Posts Tagged ‘Karl Popper’

Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 2

October 19, 2010

Part 2? Take Two, rather (This is Take One). It surprises me how difficult it is to get to grips with this book, particularly given its apparent brevity (the main body of the book runs through page 215 in a relative small format). Of course, I’m not even an amateur philosopher of science, but still.

A part of the difficult lies in the chaotic or at least hidden structure of the book. Fuller announces his motives in the introduction (‘to recapture the full range of issues that separate [Kuhn and Popper],’ see p. 3*). The ‘full range’ is presumably a lot of material; the already mentioned brevity is thus surprising. But Fuller do not list nor declear the ‘issues’ he wants to address. There seem to be no plan or structure. Rather, he seems to move from issue to issue in a haphazard fasion, and the motive or aim of the discussion is often out of sight and elusive. The conclusion of the book is also something of an anti-climax. The last chapter seemingly only discusses one of the issues separating Kuhn and Popper; there are no final remarks, no conclusion, or anything that resembles a closure.

Kuhn vs. Popper did increase my understanding and knowledge of the ideas of both Kuhn and Popper, and also how their ideas connect to the ideas of other important thinkers. Perhaps more importantly, Fuller has helped me see the important differences between Kuhn and Popper. Throughout the book, for one thing, Fuller comes up with comparative statements.

Kuhn and Popper represent two radically different ways of specifying the ends of inquiry: What drives our understanding of reality? Where is the truth to be found? [p. 56].

Kuhn was indeed authoritarian and Popper liertarian in their attitudes to science. This point has been largely lost, if not inverted, by those who regard ‘Kuhn vs Popper’ as a landmark in 20th-century philosophy of science [p. 13]

Popper was a democrat concerned with science as a form of dynamic inquiry and Kuhn an élitist focused on science as a stabilising social practice. Nevertheless, they normally appear with these qualities in reverese. How can this be? [p. 68].

To dig deeper into these differences, one has to dig into the actual ideas. Kuhn first:

For Kuhn, science begins in earnest with the adoption of a ‘paradigm’, which means both an exemplary piece of research and the blueprint it provides for future research […] Kuhn deliberately selects the phrase ‘puzzle-solving’ (as in crossword puzzles) over ‘problem-solving’ to underscore the constrained nature of normal science […] A ‘revolution’ occurs [upon a ‘crisis’] when a viable alternative paradigm has been found. The revolution is relatively quick and irreversible. In practice, this means that an intergenerational shift occurs [pp. 19-20].

An important aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy of science is how history is rewritten after a scientific revolution, such that the scientific development appears streamlined and meaningful. In Kuhn’s view, Fuller writes,

[…] the secret of science’s success – its principled pursuit of paradigmatic puzzles – would be underminded if scientists had the professional historian’s demythologised sense of their history. After all, in the great scheme of things, most actual scientific work turns out to be inconsequential or indeterminately consequential [p. 20].

Another important feature of Kuhn’s ideas regards how people become scientists. One becomes a scientist through a “conversion experience or ‘Gestalt switch,’ whereby one comes to see the world in a systematically different way” (p. 21).  These features, combined with the conservative flavor of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, led Popperians to liken Kuhn to ‘religious and politcal indoctrinators’ (p. 21).

But of course, this was not how Structure was read by most of its admirers – if they actually did read the book. For while Kuhn’s examples are drawn almost exclusively from the physical sciences, these are the disciplines that have probably paid the ‘least’ attention to Structure, even though Kuhn himself was qualified only in physics. Kuhn’s admirers are to be found instead in the humanities and the social and biological sciences [p. 21].

Kuhn’s admirers persisted in wrenching Structure from its original context and treating it as an all-purpose manual for converting one’s lowly discipline into a full-fledged science. These wishful readings of Structure have been helped by its readers’ innocence of any alternative accounts of the history of science – often including their own – with which to compare Kuhn’s [p. 22].

When Fuller turns to discuss Popper, his sympathies with Popper become obvious:

[Popper] was always a ‘philosopher’ in the grand sense, for whom science happened to be an apt vehicle for articulating his general world-view [pp. 22-23].

For the ‘grand philosopher,’ philosophy of science is only a reflection of more fundamental attitudes:

Once Popper’s philosophy of science is read alongside his political philosophy, it becomes clear that scientific inquiry and democratic politics are meant to be alternative expressions of what Popper called ‘the open society’ [p. 26].

Popper grew up intellectually among the positivists in the Vienna Circle, but disagreed with them on their attitude towards the role of logical deduction.

For the positivists, deduciton demonstrates the coherence of a body of thought, specifically by showing how more general knowledge claims explain less general ones, each of which provide some degree of confirmation for the more general ones. For Popperians, deduction is mainly a tool for compelling scientists to thest th econesequences fo their general knowledge claims in particular cases by issuing predictions that can be contradicted by the findings of empirical research. This is the falsifiability principle in a nutshell [p. 25].

Fuller neatly sums up the difference between the 20th century’s giants in the philosophy of science:

Whereas actual scientific communities existed for Popper only as more or less corrupt versions of the scientific ideal, for Kuhn the scientific ideal is whatever has historically emerged as the dominant scientific communities [p. 6].

* Page numbers refer to the Icon Books 2006 paperback edition.

Related post:

Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 1

September 25, 2010

In Kuhn vs. Popper, Steve Fuller discusses and compares the two most important philosophers of science in the 20th century; Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The book is not what I expected it to be (what I expected is not entirely clear, but that is not the point). The book as a broader view than I expected, for example, revisiting philosophers from Plato to contemporary and, to me, new names like Rorty, and shuffles over themes from theology to nazism. The broad view is indeed intentional and announced in the introduction:

This book is designed to recapture the full range of issues that separate these two self-styled defenders of science [Kuhn and Popper, of course].  Many of the issues plumb the depths of the Western psyche: What is the relationship beteween knowledge and power? Can science bring unity to knowledge? Can history bring meaning to life? At the same time, these issues are entangled in more secular concerns about economy and society, politics and war  most of which are still very much with us today [p. 3].*

While I cannot say I found every twist of the book equally interesting, it did help me understand the the ideas of Kuhn and Popper better than before and even correct things I got wrong. For one thing, I used to think of Popper as the normative and Kuhn as the descriptive; Fuller claims I was wrong:

It was not, as is often said, that Kuhn was more ‘descriptive’ and his rivals [the Popperians] more ‘prescriptive’ with respect to the history of science [p. 208].


Thomas Kuhn (1922 - 1996)

According to Fuller, the Popperians appeared ‘perversly contrarian’ to the public when they imposed a normative perspective on the history of science; to the public, science’s authority was self-evicent. Kuhn, on the other hand, ‘never articulated the norm’ he imposed when he selected and arranged the historical examples he used in his arguing (p. 209). In other words, one needs a rather good idea of the history of science in order to see and understand that Kuhn presents only the examples that fits with his theory; according to Fuller, hsitory is abound with examples less in accordance with Kuhn’s theory.

A thing I do not like about the book is that it is densely written, and in order to follow it, one need to at least be acquainted with the theories of Kuhn and Popper up front; Fuller only briefly summarizes the ideas. I find this surprising, as the cover is littered with acclaim from newspapers like the Economist and the Financial Times with the obvious purpose to attract the general reader. According to Fuller, this involved writing, presupposing knowledge of the issue at hand was a trademark of Popper, and, I’m afraid, many philosophers:

Popper and Adorno [another philosopher Popper locked horns with] shared the critic’s tendency [not entirely clear to me what ‘the critic’s tendency’ is supposed to point to here] to presuppose that the audience already knows the target of criticism in some detail, so that one’s own discourse becomes a series of reflections on the hidden opponent. This feature made it frustrating for listeners who sought  constructive advice on the conduct of social research [p. 154].

Frustrating indeed, do you listen, Fuller? (I guess not.)

Now, while flipping through the book, I realize I’ve underlined too many quotable passages and marked too many passages to address them all in one post. I will thus try to focus my opinion of this book in a later post; stay tuned.

* To be sure, page numbers refer to the Icon Books 2006 paperback edition.

Related post:

Dense Philosophy of Science: A Necessity?

September 13, 2010

What we call the ‘modern’, and distinctly Western, sensibility emerged as people tried to organise the conduct of the sciences in light of second-order condsiderations of what might be common to all the sciences. The result was a Galilean zeal for spotting latent contradictions between bodies of knowledge, the pretext for eliminating the social, lingusitic and practical barriers to their proper integration into one system of thought. Popper promoted a version of this strategy in his attack on the ‘myth of the framework’, the Kuhnian idea that the presence of incommensuarable theories rendered any explicit normative comparison so difficult that one simply had to wait for history to take its course, as individuals come to adopt one or another theory for their own reasons. In contrast, Popper argued that if the incommensurable theories are truly scientific, they aspire to universality, which means that there will be cases that they have yet to explain or predict. These cases may then serve as relatively neutral ground for designing a crucial experiment to decide amonst the theories.*

I’m reading Steve Fuller’s truly interesting account of ‘The Struggle for the Soul of Science,’ the legendary debate between Kuhn and Popper. Although I enjoy the book, I cannot help but marvel at the dense style Fuller, and many in his field, pledge to. I wrote an essay once, on what I’ve late learned is known as the underdetermination hypothesis (data can be explained by any number of mutually incompatible theories, see, f.eks. pp. 61-62 in Kuhn vs. Popper). I wrote rather dense myself, I seem to remember (I’ll post an example if I can dig it up). I wonder if a complicated style is necessary to philosophy of science, if it is impossible to iron it out more, if it’s somehow inherent to the subject. Philosophy of science is, in a weird way, depending on itself for its own existence. (See; I came up with something rather dense just writing about how dense it is!)

* Steve Fuller (2003), Kuhn vs. Popper, pp. 66-67, Icon Books 2006 edition.

Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

May 4, 2009

It’s been a while since I finished ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ by David Weinberger, and I’ve been planning to put down some thoughts on it. It’s an interesting book; it forced me to think about stuff in new and different ways than before. I don’t always agree with Weinberger, though.

The book is about how the web and its new ways of organizing and connecting things changes how we think, how we work, how knowledge forms, and, ultimately, us. That last point, how the web 2.o (which is a fancy buzzword for web pages and appliances letting its users contribute in different ways) changes us is actually never discussed in the book, but it certainly is understood and implied in Weinberger’s grandiose views. After all, how we think is a part of who and what we are.

Weinberger main topic is order. There are three orders: The first order is the order of physical things, like how books are lined up on shelves in a library. The second order is the catalogue order. A catalogue typically refers to a physical order; it is still physical, but one can make several catalogs of the same physical order. Weinberger’s prime example is the card catalog of libraries. The third order of order is the digital order, where there is no limit to the number of possible orderings. The digital order frees itself from physical reality, and in it, everything can be connected and related to everything else: Everything is miscellaneous.

‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ is, naturally, the topic of numerous blog entries and online discussions. For example, I stumbled across the blog ‘Experiencing Information’ by James Kalbach, and he has some interesting thoughs on Weinberger’s book. In one post, he discusses an analogy between Weinbergers three orders of order and Karl Popper’s theory of reality: I was unaware of Popperian cosmology, but the analogy is striking. In another post, he critizises Weinberger’s use of the library card catalogue as example and illustration of how backward the second (and first) order is. Instead, he suggests that the real topic of interest is the Time of Information in the third order, and not the order itself:

I agree with Weinberger that the third order of organization the web affords is different, but not because other means of accessing books (just to stick with that example) don’t exist. That vision was already there in the paper world.

There are indexes that provide access to Bach cantatas by the first line of text, for instance. Same for poetry. And then there are the countless literature guides in just about any discipline and sub-discipline.

So what the web really changes is:
a.) Who is doing the organizing. Now it’s everyone instead of information professionals
b.) The time it takes to create new lists of access points to books, to then find those list, and to use them effectively.

The Time of Information in the third order, then, is the real thing to focus on.

I would say it is also worth to foucs on who organizes, and who contributes content. Weinberger thinks highly of Wikipedia, for example, where any user can add, change, tag, comment, and link to any material. It sounds chaotic, and it often is. However, over time, stuff tend to settle down. In Weinberger’s view, it’s all fantastic:

[I]magine it is ten years from now. New topics are still being added to Wikipedia an old ones edited, but not at the rate of the early years. The big arguments have mainly been settled. There are continuous small edits polishing the more popular articles, but big changes have become more rare. Wikipedia then constitutes the body of knowledge about which we agree. […] Wikipedia is commoditizing knowledge, continuing a trend that search engines such as Google began. Text-books also present settled knowledge, or at least present it as settled, but the Internet makes knowledge as instantly available as a calculator’s “equals” button [pp. 214-215].

In fairness, Weinberger admits that Wikipedia will never be complete, and there will always be something to argue about. I think there are several reasons to be skeptic towards Wikipedia. Interestingly enough,  Wikipedia itself has a discussion of some of its problems (here), and most of my concerns are in fact covered there.  (I’ve quoted more of Weinberger’s ideas about how the internet changes knowledge in an earlier post.)

Weinberger sees potential value in every link, tag and comment added to the third order. Personally, however, I often find the links distracting. I should just ignore them, of course, but when I click them, it’s not because I don’t think its interesting to me. That is not the point. A thought experiment illustrates the problem: In a hundred years, there may exist articles on Wikipedia, or elsewhere on the web, where every word links to something else. Every word. And, even worse, and we don’t even have to do time travel to experience another problem; the same word may link to different things at different places. (Of course, that can be a strengt as well, but it can certainly be a problem.)

I want to go back to James Kalbach: In a third post he claims that libraries are not as useless as Weinberger seem to think:

Missing from Everything is Miscellaneous, then, is a discussion of the user experience you have while in the stacks of a DDC library. [Dewey Decimal System: A very common classification system used by libraries.] Namely, the books are arranged by subject. If you find one book on Muslims, others around it are likely to be about Muslims too.

And if you think people don’t look left and right when retrieving a book from a shelf, you’re wrong. They do. It’s an important type of information discovery in physical libraries. Let’s say you go to the stacks for a biography of J.S. Bach. You may then see biographies of C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach, perhaps whom you didn’t know much about or even existed. That’s an interesting connection you may not have seen online or in a card catalogue.

I love to go to the library, the only problem is that it takes more time than I usually have.

Without going into more detail, I disagree with Weinberger on a lot of issues. I still found the book very interesting; a lot of it is philosophical discussions related to order, knowledge, information, and communication. A particularly interesting discussion is the one on ‘The Span of Meaning’ (p. 169 and onwards). I end this post with a short quote from it:

Meaning‘s own meanings span a range unique in our language. On the one end, a meaning is a simple definition one can look up in a dictionary. At the other end, meaning is the broadest term for what gives value to our lives [p. 169].

Related posts:

Replication in Economics

February 23, 2009

Despite the voodoo noise, a different and lot more interesting debate about replication in economics has started on Environmental Economics. The debate on Env-Econ is a response to a post on Market Movers, which opens like this:

Falsifiability and replicability are key cornerstones of any academic research. If you’re running an empirical study, and your results aren’t replicable, your study is largely worthless.

First of all, the claim that falsifiability is a key cornerstone of academic research is simply not true, or at least not agreed upon. I understand falsifiability in the Popperian sense:

For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory.

(Read more about Popper and his ideas at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Popper’s philosophy of science has been subject to extended debates. Thomas Kuhn, for example, claims that science consist of problem solving within a paradigm, and that paradigms change through scientific revolutions. In particular, Kuhn did not think that a statement had to be falsifiable to be scientific, as Popper did.

I am more willing to agree on the importance of replication. In the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, replication was truly important and researchers (ideally) remained sceptic towards new results until they had been replicated independently from the initial study. Since most research in physics and chemistry are conducted in laboratories, controlled experiments could fairly easily be replicated and results compared.

In economics, however, only recently have researchers started to conduct controlled experiments in laboratories. Tim Haab writes (On replicability in economics and the validation of models)

With economics models, at least until recently, we don’t have labs.  We are working with real observations from highly complex systems.  As such, we are forced to rely on modeling by assumption and measurement through statistical force rather than isolated direct observation.  This makes external validation of economic models extremely difficult.

This is changing over the past decade or so with the advent of experimental economics research in which researchers are testing fundamental economic results in a controlled setting.  Unfortunately, these experiments often suffer from over control which makes generalizability and practical applicability of laboratory results difficult at best. […]

To me, lack of replicability is not a condemnation of economics as a field, rather a challenge to the field to continue the unending pursuit of defensibility.

As Tim also points out, the post on Market Movers is primarily concerned with duplication of results (instead of independent replication), which requires the same data set and statistical tools. Such research is quite rare in economics, and it has different reasons (see Tim’s post). What is more common in economics, however, is that researchers collect their own data and see if they can find the same kind of conclusions as those available in the literature. John Whitehead puts it like this:

Why bother with replication with someone else’s data when you can publish your own study with your own data? The only time you ask for someone else’s data is if you really think they’ve made a horrible mistake or if you have an ax to grind.

However, I do agree with Market Movers that in general, replication and duplication is more important than what it seems to be in academia today.

Hat-tip: Env-Econ