The 'P' Word
Making sense (insofar as it is possible) of Kuhn
Journalist Waleed Al-Shobakky has a post on "the 'p' word": paradigm. He professes guilt at using this term in the past, and tells how it got him into trouble recently at the first conference of Arab science journalists. Al-Shobakky frames the post as a warning about the dangers of using this "too beautiful and brilliant" term of Kuhn's. It can land you in deep water, he says, because it's too easy to think that the "Western paradigm of science" is universal, whereas in fact it may not be.

But the post unwittingly gives a different warning.The main danger of the 'p' word is not that it will lead you into factual error but that it will lead you to make unhelpfully vague claims about science and culture. The best weapon against "the 'p' word" is not empirical research but the analytic knife. So here are some sources of vagueness in the post, and some warnings about them.

"I’ve written several articles about science initiatives in the Arab Gulf; would I have written them differently had I had a different, well, paradigm?"

There is no specific form of vagueness here, just undifferentiated vagueness in the use of the term "paradigm." There are lots of ways in which two people could write an article "differently", and these differences could be due to numerous background facts about the writers. If they went to different schools then one might indent the first sentence of each paragraph, and the other not. If one was working for the political section of the paper and one for the economic section, they would focus on different aspects of science in the Arab Gulf. And if one took the bible literally and the other did not, they would differ over the merits of an study in evolutionary psychology. Some of these differences are trivial from the point of view of philosophy of science; some may not be. It's important to distinguish between them because otherwise it's to easy to extrapolate falsely from one sort to another sort. So, for example, there is probably no sense in saying that one writer is "wrong" to use indents. But we shouldn't leap to the conclusion that there is no sense in saying that the creationist (or the evolutionist) is "wrong."

"In Islam and Science, Muzaffar Iqbal writes that the Islamic view is that there is a unified human knowledge domain where knowledge of the worldly is tributary to knowledge of the divine. So we know God better, for instance, by investigating how trees grow or why dinosaurs disappeared."

Best to distinguish between the methods of scientists and their motives, because different motives need not imply different methods. People can (and do) do science to earn a living, please their partners, discover the truth about nature, and get closer to their chosen god. But these differences in purpose need not mean they all carry out science in a different way -- indeed, they may all be working in the same lab, on the same problem. This is because their different ultimate goals can be served by the same proximate goal -- that of getting a sound understanding of some aspect of nature. So the fact that some scientists see science as "tributary to knowledge of the divine" may not lead to any relevant differences in the way they do science.

"The secular-sacred dichotomy, deeply established in Western thought, may actually not have an equivalent in the Islamic worldview." [Al-Shobakky takes this as a good challenge to the claim that "the conclusions of a paper in Nature are equally valid, and replicable, in China and Egypt, by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher".]

The point to make here is that different ways of doing science need not be incommensurable -- they need not lead to irreconcilable disagreements about nature.

Suppose Islamic researchers do in fact do science differently as a result of their faith. They might use different equipment, make different assumptions, use a different form of maths. This would not be a ground-breaking discovery, nor would it interest Kuhn very much. What is ground-breaking is the idea that they could be completely different from other scientists yet their conclusions be just as correct.

Suppose that Islamic scientists and Western scientists disagree about (say) the formation of stars. Now suppose that no arguments from Western scientists could rationally oblige Islamic scientists to change their conclusions about the formation of stars. And suppose that the same is true about arguments from Islamic scientists directed at Western scientists. That would be interesting. That is what Kuhn argues for. It is a much stronger claim than just the claim that different communities do science differently, and get different results. According to the stronger claim, the conclusions of a sound Nature paper may not actually be replicable by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher -- even by a very sound one, using the same instruments as the Nature researcher.* But if only the weaker claim is true, then the existence of cultures that have different methods and different conclusions from Nature researchers is not enough to challege the (quite plausible) claim that a sound Nature paper will be confirmed by any sound scientist who happens to be Buddhist.

The point is that to challenge the universality of a Nature paper it is not enough to point to cultures that have a different "worldview" from the Nature researchers. You need to show (at least) that the other worldview is sound. And in doing so you would need to come to terms with Kuhn's big idea: that paradigms can at the same time be different and right.**

*Of course, even Kuhn could admit that some paradigms are bad ie. even the members of some paradigm can be convinced that it is false, by members of another paradigm. So even if incommensurability is possible, it may not be a omnipresent.

**in the most rigorous sense possible of "right."

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