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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas Kuhn

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While Kuhn’s argument makes sense to me as a model of scientific change, I’m less convinced that it can (or should) be taken literally. I can’t help but be a bit wary of any theory which claims that “this is what (X) looks like” (where X is some complex and mutable phenomenon to be explained.) There are no doubt cases of scientific explanations that cannot be made to fit into the Kuhnian model without considerable distortion. However, I don’t believe that a model need be literal or absolute in order to be useful. Despite its necessary generalizations as a model, the paradigm theory of scientific change is decisively a useful tool for unearthing previously neglected information in the history of scientific change.

There is, however, at least one area in which I believe Kuhn could be improved by some additional articulation or amplification. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions creates the impression that when an experiment produces an aberrant result, the scientific community is presented with a puzzle, and immediately sets to work to provide a theoretical account of the aberration. This seems to me to leave out some very important and necessary steps. Any responsible scientist, before even considering any theoretical account of an aberration, is likely (and justifiably) prone to dismiss the aberration as an error — either an experimental blunder or the result of an equipment failure. The first response to an aberrant result will typically be a verification of the proper functioning of experimental equipment. Diagnostics will be run; calibrations will be double-checked. Next, the experimental procedure itself will be verified. Were standard experimental practices followed? Was the experiment performed “by the book”? Once equipment and procedural errors have been eliminated as causes, then the experiment will be repeated. If the aberration persists, then its nature is probed. Is it systematic? Under what conditions does it manifest itself? Is it reproducible at will? Those aberrations that are both systematic and reproducible are then presented to the experimenter’s scientific peers, who subject the aberration to a similar battery of experimental tests. Only after one or more third parties have verified the aberration to be systematic and reproducible is it likely to make the passage from “error” to “puzzle.”

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