Sunday, November 22, 2009

Breathing Life into Science, Society

In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn argues that science operates under a more-or-less “unified theory” until it has too many exceptions, footnotes, and explanations to be simple any longer. Then the bulk of knowledge held at the gate by a fossilized scientific academy floods in, transforming that academy into a new one.

An easy example:
For instance, astrology and astronomy were, at one time, the same profession. Scientists have tracked planetary movements since Neolithic times (that’s what Stonehenge is, an observatory) in order to gauge solar and lunar movement, for agricultural timing. The heavens were thought to circle earth.

Eventually planetary movement was documented more fully. Observers noted that Planets were somehow backing up (going retrograde) in their orbits before moving forward again. The geocentric system was too complicated to sustain, and astronomers questioned it. Then Galileo (Copernicus, Kepler, etc.) showed that the geocentric system was not only complicated, it was wrong. Their model simplified planetary movement. And it changed medicine, botany, the belief in a human-centered order.

Though Kuhn was talking about science, the nature of ideas in social studies, including politics or international relations, is very similar. We cling to a worldview until it no longer works for us, but before we move to the next worldview, we have complication after complication. It becomes harder to describe reality. Mercury is in retrograde.

Possible New Example:
In my opinion, the problems of “political correctness” (already partly considered in previous post) in speech or thinking are expressions of a system that is rapidly over-footnoted and exceptionalized. We have learned a whole lot more about social structures, and the wealth of information doesn’t fit the model we have.

Many of our dissatisfactions stem from the fact that everybody has to use a complicated language to say the disagreeable, or to advance their cause. And it’s become a game, where words get pitched around and re-defined. Too many people are having too much fun throwing sand in a sandbox.

We are complicating a dialogue about how to treat each other. I am hoping like hell for a transformative model, a new way of understanding. I don’t know what it is, but I see a lot of people suffering with reality and no satisfactory way to explain it. That includes soldiers, law enforcement, fire fighters and E.R. nurses. That’s people who run cash registers, collect rent, wait tables, or just have to deal with a disenchanted public, day after day after day.

So I guess this is not about political correctness. It’s about developing a way of looking at the misery that we see, feel, breathe, detest, and perpetuate. If we could get the right model, we could solve some of the problems.

Lest you think this is too weird, we’ve been theorizing social models since Plato’s Republic. Unfortunately, I am no Plato. I'm not Karl Marx, either--I was thinking of complexity theory . . .

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