Has Neuroscience Been Undergoing a Limited Political Revolution Rather Than A Scientific Revolution? An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 10

When Thomas Kuhn published his landmark work on the philosophy of science ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ he perhaps didn’t realise the impact that this work would have. This work introduced the world to the term ‘paradigm change’ and shifted the focus on scientific revolutions away from the core scientific phenomenon to the characteristics of the scientific community. In Chapter 9, Kuhn looks at the differences between scientific and political revolutions. The key difference between these two types of revolutions is the central role of the anomaly in precipitating a scientific revolution. Let us consider Neuroscience as an example of an eclectic science. Has Neuroscience been undergoing a political rather than a scientific revolution?

In a political rather than a scientific revolution we would expect changes in the social organisation of Neuroscience and at the same time an absence of a central anomaly which drives debate. Is this what we see in practice? Many scientific disciplines have been amalgamating under the umbrella of ‘Neuro’. Indeed bloggers such as the Neurocritic and the Neuroskeptic have been very successful in addressing difficulties (and strengths) in Neuroscience studies particularly where simple ‘neuro’ assumptions are used. Here I refer to a ‘neuro’ assumption as one which fits with a political movement rather than the scientific data.

For instance the tenet of a political Neuroscience movement would be that ‘we can predict how people will behave by using the body of Neuroscience knowledge’. This is a statement of belief. The generation of a hypothesis and testing this against experimental data is an altogether different proposition however. The large number of variables make predictions extremely difficult in all but the simplest circumstances.  Instead, the interesting Neuroscience research is more limited in predictive utility but leads to a shifting perspective. The amalgamation of scientific disciplines under the umbrella of Neuroscience is to be welcomed however as it unites scientists in different research communities in pursuit of common interests often with clinical applications which ultimately will relieve suffering.

We see powerful Neuroscience institutes developing around the world and undertaking important research. Neuroscience Journals add to the burgeoning knowledge base and Neuroscience conference and social media networks bring Neuroscientists closer together. Neuroscientists feature increasingly in popular culture through popular books, documentaries and in Newspapers. The success of the Neuroscience movement is incontrovertible.

However the political Neuroscience movement with the mantra of ‘Neuroknowledge’ and ‘Neuropredictions’ is limited as any political scientific movement is by the absence of an accompanying beliefs and values system. Beliefs and values are distinct from scientific knowledge as they are choices rather than truths. Nevertheless they are essential features in any community. Until the problem of combining scientific and humanistic approaches is solved then the Political Neuroscience movement will  remain limited in its scope despite its present success. The Positive Psychology movement is one model which offers insights into this process.

The remaining issue is what is the central anomaly in Neuroscience. This is the crux of the issue. We have a powerful Neuroscience movement which is well funded and has many scientific branches affiliated. This though is the exact cause of the problem – what is the central paradigm and where is the central anomaly. There are many paradigms but they occur in only one affiliated field. Indeed many fields would not consider themselves affiliated to Neuroscience but working quite distinctly. Is the Central Paradigm a behavioural model or a cellular model or a neurotransmitter model or a neuroanatomical model or a neurocomputational model.

All of these approaches are currently found under the Neuroscience umbrella and scientists from many disciplines are competing with each other in the Neuroscience arena. However the terms of the debate need to be set and the arena more tightly defined.

Appendix 1 – Review of Chapter 9 of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ on this Site

Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions’ in which Kuhn  further discusses the nature of Scientific Revolutions. An important feature of this chapter is that Kuhn draws parallels between scientific and political revolutions. To support this analogy he explains how within political organisations and scientific communities groups arise with significantly different values from the mainstream. The scientific communities and political parties are housed within the institutions and the new movements are not able to successfully challenge within these institutions but must instead separate with the support of their proponents. However Kuhn is careful to distinguish between scientific and political revolutions. With scientific revolutions there are fundamental features of nature at play which determine the course of events. For instance the scientific paradigm is challenged by an anomaly which becomes a central feature of the new paradigm. The anomaly is a feature of nature and the paradigm which successfully explains the analogy replaces the old paradigm rather than resulting from a cumulative change in the old paradigm. Essentially there is a transformation of paradigms rather than a cumulative change. The logical positivists challenge this assertion by arguing for instance that Newtonian mechanics is a special case of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Kuhn takes time to address this and argues that the restriction that is placed on the Theory of Relativity impinges on the utility of this theory under these constraints. Furthermore the paradigm changes also extend to the rules governing the behaviour of scientists in the scientific community. The proponents of the different paradigms are unable to hold joint discussions since they operate within different frameworks with divergent views which cannot be resolved.

The anomaly therefore is the determining factor in the competition between paradigms as ultimately it is this  anomaly which highlights the problems in the old paradigm and is explained in the succeeding paradigm and this in turn is a feature of nature. I think this perhaps is the most significant differentiator between political and scientific movements assuming of course that the properties of group behaviour are not deterministic but instead are contingent on the interplay between the properties of memes and the properties of the group. Even here however Darwinists would argue that memes demonstrate selective fitness and are therefore subject to general principles which with some work can be identified.

Kuhn has produced a very deep work. A chapter such as this can be read repeatedly and still offer new insights. The analogies themselves give the reader the opportunity to use their knowledge of parallel systems to further understand the central arguments. Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ (see Appendix below for review) in comparison draws on some of Kuhn’s work but reduces the central argument to a simple premise which is significantly easier to challenge. The inter-relatedness of Kuhn’s chapters provides, I think a stark contrast which hints at the ‘Gestalt’ that Kuhn discusses in the previous chapter.


Related Resources on the TAWOP Site

A Review of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 1

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 2

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 3

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 4

Index: There are indices for the TAWOP site here and here Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail justinmarley17@yahoo.co.uk. Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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