steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Kuhny Tunes

I've long been a fan of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, so I was interested to read (via andrewducker) this interesting LJ entry which notes that "[Thomas] Kuhn's book is no longer regarded quite so highly, in part because there are a whole lot of scientific advances to which it doesn’t apply – modern day science still doesn’t undergo radical changes rapidly and easily, but it does so far faster and easier than Kuhn predicts".

This prompts me to wonder whether the explanation might be that the people doing science today (and, perhaps more importantly, those with influence over its dissemination, publication, funding and acknowledgement) have grown up reading Kuhn, whose seminal work after all came out over 50 years ago? Was Kuhn predicting, in fact? Or did his description of the way that science appeared to have developed up to his own time admit the possibility that it might work differently in the future - a kind of meta-paradigm shift?

I've been thinking about Kuhn, because I was recently informed that in order to earn a 4-star rating in the next REF it was expected that research should qualify as "paradigm-shifting". It seemed to me that this was the kind of demand that could only be made by people who hadn't actually read Kuhn, and therefore hadn't realized a) how infrequently paradigms get shifted, b) that a lot of good science - as in, the vast majority of it - gets done under existing paradigms, and c) that (more interestingly) an exercise such as the REF would be unlikely to recognize a truly paradigm-shifting work because it would - more or less by definition - be defined in terms of metrics generated according to the previous paradigm.

(Whether the humanities and sciences are at all comparable in this regard is of course yet another question.)

So, coming back to my original question. Can sensitivity to and encouragement of paradigm shifts be built into scientific or any other intellectual practice? Are institutions and conventions capable of exhibiting that kind of reflexivity without ceasing to be useful as institutions and conventions? Answers on a microchip, please.
Tags: maunderings, work
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