Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A new blogger makes a worthy entrance

The team at Popehat has been joined by a new member, Clark. His first two articles have greatly impressed me. Here's an extract from the first.

Thomas Kuhn’s "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is one of those books that everyone with pretensions to intellectualism should read.

For that matter, so is C.P. Snow’s essay “The Two Cultures”.

The difference is that I’ve actually read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not quite as deep – nor as original – as its reputation suggests, nor could it be. The name of the book has become something of a totem – loaded (not “freighted”. I hate that term. Unless there are actual, literal forklifts or cranes involved you can stick your “freighted” right next to your “fraught” in your hipster-pretentious-J-school three ring binder, and shelve it next to and the NYT style pages).

Uh…where was I?

Right, right. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. “Freighted”. “Hipsters”.

Anyway, the name of the book is loaded with a lot of cultural signifiers and baggage, because that’s what pretentious intellectuals do, and because the book is a convenient stick in the dirt and thus its title is as good a phrase as any to label that patch of ground.

The patch of ground being the social process by which conventional wisdom changes.

Kuhn argues (to simplify) that at any given point in time there is a dominant theory. If the theory is hugely dominant, and there are no observed problems with it, there’s little action, and no one much cares.

Had any rousing debates about electron shells, the mass of a neutron, of the photovoltaic effect recently?

Nor have I.

However, from time to time, a theory that was dominant gets some countervailing data piled up against it.

…and then a bit more.

…and then a bit more.

In theory there’s no difference between the model of the scientific process and the actual practice of science.

…but in actual practice there is.

In theory academics of whatever stripe – physicists, chemists, economists, political scientists – would welcome contrary opinions and contrary data.

We all know what we really see, though: anger, fear, and outrage.

This is because the theory of the scientific process oversimplifies: it forgets that academics are first and foremost humans, and humans are the end product of a whole butt-load of tribal living.

…and when it comes to tribal living, the powerful get first choice of meat and first choice of nubile hunter-gatherers-of-the-curvy-variety.

Thus we humans can be fairly prickly about power, status, and signaling (you can Google up Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson on your own). When it comes to power dynamics in the nerd – ah – academic set, there’s something a lot worse than being challenged by the first-row, second-seat sax player, or having your rook snatched by the kid with an Elo score one notch down from yours. These challenges will just have you lose one or two ranks. The thing that’s a lot worse is being kicked out of the group all together: being made a laughing stock and mocked as utterly, entirely wrong.

And, of course, this is exactly what the scientific process – as it’s SUPPOSED to work – threatens to do to non-ideal actual-human-meat academics.

So the Old Guard fight as hard and as long as possible…and they get more and more angry as the evidence piles up against them.

…and eventually they expire and the old much-hated ideas are allowed to be spoken in public.

There's more at the link. His second article is here.

Thank you, Clark, and welcome to the blogosphere! I'll be following your posts with great interest.


1 comment:

Jess said...

Thanks for the link. It's nice to find rational disourse on what we will all soon face.