Falsifying my Paradigms

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Did you know that 80-90% of all scientific discovery has been accomplished in the last 100 years? Apparently if we calculate the percentage of scientists who are still alive from the total number of scientists that have ever lived, we will get just about the same number: 80-90% (Sismondo, 2004).

These two numbers popped out of my readings this week for my Science and Technology Studies course taught by Dr. Ribes. This semester we have already produced a variety of answers to the question I posed several weeks ago: "How does one produce truth?" The production of knowledge deserves lifetimes of attention, for sure, but today I am perplexed with a different question: What if we’ve got it all wrong? Or more importantly, how would we even know?

Staring at that 80-90% figure, it seems obvious that we could use some good answers – and fast. In enter two theorists: Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Both appropriately challenge the very notion of “truth.” Popper’s problem with induction, and the introduction of falsification has produced such gems as null hypothesis testing. On the other hand, Kuhn, in his famous text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, examines periods of scientific thought. Ever wonder how the term "paradigm" became so popular? Yup, it’s because of him.

Falsification is fairly straight-forward (there is a delightful bit on proving the non-existence of “green swans”), and Popper seems to chart a cogent path toward a better understanding of the world. For Kuhn, however, the very way in which we define the world might be at issue. The prevailing agenda with which science is performed, after all, is contextually based. Once the paradigm shifts (think Copernicus), not only might we find former conclusions inaccurate (the earth is no longer the center of the universe), we might find the thread of inquiry irrelevant. Charting everything in the universe with the earth at its center is probably not too high in demand these days.

If Popper is right, then we are accomplishing some of the most remarkable work in human history. However, if Kuhn is correct, then we might need to come to terms with the reality that all of that work might be thrown out the window some day. Of course this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. The best answers are always found somewhere in between. You could easily critique Popper and say it’s impossible to run around endlessly disproving everything, but frankly I find the potential inevitability of a Kuhn-style paradigm shift much more daunting.

This only leaves me with new questions: What do I expect of science, and what does scientific progress mean today?