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Scientific Methods Of Kuhn And Popper Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1847 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the philosophy of science there are two men whose theories on correct scientific method were at the same time vastly different and common at times. Karl Popper proposed a method of bold conjecture followed by rigorous testing and ultimate refutation and replacement by a bolder new theory. Thomas Kuhn advocated that established paradigms formed the framework in which science existed and at times of repeated refutation of the paradigm allowed for the shift in focus and adoption of a new, better suited set of rules, a paradigm shit. What follows is my attempt to highlight both similarities and differences in these theories and then to investigate possible problems with each.

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Stemming from the apparent problems with the inductivist accounts of science- that scientists make observations and conduct experiments based on previous observations and conclusions, this is problematic as it assumes the truth of previous scientific work as well as their continuing or persistent truth- Popper proposed an alternate approach. What Popper argued is a system of bold conjecture and refutation; in any experiment, a scientist should formulate a hypothesis that addresses a wide scope in its particular field while being easily tested and possibly falsified through experimentation and observation. This approach avoids the problems of pure inductivism and sets up a situation that does approach a description of science and a model of a correct scientific model. In testing or attempting to falsify his claim, the scientist will make observations in accordance with his theory. Should this line of experimentation produce results in favour of the conjecture, then Popper’s scientific method has succeeded and the conjecture is corroborated; should it produce results contrary to the assumptions made in accordance with the conjecture then the conjecture is false and should be abandoned in favour a new theory.

Popper’s views on the testing of theories, based on conjecture, focus on the issues of testing the theory and the falsifiability of the theory and conjecture (Popper, 1998; 6-7). For Popper, the most striking difference between science and pseudo-science is the unfalsifiabilty of claims made in the pseudo-sciences. To use the popular example of astronomy versus astrology, the astrologist makes predictions based on observations, these observations may appear scientific in nature but have such a broad focus and support such wide raging predictions that actual falsification of these predictions is impossible. Conversely, astronomers formulate a theory based on observation that we can imagine being both accurately tested and possibly falsified (Popper, 1998; 8). By failing on this initial hurdle, astrology for Popper fails as a science and is relegated to pseudo-science. Popper makes a distinction between those theories that are falsifiable and those that are already falsified; a theory is falsifiable when there exists a possible scenario in which the theory fails in accordance with that which it predicts, and a theory is falsified when that possible scenario has come about and been observed (Popper, 1982; XX).

This account of scientific method accommodates modifications to a given falsified theory but in the non-scientific bracket. What Popper called ad hoc modifications cannot rescue a theory that has been falsified. To alter the assumptions or explanations in this way, according to Popper, may salvage the theory and avoid refutation but in doing so strips it of much of the scientific worth that such theories seek to hold (Popper, 1998; 7). Popper’s essential approach surrounds this idea of scientific method only being successful through novel ideas that have both broad scope for refutation and wide range of specific predictions.

Where Popper proposes conjecture and refutation with falsifiability being the main criterion of a scientific theory, Thomas Kuhn advocates a set of rules within which scientists work during a period of what he terms ‘normal science’. Kuhn sets out his approach to scientific method by evaluating the way science is practiced currently and the day-to-day workings of the discipline. Popper’s ideas seemed to make science appear at all times exciting and revolutionary, with his ideas of complete refutation and abandonment of a falsified theory in favor of a new, more refined, more specific and more falsifiable theory. Kuhn proposes a system in which the daily workings of scientific endeavor become apparent while still allowing for the revolutions of theory that science relies on for advancement (Krige, 1980; 21-2).

Kuhn’s theories of science stem from a historiographical observation of the changes in scientific method. Kuhn observed that while science evolves and progresses in times of turmoil and revolution, the real scientific work is evident during the relative calm that separates these particular events. Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ method establishes the scientific world as the collection of rules and accepted norms that are established in times of scientific revolution and hold true until a subsequent event or revolution occurs to refute and inevitably replace the older set of rules. These rules that govern the way scientific research is carried out are what Kuhn calls ‘paradigms’, the framework on which scientific discovery is made. These paradigms a in a sense the way we put a puzzle together. To complete a puzzle, one need not redefine the rules that determine how the pieces fit together but merely arrange said pieces so that the work in accordance with the established paradigm and in so doing come together to complete the picture (Feyerabend, 1967; 136-7). A paradigm exists during periods of normal science and supports scientific discovery in this way, it is only in times of turmoil in the scientific community that these paradigms are called into question and if refuted, replaced with another paradigm that accounts for this new evidence in the same vain as the old. This turmoil and eventual replacement of a paradigm is termed, ‘a paradigm shift’ and is a term used widely in colloquial speech. What the shift refers to is Kuhn’s own refutation process followed by the establishment of new theories, though in this case the theories are further reaching and function as the new framework for scientific endeavor (Kuhn, 1998; 16-17).

From the methods of Popper and Kuhn explained above, the differences become apparent, but similarities also arise. Both Popper and Kuhn have, in their own words, addressed the apparent similarities and differences in their works (Kuhn in an essay addressing exactly that and Popper in an introduction to a reissue of his work, Realism and the Aim of Science).

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Both Popper and Kuhn make claims about the state of science that to them was currently observable. The two approach their theoretical work based on commentary on an existing system rather than proposing the ideals of a non-existent discipline. They may appear to be highlighting the attributes of empirical endeavor but make no claims to a ‘better’ way of conducting scientific research but rather attempt to identify those aspects evident in what they saw as real science, as opposed to pseudo-science. Popper’s bold conjecture and refutation account appears the more glamorous of the two while Kuhn draws a more practical view of scientific work. Popper exalts the ideals of immediate dismissal of a theory upon the observation of results contrary to the proposed theory; this is replaced by a new, stronger proposition that is more easily refutable. In this way, Popper sees science advancing through repetition of this practice (Popper, 1998; 6-7). This account seems to put science in constant turmoil, with scientists themselves being ever bolder and more daring, though it does little for what Kuhn refers to as ‘normal science’. Kuhn’s paradigm approach allows for the practice of normal science within a framework that encompasses the rules and theories that govern the scientific state that exists at the time (Kuhn, 1998; 12-15). The two theories provide adequate accounts in their own ways of correct scientific method yet neither appears to sufficiently cover all aspects of their method to the end that the method provides both a system to support or perhaps explain the way science is practiced as well account for and propel revolution and advancement.

Kuhn’s version of scientific method leads to his paradigms exhibiting incommensurability in their very nature. By creating this standard, Kuhn has established that there exists no unifying quality or stand point between paradigms that may exist at the same time: no one paradigm can be compared to another as they encompass all that exists in terms of their own particular avenue of thought. But if no two paradigms are comparable then we are left unable to distinguish between a favorable proposition and an unfavorable one, as each paradigm apparently exists to be self-supporting and incommensurable. This poses a problem for Kuhn’s theory. If we are to believe in the merits of his paradigm theory then it is necessary that when faced with two competing paradigms we should be able to establish which has a stronger case and deserves our support or active participation. This incommensurability removes this possibility, replacing it with a shadow of doubt. Popper’s attempt at scientific salvation is as unsuccessful as it encounters a problem illustrated by Kuhn: it does not explain what we know to have happened. The recorded history of science is made up of periods of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’. According to Popper’s theory such times are not good science as they do not involve bold new conjecture accompanied by novel testing and refutation and so science itself cannot progress. That said it quite obviously has. Popper’s version of correct scientific method appears in this way to fall down on its own base, by advocating the extremes of scientific endeavor the ordinary work within accepted norms becomes unappealing and so according to Popper is bad science.

These theories on correct scientific method attempt to create the framework in which scientific progression and revolution can happen and in so doing improve the state of scientific theory in general. Though similar in their observational nature and the way in how they advocate extreme refutation as scientific progression, in the theories themselves we encounter stark differences in method. Popper’s method lacks the historiographic quality necessary to explain past accomplishment and leaves no room for normal science while Kuhn struggles with his paradigms to address the incommensurability of his theory. Though thought provoking and adequate works, neither theory provides a sufficiently satisfying account of correct scientific method.


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