Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login

"Science progresses one funeral at a time." -- Max Planck

To be fair, revolutionary scientific advances spend a long time in the heresy box. The most recent I can think of was the bacterial causes of ulcers... took 20 years and some dramatic self-experiments before it was taken seriously enough to confirm.

That said, the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence required.

To be fair, revolutionary scientific advances spend a long time in the heresy box.

Sample bias. If a revolutionary advance wins converts relatively quickly via overwhelming evidence (the invention of the transistor, high Tc superconductivity, the discovery of extrasolar planets, siRNA, mammalian cloning, stem cells...) everyone is astonished for a while, but then they get used to it. But if an advance is so subtle or difficult to measure that it takes 20 years to catch on, we are doomed to hear about that incident, over and over, from every crackpot in the world for the next hundred years.

If Galileo's estate could collect a nickel from every perpetual-motion inventor who has invoked his name, they would own Italy and be bidding on the rest of the E.U.

The Nature of Scientific Revolutions develops that idea a lot more, for anyone interested.

That book is mistaken (it goes so far as to deny the possibility of scientific progress), see instead The Fabric of Reality which comments on Kuhn and provides a better theory.


Edit: btw you got the title wrong.

We had to read portions of Kuhn's book in college. Dense reading.

Ever hear the phrase "paradigm shift"? He's responsible for launching that into our mindspheres.


Right, it's the Structure of scientific revolutions.

How is the book mistaken? Did you read it? Can you condense what you think is wrong?

I don't think he denies scientific progress. He addressed that point in the post-scriptum, if I remember correctly.

Page 160 (start of chapter 13):

"The preceding pages have carried my schematic description of scientific development as far as it can go in this essay. Nevertheless, they cannot quite provide a conclusion. If this description has at all caught the essential structure of a science's continuing evolution, it will simultaneously have posed a special problem: Why should the enterprise sketched above move steadily ahead in ways that, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not? Why is progress a perquisite reserved almost exclusively for activities we call science? The most usual answers to that question have been denied in the body of this essay. We must conclude it by asking what substitutes can be found."

Page 162:

"Viewed from within any single community, however, whether of scientists or of non-scientists, the result of successful creative work is progress."


"These doubts about progress arise, however, in the sciences too. Throughout the pre-paradigm period when there is a multiplicity of competing schools, evidence of progress, except within schools, is very hard to find."

"part of the answer to the problem of progress lies simply in the eye of the beholder."


He also manages to compare scientists to characters form 1984, and claim that we choose which fields to call science based on which ones appear to make progress, so science seems to achieve progress in part through a selection effect.

So, he takes it for granted that we don't make progress in a variety of fields. He attacks scientific progress as subjective -- a matter of biased points of view. He has doubts about progress in general which extend to science. Part of the answer, he says, is that science doesn't actually make progress. And, he says, the last 12 chapters denied the common sense views on why and how science makes progress, and he hopes to come up with a substitute, but he isn't even trying very hard (because he doesn't really believe in progress very much, in general).

OK, I read some Kuhn for you. shudder. Someone go read Fabric of Reality now :) It is full of good explanations.

Thanks a lot for the citation tracking. From the passages you quote, maybe he does deny progress in some sense, so you were right... Still, his position seems at least defensible, and anyway, that topic wasn't central to the theme of the book.

I thought that the book was very interesting for the perspective it cast on discoveries in the physical sciences. The description of the state of confusion preceding paradigms, the establishment of paradigm, and so forth, that was a nice way of looking at it.

And here's Kuhn denying there is such thing as progress short of finding an ultimate, final, perfect truth:

There is another step, or kind of step, which many philosophers of science wish to take and which I refuse. They wish, that is, to compare theories as representations of nature, as statements about 'what is really out there'. Granting that neither theory of a historical pair is true, they nonetheless seek a sense in which the latter is a better approximation to the truth. I believe nothing of that sort can be found. On the other hand, I no longer feel that anything is lost, least of all the ability to explain scientific progress, by taking this position.

Source: http://ejap.louisiana.edu/EJAP/1994.may/mcgrew.html

I don't see how that's fair. What non-scientific fields are more reasonable than, say, physicists?

Scientists may not be perfect. But they have certain standards, which make them better. For example, scientists have a tradition of disregarding the source of an idea and focussing on examining reasons it is correct or not.

Edit: BTW it's ironic that Planck would say that. I think it's pretty clear that his own life, not his death, advanced physics.

He didn't mean his own death, necessarily. But the death of older physicists that founded previous revolution stuck with the old (and wrong) ideas that were against his new (and right) ideas.

You'll find that historically, older scientists in prominent positions will be adamant against an uprising revolution in his field. If he/she wields enough power in academia, he'll crush it...at least delay it for a while, until he dies.

Newton was rather notorious for this sort of stuff. He held some high position(forgot what it was called) in academia and made it difficult for lots of other younger scientists that came after while he was in power.

He didn't mean his own death, necessarily

Let's consider these claims:

- science progresses via funerals of all scientists

- science progresses via funerals of Planck's ideological opponents

Only the first one can pass for a serious theory of scientific progress. But only the second one gets to exclude his own death.

In reality, the first is true, even for Planck. He'd be a fool not to realize it too. I didn't mean to say Planck's right forever.

Phrased another way, I don't think his point in saying how science progresses by funerals is to point to his own death. It was to highlight the misconception that most people have that current science theories come to prominence in science because the revolutionaries changed the minds of the old guard through proofs and experimentation. Rather, proof and experimentation changed the minds of young revolutionaries, and only when old guards die off, the revolutionaries rise to take their place and make prominent the new theory.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact