You bring up a very important point. Who are the actual "whack jobs" in science? In my view, they are ones who hold on to theories that have been shown to be false or in adequate in some way.
I was an undergraduate in 1980 or 81 when I read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, a 1962 book that's still super relevant and fresh, and a very entertaining read. At only 172 pages (or so, depending on your edition; some editions are longer with essays describing the publication's aftermath), he's not trying to beat anyone up.
He was also a hardcore physicist, not a philosopher, but while he was at Harvard as a quantum physicist in the 50s, the then-president of the university got all of his best researchers to teach general-interest courses to undergraduates, with the thinking that everyone
needs a basic grounding in science. True then, and probably truer now.
Kuhn came through in spades with this little book, which every account I've ever seen of Kuhn's life and work, or the book's legacy, refers to as "one of the most influential works of the 20th century." An understatement, I think. I'm trying to think of another book that came close, and I'm not coming up with any! Let's start with this: "paradigm shift." Just two words, old words. Anybody could have put them together. Kuhn did it first, to describe the nature of scientific revolutions. That ALONE has rippled down all the years since, but he's got the goods to back up his clever turn of phrase.
Here's his basic premise: the old idea that science is built one discovery on top of another doesn't hold up to observation. In fact, Kuhn's first book was focused only on Nicolaus Copernicus and his cosmological model with the sun at the center of the planets, rather than earth as the center. This wasn't the first time someone proposed it. It's just that Copernicus had the juice to break through the old noise and establish that, okay, we've still got plenty of work to do to figure out all the REST, but THIS is our new starting point: sun in the center. There's a before and an after the shift, rather than a straight line carrying through.
That's far more often what happens. People keep going on the old models, until somebody says, "Wait a minute, this math doesn't work at ALL, so let's come up with a better way to account for why", and there's a break in the continuum -- a paradigm shift
from the old way to the new way.
There's a lot of refinement in Kuhn's approach that I didn't reflect here, which is why his book is closer to 200 pages than 2 short paragraphs, so please don't jump too hard on my summary as an indictment of HIM. Read him first, or at least an article about him, and we can argue about that if you'd like. Or if you've read him and disagree with my summary, game on! But please don't use any rolling of your eyes at ME to dismiss this lovely little book.
I'll note that one area where Structure
has aged is that theoretical physics is no longer the queen of the sciences, but rather instead biotech. As a result, we've moved from a model where theories have shaped scientific inquiry, to more data-driven research. But it would be a mistake to remove data from its theoretical framework. Do I really need to say anything at all about how two people will look at the exact same set of events, and draw different conclusions based on their agendas that are completely distinct from the data? I think not, so I won't. 🤣
I'm recommending this book both because it's a fast, fun read (for the scholarly-inclined anyway! Or at least nerds in general!
), and because it may well be the only book from my undergraduate years that I'm still thinking about all the time
. Heck, it's not like I read many books in grad school that have stuck with me as long as this one has! It really is a towering achievement.
I'll admit that he wrote it in a somewhat more refined age, in that he could assume his specifically general-interest readers would have had a grounding in public school science education that's no longer at all common, so it's worth doing at least a tiny bit of contextual reading. This essay in The Guardian
on the occasion of the book's (then new) 50th anniversary edition is a better summary than Wikipedia's, and includes some exploration of the book's impact and some of the controversies -- underscoring to my mind that none of the criticisms carry much weight at all anymore.
It's like reading a criticism of Newton or Einstein. Guess what, critics? You lost. LOL Yeah, so what, Kuhn hurt your feelings by pointing out that science is done by PEOPLE and is therefore prone to the same foibles and limitations that people are -- boo hoo hoo. What have you got that's better? LOL Fifty years later, nobody has in fact made a lasting counterargument to ANY of it, which by itself is almost staggering to imagine.
And indeed, if you have a choice of editions, that 50th anniversary one is a gem! Here it is at Amazon
, currently on sale for $2.99 in Kindle, but you can get it new for under $15, and your library may well have it. They surely have an older edition, all of which are substantially the same, other than the accompanying essay or two.
ANYWAY, any nerds who haven't read this are in for a treat! Not a nerd? Well, read this and maybe you'll become one! I found it mesmerizing as much for its demystification of scientific inquiry as anything else. Curiosity is curiosity, regardless of what it's applied to. Find something interesting? Tell the tale! Be ready to show your work! It's really very cool.