Daniel W. Drezner

The book that should bake every eighteen-year old’s noodle

The book that should bake every eighteen-year old’s noodle

Now is the time of year when students go to citadels of higher learning and hopefully learn some stuff instead of getting bogged down in weird cheating scandals.  Coincidentally enough, this past month there’s also been a lot of talk about how impressionable young people often get enamored with Ayn Rand and isn’t that awful or something

These laments this misses the point of how 18-year olds encountered the world of ideas in college.  That is the age when they are expected to seriously think about ideas for the first time.  They will crave ideas that will bake their noodle — or at a minimum, that’s the time when they should have their worldviews rocked ever few weeks or so.  If not Rand, then whom? 

In your blogger’s humble opinion, there’s another book that is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary and remains far more earth-shattering in its intellectual effects.  A few weeks ago the Guardian’s John Naughton celebrated Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions with an astute essay on its significance.  The highlights: 

Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative "progress", he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating "normal" and "revolutionary" phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work….

Kuhn’s central claim is that a careful study of the history of science reveals that development in any scientific field happens via a series of phases. The first he christened "normal science" – business as usual, if you like. In this phase, a community of researchers who share a common intellectual framework – called a paradigm or a "disciplinary matrix" – engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies (anomalies) between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Most of the time, the anomalies are resolved either by incremental changes to the paradigm or by uncovering observational or experimental error. As philosopher Ian Hacking puts it in his terrific preface to the new edition: "Normal science does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover."

The trouble is that over longer periods unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually get to the point where some scientists begin to question the paradigm itself. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis characterised by, in Kuhn’s words, "a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals". In the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one. This is the paradigm shift of modern parlance and after it has happened the scientific field returns to normal science, based on the new framework. And so it goes on.

This brutal summary of the revolutionary process does not do justice to the complexity and subtlety of Kuhn’s thinking.

He’s right — read the whole thing.  I’ve blogged before about why Kuhn is equally important to social science here and here.  To put this into words that today’s millenial generation can comprehend:  the effect of reading Thomas Kuhn to 18 year old is like the moment when Neo realizes there is no spoon

One’s education about how science works shouldn’t stop with Kuhn — there have been some worthy responses to him — but it’s a great place to start.