Thomas Kuhn, Revolutions and Climate Change

Scientists becoming politicians, politicians dabbling in science, believers, sceptics, deniers, Copenhagen, Hopenhagen or Nopenhagen … with all of the confusion, accusation and counter-accusation I pulled out my old copy of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known The Structure of Scientific Revolutions from 1962. Like all great works it has its flaws, but a few points are worth pulling out. Kuhn identifies the dominant framework in which science operates as a ‘paradigm’. Under standard conditions, ‘normal science’ works within a framework in which most, but not all questions, can be adequately covered. The anomalies are small in number, so we can keep on working, turning over clods on a corner of familiar field. But then the anomalies start building up, confusion grows, all sorts of proposals get thrown around until a breakthrough comes. Think Copernicus, Darwin, Planck, Einstein etc. It may take a while, but the new paradigm eventually gains consensus – a process Kuhn calls a ‘paradigm shift’ (heard that one before?).

If we grant Kuhn’s approach for a moment, it seems to me we have a massive paradigm shift under way, one that has spilled over from science into politics, culture, ideology and so forth. But now comes the punch: most scientists will see a breakthrough for what it is and leap after it, but some resist, attempting to discredit the new paradigm, making ad hominem attacks, desperately trying to plug the holes in the dyke of the old paradigm. Similar thing seems to be happening now with arguments that the world is actually cooling, or that a few degrees are a good thing, or that human beings are not responsible, or that its a socialist plot – contradiction is no hindrance to such moves.

A few of the more notable positions defended in the past in this manner include:

Miasma: a 19th century substance that brought on disease and carried by dust. In order to cut down miasma, houses were built back from the road, mangroves were cut down, swamps drained, one didn’t go out at night.

Aether: the substance through which the waves of light moved.

Phlogiston: a firelike element, contained in combustible bodies (like wood) and released when alight.

Phrenology: personality traits can be determined by the shape of the skull. Unfortunately, the Phrenological Society doesn’t exist any more.

Geocentrism: You know, opposite of heliocentrism; defended by those enlightened clerics in the church etc. Actually, one or two still hold to this well-founded position.

Flat earth: ‘nuf said, unless you want to join the Flat Earth Society.

OK, but now for the big question: what assumed paradigm will be seen as completely wacky in 50-100 years time?

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