Now nearly finished with Kuhn‘s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I am pondering how to apply it to my thesis case studies. Basically, what Kuhn has done is sketch out a theory about how scientists interact with the world and each other, generating new scientific ways of understanding the world. You start with one paradigm (say, Newtonian physics). Then, scientists begin to notice anomalies – places where the theory cannot explain what they perceive to be going on. If such anomalies are of the right sort and sufficiently numerous, they may provoke a crisis within the paradigm. At that point, the scope of science broadens a bit, to examine bigger questions and alternative possibilities. In Kuhn’s terminology, the practice of ‘normal science‘ is interrupted. The crisis is resolved either through the modification of the previous paradigm or through the emergence of a new one, such as relativistic physics.
From the perspective of my thesis, the relevant discoveries are the rising global mean temperature and rising concentrations of POPs in the Arctic. Both were novel developments in our awareness and understanding of what is going on in the world, and both are the unintended products of modern economic activity. In the first case, the emission of greenhouse gases seems to be the primary cause of the change; in the second, pesticide use, industrial chemicals, and garbage burning seem to be the culprits. While scientists knew that these things were going on before the first research on POPs and climate change was done, these specific consequences were not anticipated. Their precise magnitude remains contested and uncertain.
While neither discovery induced a crisis in science (both are largely explicable using science that has existed for a long time), they did progress into general acceptance by following a pattern that is in some ways similar to that of paradigmatic development in the sciences. The researchers who first looked at POP concentrations in human blood and breast milk from the Arctic thought that the samples must have been contaminated, because they could imagine no reason for which people living in such an isolated environment would be so saturated with toxic chemicals. The establishment and operation of the Northern Contaminants Program thus involves both ‘normal science’ and the kind of thinking through which new paradigms are established. Because of such similarities, I am hoping that some of Kuhn’s insights into the ways scientists think, and especially the ways in which they make up their own minds and try to make up those of their colleagues, can be applied to the understanding of scientific perspectives on these particular environmental problems.
The biggest difference is probably how wider policy implications tend to arise from environmental discoveries in a way not parallel to the consequences of other sorts of discovery. Quantum mechanics may allow us to do new things, but it doesn’t really compel us to behave very differently. Learning about global warming, by contrast, interacts with our pre-existing notions about appropriate action by human beings in the world to suggest potentially radical changes in behaviour. While I am not saying that there is a direct or linear connection between scientific discoveries about the environment and specific policy choices, it seems valid to say that our understanding of the environment, informed by science, profoundly affects the ways in which we feel we can and should act in relation to the physical world.
On a related note, I would strongly suggest that any physicist working on string theory give Kuhn’s SoSR a careful read. The crisis in physics generated by apparent contradictions between relativity and quantum mechanics seems very much like those he describes, with similar implications in terms of how scientists are thinking and what they are doing.