Neuroscience is a relatively young branch of science which is being recognised as increasingly important. Discoveries in Neuroscience are informing clinical practice in Psychiatry, Neurology, Neurosurgery as well as in the wider mental health movement. Neuroscience research is varied and ranges from basic cellular and genetic research through to psychological and social studies. A central problem in Neuroscience has been to present a coherent and understandable narrative about what Neuroscience is and how it came about.
In his classic work ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Thomas Kuhn wrote extensively about scientific communities. Kuhn saw the most popular scientific discoveries as resulting from anomalies in the central paradigms owned by these same communities. For Kuhn the scientific community was inseparable from the scientific theories worked on by that community. In one sense the scientific theory was a manifestation of the culture of the scientific community. There was one caveat however. For Kuhn, scientific communities behaved differently to other types of community. They were characterised by standardisation, central paradigms and ‘progress’ of sorts. Kuhn disagreed that there was actual progress. Instead he described the illusion of progress but essentially thought that the ‘gestalt’ paradigm described by the community may have been just as valid as the preceding paradigm.
Kuhn noticed another feature of the scientific community that distinguished scientists from members of other disciplines. Scientists could distill their knowledge in the form of textbooks, standardise their methodology and train scientists efficiently and effectively to undertake specialised scientific research. For Kuhn, science had a quality that led quite naturally to an efficient organisation of the findings from research studies. Although many of these qualities could equally describe other disciplines, the process of science also led quite naturally to the ‘progress’ of normal science. In other words normal science is an activity which must lead to a refinement of the body of scientific knowledge which in turn can reasonably be called progress. In contrast, a new painting in the style of the early 20th century impressionists does not lead inexorably to a refinement of the body of knowledge about impressionism.
For Kuhn, scientists had a strong sense of identity. They knew where they were coming from. They knew the landmark studies. They knew where their research fitted into the greater scheme of things. For Kuhn, historic revisionism produced a seamless historical narrative which obfuscated the complexity of the historical events appreciated by the historiographical connoisseur. There was a kind of practicality about it all. Scientific research led to refinement of the knowledge and historic revisionism pruned the complexity. This practicality was built into the fabric of science. Science was self-contained.
So what might we say about Neuroscience. Neuroscience is very different from other branches of science and shares some of the challenges of Psychiatry. Basic Neuroscience research spans many research communities. Those same communities can reasonably describe themselves as part of the Neuroscience community. The Neuroscience community however is an umbrella community containing a collection of smaller communities. The challenge for Neuroscience is to integrate those communities. This challenge occurs at all levels from the research infrastructure through to the historical narrative and the central paradigms owned by those communities. Indeed for certain communities, there are communities within communities as research becomes ever more specialised.
If as Kuhn asserts, Neuroscientists must establish a historical narrative what would it look like? Perhaps it would consist of a collection of narratives from within those communities. Here the critical question is whether or not Neuroscience needs an overarching historical narrative or a collection of historical narratives. The separate communities continue their research and generate their historical narratives both inside and outside of the wider neuroscience community. However with increasing interdisciplinary research the findings from separate communities become increasingly important and the communities become more interconnected.
Perhaps this is the lesson for Neuroscience – the historical narrative needed for the formation of a core Neuroscience ‘identity’ will be complex and increasingly so as the body of neuroscience knowledge continues to grow. The neuroscience community must address the issue of identity through historical narrative and meet the significant challenges this poses. If Kuhn is correct, the rewards will be significant in helping Neuroscience to progress at an even greater pace and other related disciplines will benefit from the lessons learnt.
Appendix 1 – Review of Chapter 13 of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ on this Site
Chapter 13 in Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is ‘Progress through Revolutions’. Here Kuhn questions what it is that makes a science. He comments in an interesting way on what differentiates the branches of science. Thus he suggests that a strong sense of identity within a scientific discipline occurs when there is agreement within the community on past and present accomplishments. He also writes about the progress that occurred in the arts as representations became more realistic with refinements in the instruments and techniques of the artist. The relationship between the scientific community and the paradigm is emphasised as well as the debate that occurs between schools. Kuhn also suggests that although science progresses it does not necessarily progress towards any specific goal. He also reiterates the effectiveness of scientific revolutions followed by periods of normal science in developing a body of scientific knowledge. However he leaves the reader to answer the question ‘what must the world be like for us to know it?’
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