scientific regress

London Herald headline: Scott Killed at the South Pole

On his blog, IdleWords.com, Polish-born Maciej Ceglowski ("as American as gooseberry pie," but now living in northeastern Romania) tells the fascinating story of how the cure for scurvy was won and lost in a culture confident in scientific progress, and why Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole struggled with a disease that had supposedly been cured in the 18th century:

I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus fruits were an effective cure for the disease.…

Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times.…

[I]n the second half of the nineteenth century, the cure for scurvy was lost. The story of how this happened is a striking demonstration of the problem of induction, and how progress in one field of study can lead to unintended steps backward in another.

(via MonsterFool)

This idea of backward steps in science should be familiar to anyone who has read Murray Rothbard’s introduction to Economic Thought Before Adam Smith (available in print, PDF, and ePub):

The continual progress, onward-and-upward approach was demolished for me, and should have been for everyone, by Thomas Kuhn’s famed Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn paid no attention to economics, but instead, in the standard manner of philosophers and historians of science, focused on such ineluctably “hard” sciences as physics, chemistry, and astronomy.

Bringing the word “paradigm” into intellectual discourse, Kuhn demolished what I like to call the “Whig theory of the history of science.” The Whig theory, subscribed to by almost all historians of science, including economics, is that scientific thought progresses patiently, one year after another developing, sifting, and testing theories, so that science marches onward and upward, each year, decade, or generation learning more and possessing ever more correct scientific theories.

On analogy with the Whig theory of history, coined in mid-nineteenth-century England, which maintained that things are always getting (and therefore must get) better and better, the Whig historian of science, seemingly on firmer ground than the regular Whig historian, implicitly or explicitly asserts that “later is always better” in any particular scientific discipline. The Whig historian (whether of science or of history proper) really maintains that, for any point of historical time, “whatever was, was right,” or at least better than “whatever was earlier.”

The inevitable result is a complacent and infuriating Panglossian optimism. In the historiography of economic thought, the consequence is the firm if implicit position that every individual economist, or at least every school of economists, contributed their important mite to the inexorable upward march. There can, then, be no such thing as gross systemic error that deeply flawed, or even invalidated, an entire school of economic thought, much less sent the world of economics permanently astray.

Kuhn, however, shocked the philosophic world by demonstrating that this is simply not the way that science has developed. Once a central paradigm is selected, there is no testing or sifting, and tests of basic assumptions only take place after a series of failures and anomalies in the ruling paradigm has plunged the science into a “crisis situation.” One need not adopt Kuhn’s nihilistic philosophic outlook, his implication that no one paradigm is or can be better than any other, to realize that his less than starry-eyed view of science rings true both as history and as sociology.

But if the standard romantic or Panglossian view does not work even in the hard sciences, a fortiori it must be totally off the mark in such a ‘soft science’ as economics, in a discipline where there can be no laboratory testing, and where numerous even softer disciplines such as politics, religion, and ethics necessarily impinge on one’s economic outlook.

(Crossposted to blog.Mises.org)

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2 Responses to scientific regress

  1. Kuhn, however, shocked the philosophic world

    Not really; those ideas had been in the air for some time.

  2. Scott Lahti says:

    SCOTT KILLED AT
    THE
    SOUTH
    POLE

    [pictured newspaper]

    Gulp!

    Note to self: at risk of outing self as bi-polar, cancel trip to visit dear old Aunt Arctica, and replace with one to see Uncle Santa instead.

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