) political positions on the pressing issues of their day. Kuhn refused to do so. If I were to guess at his reason I would say he thought it might compromise his philosophical/historical theory on how science develops over time, and turn him into a mere partisan. Fuller characterizes Kuhn's failure to engage in political mud slinging as "cowardice;" I call it being professional and scientific.
As for the book itself; Kuhn vs. Popper has some value in that it gets the reader to think about a very important subject. But that's as far as it goes. Almost from the outset, Fuller plays fast and loose with language. In almost every paragraph, he makes reckless claims, faulty analogies, and erroneous assumptions. Fuller is a loose thinker for whom words have amorphous meanings; the very opposite of thinkers like Kuhn and Popper, however one might judge their respective philosophies.
If one intends to critique an author's work, it helps to first summarize what it says. But Fuller immediately launches into his interpretation before any facts are laid out. For example, on page 13, while ostensibly giving a synopsis of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Fuller reports that Kuhn "heightens the tension between, on the one hand, the sort of heroic and progressive history that scientists must tell themselves...and, on the other hand, the actual history of science with all its diversions, complexities, and imperfections. Kuhn treats these histories as `separate but equal,'...[and this] would be undermined if scientists had the professional historian's demythologized sense of their history."
But what does all this hyperbole mean? Neither Structure, nor the Postscript to Structure, nor The Road Since Structure say anything like it, and certainly not in that way. There are endless similar examples of Fuller's misinterpretation of Kuhn's theory. Compare the above quote to Kuhn's description of the way science is portrayed in the textbooks:
"From the beginning of the scientific enterprise, a textbook presentation implies scientists have striven for the particular objectives that are embodied in today's paradigms. One by one, in a process often compared to the addition of bricks to a building, scientists have added another fact, concept, law, or theory to the body of information supplied in the contemporary science text...But this is not the way science develops. Many of the puzzles of contemporary normal science did not exist until after the most recent scientific revolution." (Structure, 140)
As a working scientist, I approached this little book with interest, for four reasons. First, Thomas Kuhn's perspectives on scientific progress have seemed correct to me since my first reading of his classic "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", back in the 1960s. Second, the views of Karl Popper that I have come across - with respect to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen problem of quantum physics (which Popper first formulated) and on the nature of mind (together with John Eccles) - have always struck me as well thought and informative. Third, I have heard about the Kuhn-Popper debates over the years. Finally, my own area of research (nonlinear science) seems to offer a clear example of a Kuhnian revolution.
On the positive side, the author - Steve Fuller, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick - gives a well informed account of the academic background to the famous 1965 meeting of Kuhn and Popper and he help the reader to understand how the "debates" were (and are?) largely between acolytes of Kuhn and Popper. He also provides a useful glossary of the terms used in philosophical discussions.
Beyond these features, the book is disappointing. Rather than informing the reader about the subject implied by his title, the author devotes the majority of his pages to promoting his own ideas about what scientists should and should not be doing, closing with a chapter curiously entitled: "Is Thomas Kuhn the American Heidegger?'' This is a stretch. Martin Heidegger, after all, was a Nazi, whereas Kuhn, with a doctorate in physics, elected to teach humanities majors about the nature of science. Although Fuller's point is that Kuhn had a "negative responsibility" as an influential person to struggle against the US military-industrial complex and the Vietnam War, I don't buy it. As an active member of the antiwar movement in Madison during the early 1970s, it seems to me that participating in such activities involves decisions that people make for a variety of reasons, most of which would be unknown to a commentator separated by an ocean and a generation.
Fuller uses the contrasting views of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn as an avenue to discuss broad social and political implications of modern approaches to science. Although I think that the differences between these two thinkers can be overstated (i.e. Kuhn can be seen as a realist and Popper an idealist), it could nonetheless be an interesting approach in the hands of a capable writer. Unfortunately Fuller is not such a writer.
I think Fuller may have some interesting, if unconventional, thoughts in regard to how scientists should interact with broader society, however, they are lost in this self-righteous rant. His comments are rambling, blustering and totally unreferenced. It is evident that Fuller has many axes to grind; he rails against Kuhn, philosophers in general, American academics, etc. His rant against philosophers as being failed scientists supporting failed ideas is particularly ironic coming from a sociologist.
Overall, it is a true stinker- angry and incoherent. If this is indicative of the quality of books published by Icon, I would advise readers to steer clear of them. This text came to me by way of the "bargain bin" and it has left me by way of another "bin".
One of the chapters is entitled "Why Philosophers Get No Respect from Scientists", and Steve Fuller appears to realize that most scientists don't in general care in the slightest what philosophers think, but he fails to answer his own question; on the contrary he reinforces the disrespect by telling us that "even the very greatest scientists, such as Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and Einstein, tend to be treated as no more than passable philosophers", going on to say that Darwin is relegated to polite philosophical silence. Maybe so, but this surely tells us more about the inadequacy of philosophy as a discipline than it does about science.
The greatest shortcoming of this book is that it contains no evidence that the author has ever met any real scientists and discussed their work with them, or even read any of their work. Only two living scientists get mentioned at all, Richard Lewontin and Alan Sokal. The book has nothing of significance to say about Lewontin, and it manages to get hold of the wrong end of the stick about the Sokal Hoax. Describing Sokal absurdly as "a disgruntled US physicist", Fuller seems to imply that he was disgruntled with the state of physics, whereas he was (and is) disgusted with the way physics is perverted by ignorant and pretentious publications by social scientists. Elsewhere he seems to think that intelligent design theory is scientific. His brief mention of "socio-biologists" (Fuller's quotation marks and hyphen) likewise travesties what real sociobiologists think.
Despite all its faults Fuller's book does have some points of interest, certainly for anyone who wants to know about the little closed world where philosophers discuss the nature of science without any actual knowledge of it, or who wants to understand something of the appeal that Kuhn has had for journalists and policy makers. Readers who want to know how science is done, however, will need to look elsewhere.