The Struggle for the Soul of Science
Icon Books, 2006
Anyone espousing a scientific approach to our claims to knowledge about the world will sooner or later run up against a thorny network of critiques of science emanating from such disciplines as philosophy, sociology and that relative, even relativist, newcomer, science studies. It then only takes a few moments before the name of Thomas Kuhn is invoked.
Kuhn’s book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, first published in 1962, has often been a favourite touch-stone for those wishing to undermine the knowledge claims of science by emphasizing the way that the institutionalization of science shapes the practice of scientists, though this was not its purpose. In Kuhn’s account, scientists labour within officially sanctioned paradigms that determine the direction of their research, until revolutions replace old paradigms with new ones. Exaggerating this, proponents of junk science may try to explain the rejection of their work in terms of blinkered paradigms in sore need of a new revolution.
Karl Popper, of course, is no friend of pseudoscience, having offered us (“notoriously”, says Fuller) a way of demarcating it from real science by means of the criterion of falsifiability: pseudosciences do not and dare not risk making any statements that could be falsified by any possible state of things.
Kuhn and Popper clashed in a debate in London in 1965, but although this event is the focus of the book, there is precious little information about what actually took place. Rather, Fuller launches into an intricate historical-sociological account of their theories and their political significances. His thesis is that the wrong man, Kuhn, won, but this seems to have less to do with the adequacy of Kuhn’s account than with his apparent complicity in the way the Cold War shaped the University.
The implied defence of Popper may not bring much cheer to the pro-science camp, given some of the odd remarks Fuller makes. The suggestion that evolution is now only “presumed true until proven otherwise” accompanies various ill-informed jibes about evolutionary psychology. More troubling, perhaps, is his failure to explain the logic of falsificationism versus inductivism, presenting them as postures or ethics.
Aside from these worries, there is much of interest for those wishing to pursue the deeper ramifications of a key academic dispute.
This review is reproduced by kind permission of The Skeptic.
© Paul Taylor 2006