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Off The Pedestal?

Eric Raymond says that Thomas Kuhn's theories about the structure of scientific revolution are wrong.

I've always bought into them, but never examined them deeply. Now I guess I'll have to.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 09, 2003 08:57 AM
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For an excellent and very recent example of a non-Kuhnian revolution in scientific thinking, I'd propose cosmologists' acceptance of dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe. Originally an idea proposed by Einstein before the birth of Big Bang theories, it was discarded as his self-described "biggest blunder" and ignored for most of a century. But only five years ago, studies of distant supernovae caused it to be proposed again -- and now, with the added weight of recent results from Cosmic Background Radiation studies, it is accepted by the community of cosmologists as a solid fact.

This is a huge change, and it's taken place almost instantly ... without anyone dying.

Posted by Troy at August 9, 2003 09:44 PM

it is accepted by the community of cosmologists as a solid fact

I hope those are your words, Troy, and not theirs...

Posted by Kevin McGehee at August 10, 2003 05:04 AM

I hope those are your words, Troy, and not theirs...

Troy may be oversimplifying the history just slightly, but that's a reasonably accurate summary of currently accepted wisdom among cosmologists. Here's a quote from a recent (semi-technical) review (full text here written by a well-respected astrophysicist:

? Type Ia supernovae (Filippenko, Perlmutter) directly detected
  0.7, exactly the
right value to fill the empty gap between
tot = 1 from the CMB and
mat  0.3 from LSS
and dynamics. Cosmologists might have wrangled endlessly about the reality of an
arithmetically from
tot and
mat , but the direct detection from Type Ia?s has virtually
put that controversy to rest.

Modern cosmology does seem to provide a good counterexample to Kuhn's theory of "scientific revolutions". Ideas that would have been considered highly controversial (if not unacceptable) 20 or 30 years ago are pretty much conventional wisdom now, and it didn't require the death of older cosmologists for that to happen.

Posted by Mike Peck at August 10, 2003 05:24 PM

Sorry, some characters in that quoted text got lost in translation. To paraphrase, what she was saying in that last sentence was

"but the direct detection [of accelerating expansion, or a cosmological constant] from Type Ia's [supernovae] has virtually put that controversy to rest."

Posted by Mike Peck at August 10, 2003 05:30 PM

It bugs me a little that there's such an easy concensus among cosmologists. My suspicion is that experiment is finally catching up with theory and filling in blanks that nobody was sure about. Perhaps, the area changes too rapidly for dogma to set in?

Another example that I'm familiar with arises from the geology of the area I currently live in, the Columbia River gorge. The Columbia River cuts straight through the coastal mountain ranges of Eastern Washington and Oregon leaving a valley a couple hundred of miles long and at some points (including where I currently live) a mile or two wide at the bottom with beautiful cliffs several hundred feet high on either side. Further east in the area around Spokane, WA, are broad flat plains with a series of valleys called coulees stretching from the northeast to the southwest.

A geologist (in the 1920's I think) noted all along the Columbia River signs of great flooding. Rounded boulders a dozen feet in diameter, the curiously shaping of many of the cliffs of the gorge, ripple marks eight feet deep carved in bedrock, and conglomerate rock (a mixed of smoothed rocks and sand hardened to stone that often forms from buried river beds), but with extraordinary sized (and smoothed) rocks embedded in the solidified mix.

As I understand it, he hypothesized that a series of huge floods hundreds of feet high, washed through the Columbia River gorge periodically. Eventually, he even figured the source of the flooding a "Lake Missoula" in western Montana formed by the occasional damming of a tributary of the Columbia by glaciers.

What's interesting is that despite a perponderance of evidence, this theory wasn't accepted until a geology conference was held in Eastern Washington state which toured the sites of evidence and settled the controversy once and for all.

It turns out that the controversy was due to a deeper conflict between the then current theory of geology which hypothesized that all geological formations occured via slow processes. The counterargument was that these landforms had been created in catastrophe. As I understand it, the latter view was particularly supported by Christian creationists which was why when the initial evidence of flooding on the Columbia was reported, that it was strongly attacked because it supported though indirectly the religious viewpoint.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at August 11, 2003 12:59 AM

Troy may be oversimplifying the history just slightly...
Well, it is Rand's blog, bandwidth and disk space, y'know?

Thanks, Mike -- I was trying not to distort the facts. I'm familiar with them: my degree is in physics, my specialty astrophysics and cosmology; I still keep up with the field, even though I've wandered off to work in engineering instead of sticking to my first love...

Posted by Troy at August 11, 2003 01:22 AM

It bugs me a little that there's such an easy concensus among cosmologists... Perhaps, the area changes too rapidly for dogma to set in?
I think the reason, as noted in Sandra Faber's paper (see Mike's link), is that the evidence is so incredibly strong. As she commented, even the doubters were reduced to arguing that the uncertainties had to be as large as 5 or 10%... but they were unable to deny the basic structure of the Universe.

There's been plenty of dogma, despite the gaps in knowledge; it's just that those gaps are now closing, and there's far less room to wiggle.

Posted by Troy at August 11, 2003 01:33 AM

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