A (Somewhat) Cynical Approach to the Scientific and Historical Method

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, author and science historian Thomas S. Kuhn asserts that scientific study and research revolves around paradigms, or “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.”1 His premise is that these paradigms hold true as a center for accepted fact and research for scientists until the paradigm’s potential to bear fruit is decimated, or until there are too many questions to answer and mysteries to solve to go on working within it. It is at these times that paradigm shifts or, to use the author’s terminology: “scientific revolutions” occur. During these revolutions, scientists construct new paradigms to entertain their research.

Kuhn’s attitude towards scientists and their work is often quite cynical. One is led to wonder at the fact that he willingly takes such an attitude, while at the same time being reliant on the profession he is criticizing to make a living. For instance, he asserts that the normal scientist “often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of [his] basic commitments.”2 Essentially, he is arguing that scientists side-step or ignore experimental evidence that is contrary to, or might lead them away from, the accepted paradigm. This is a very different attitude toward the scientific process than the scientists themselves like to promote. Kuhn suggests that the present scientific processes seem

an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the [currently accepted] paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies.3

Finally, Kuhn warns that an attempt to understand certain facts about how the world operates from a science textbook will most certainly prove misleading, as “a concept of science drawn from them is no more likely to fit the enterprise that produced them than an image of a national culture drawn from a tourist brochure or a language text.”4

While I do not claim to be a scientist, or for that matter, to know much about scientific research, discovery, and theory, I cannot help but observe some similarities between Kuhn’s assertions about the hard sciences and my own experiences in the field of history. In the spirit of the liberal arts philosophy by which my undergraduate education has largely been influenced, I should like to present those observations.

If scientists form paradigms that facilitate the discovery of experimental results and the formation of theories that are convenient for study at a given time, historians conduct research and derive conclusions based on what is convenient to study and conclude at a given time. Certainly, the political, social, and religious atmosphere of the time period in question stands largely to influence what is determined “convenient” for the two respective fields. For instance, when the political climate shifts to favor environmentalism, scientific study will form paradigms that suggest that, without significant lifestyle changes, the human race will harm the earth, possibly so severely that it will contribute to its own destruction. In history, when the political and social climate focuses its attention significantly on issues of race and gender, the historian will conduct his work in such a way as to select sources and make assertions about how far society has progressed in those areas over time, and how far it has yet still to progress to reach the desired apex. Similarly, when society seeks to glorify militarism, the historian is likely to select sources and draw conclusions that proclaim the glory and aggressive bravery of years gone by.

If Kuhn argues that the scientist is selective of the experiments he conducts—and even the results he observes and reports, based on the paradigm within which he operates, the historian is likewise selective of the studies and research he conducts—and the findings he reports, based on the sociol-cultural environment in which he operates. Indeed, the historical record is so diverse that it is possible to make convincing arguments for virtually any notion about history one desires. During a time of war, there is evidence to justify almost any cause the historian desires. America was victorious during World War II, and so today students around the world are taught of the wartime atrocities committed by the losing nations, Japan and Germany, because America was victorious, and so it is popular to glorify the United States and her allies at the cost of the losing powers. If the Allied Powers had lost that conflict, it is doubtless that today schoolchildren around the world would learn of the undesirable conditions of the Japanese Relocation Camps, and the wartime atrocities of her own soldiers and nuclear weapons technology.

Before reading Kuhn, I might have been tempted to look on my own field with cynicism, while risking being convinced that the hard sciences are more solid and reliable. But, with Kuhn’s convincing assertions in mind, I am more aware than ever of the diversity of evidence available to both fields. If Kuhn is correct, and historians and scientists alike conduct their research, select evidence, and form conclusions based on what is convenient and popular, I wonder if their fields are not so different after all.

Sources

1Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Ill.), x.

2Ibid., 5.

3Ibid., 24.

4Ibid., 1.

Why I Don’t Go to JMU

Towards the end of my four years at the Governor’s School, when I began searching for colleges to attend, one of the significant reasons I ultimately chose Bridgewater College was because it was not only religiously affiliated, encouraging “Christian values,” but because it was a dry campus.

I spent a great deal of my early life living with an abusive alcoholic stepfather, and my mind had been trained to panic at the scent of beer and other alcoholic beverages.  It was ingrained in me how harmful alcohol could be, and I vowed to be a tee-totaler when I grew up.  I most certainly wanted to ensure that I could do my best to avoid the rowdy, violent, and debaucherous harlotries that come with most college parties.

When I came to Bridgewater, I was very disappointed, because, though it claimed to be a dry campus, it seemed that little was done to enforce those regulations.  However, recent events have reminded me that, imperfect though it may be, an officially “dry campus” still does much to maintain a habitable, respectable campus community. (more…)

About me

J. Adam Craig
Bridgewater, Virginia


Currently a junior at Bridgewater College, I am majoring in History & Political Science with a minor in Computer Information Systems. I also work part time, remotely and on-site, for Pamplin Historical Park as their Education and Information Technology Assistant.

My other activities include studying God's Word, listening to Southern Gospel music, playing the piano, studying history and politics, experimenting with technology, and of course, spending time with family and friends -- all to the glory of God! (more...)