Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dogma: Man's Best Friend

People are prone to tenaciously held dogmatic positions. This is no less true for academics, and hell hath no fury like a scientist spurned. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn wrote about the tendency of a community of scientists to "lock in" to a concept or set of related ideas that appear to explain the way the world works.[1] One popular example is the view of the solar system around the time of Copernicus.

In the centuries prior to Copernicus the prevailing view of the cosmos put Earth at the center with everything else revolving around it, a paradigm that had survived in its essence since Aristotle. Few learned folk argued with it, least of all commoners because it satisfied everyday needs very well. Over time there grew an awareness that some observations were difficult or impossible to reconcile with the current paradigm. Some colleagues were intrigued by this while others were less than open to the suggestion that the Earth might not be at the center of things.

As the awareness grew and conflict began to arise, two things happened. First, as the conflicting views and communities became more sharply defined, so did the rhetoric. Those in positions of influence within the existing paradigm often fought against any criticism of it, sometimes through passive aggression, sometimes by making minor adjustments to the paradigm, and sometimes by resorting to ad hominem attacks on the critics. At the same time, more anomalies were discovered, further increasing the burden on the paradigm’s defenders.

Over time the "rebel" camp grew large enough to, in essence, seize control. I do not mean control through the use of physical force but rather through overwhelming social pressure on the ability of scientists to be successful. Those who clung to the old paradigm suddenly found themselves on the “outside.” If they were to survive in their careers they would have to either adopt the new paradigm or find new sponsors.

In the end, the Copernican paradigm prevailed, but as with many philosophical shifts it came with some baggage. Those who were eager to displace the Earth from its favored position went beyond the observations and claimed that nothing in the cosmos held a special position. But since the work of science under the new paradigm was just getting started, how was one to make a convincing argument otherwise? The tacit acceptance of the “Copernican mindset” has led to the current stronghold in cosmology: the big bang.

What may start out as seemingly dispassionate conceptual models and theories can, given enough time and advocacy, become entrenched doctrine. Their degree of entrenchment says very little about their truth or falsehood. Just because something is "in" or "out" does not mean it is right or wrong. Entrenched views gain their hold through active and tacit agreement among those viewed as authoritative.  The vesting of authority involves faith, well-placed or otherwise.

Some may claim their positions are based entirely on reason, but everyone relies on a variety of knowledge sources besides personal experience and deduction. So where do you place your faith?

[1] Kuhn, Thomas S., “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, 3rd Edition, 1992, University of Chicago Press