The grain of prevailing wisdom

[I]n the mid-nineteenth century there was simply no context for such a radical overhaul of geological theory; no other pieces of knowledge with which the theory itself could fit. A mainstay of nineteenth-century geology was a belief in the existence of enormous land-bridges which had at one point joined the world’s continents, but had since then crumbled into the oceans. These land-bridges explained the existence of the same species on different landmasses, and seemed far more plausible than mobile continents.

In 1912, therefore, [Alfred] Wegener was arguing against the grain of prevailing wisdom: if his theory were correct, it would nullify many of the founding assumptions of nineteenth-century geology. Worse still, Wegener was an intruder, a trespasser on the turf of the geologists. For his main field of research was meteorology – he was a pioneer in weather-balloon study and a specialist in Greenland, where he led several successful, and one fatal, Arctic research expeditions. How could a weatherman presume to dismantle at a single stroke the complex and magnificent edifice of nineteenth-century geology?

Robert MacFarlane describes the reasons why Alfred Wegener‘s theory of continental drift wasn’t widely accepted by geologists until the 1950s.

This reminds me of Thomas Kuhn‘s notion of a “paradigm shift.” Specifically, it brings to mind his contention that two scientific paradigms are incommensurable, that the propositions of one paradigm are impossible to understand from the viewpoint of another paradigm.

This clash of world views interests me: when it is impossible to get across your point because a certain world view is so entrenched. Wegener’s approach is laudable: he simply kept explaining his theory, publishing and republishing The Origins of Continents and Oceans three times between 1915 and 1929. But is this laudable only because when know he was eventually proven to be (mostly) right? If he’d been wrong would his persistence seem laudable or simply a bit crazy?

Everyone who disagrees with someone else is likely to cast themselves as the hero, squaring up bravely to ignorance or just plain idiocy. Certainly having evidence to back up your claim helps,

Certainly, this is the ideal of the scientific method (or of a Lean startup): have a hypothesis, test a hypothesis, it either works or it doesn’t. The results of the experiment give us the answer.

Too often, though, this isn’t quite how it works out. A Kuhn points out, that evidence can be interpreted through a certain paradigm. The experiment design is questioned. The validity of the results is questioned. The interpretation of the results is questioned. Someone whose paradigm doesn’t allow for the results will always find something to question.

Getting to a point where we can listen and talk across these paradigmatic chasms seems vital, but perhaps it’s overly idealistic. In Kuhn’s analysis, this never happens. One paradigm eventually replaces another paradigm, but in the mean time two communities work as if in isolation from one another.

I’m idealistic, though. Even knowing that two competing paradigms are incommensurable probably won’t stop me from trying to do the impossible: trying to understand both. Or trying to understand one paradigm although I’m firmly placed in another.

Clearly, it’s time for me to go back and reread Kuhn.