What Would An Accurate Historical Narrative of Neuroscience Look Like? An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 12

Chapter 11 of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is a deep discussion about historic revisionism in science. Kuhn argues that scientific revolutions are later rewritten in a much simplified narrative. In this narrative, two camps emerge both focused on solving a central problem. When the problem is iteratively solved, the successful problem solver is remembered as the revolutionary scientist whose work laid the foundations of the new paradigm.

Kuhn’s lesson from the chapter however is not this simple narrative. His lesson is that reality is more complex and less convenient than the brief explanation needed for the doctrine of a textbook. Kuhn argues that the usual course of historical revisionism is to caricaturise the main players. His insights were gained from a close study of historical events in science and he backs up his assertion with reference to well recognised examples.

If we turn to Neuroscience, we find a relatively young discipline. The term Neuroscience is young that is. However common interpretations of the history of Neuroscience often draw on historical events that date back several thousand years. Here are some examples of resources for the history of Neuroscience.

A University of Washington Guide

The Society for Neuroscience – History of Neuroscience Guide

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences

History of European Neuroscience – FENS

Whereas some of Kuhn’s examples of scientific revolutions resulted in new branches of science, Neuroscience is currently proceeding in an interesting and novel direction. This direction is one in which the very identity of Neuroscience is being forged. In a previous post I suggested that Neuroscience was undergoing a limited political revolution. A close examination of the above sources reveals that an intelligent reappraisal of history is taking place. In this reappraisal, events which are of historical scientific significance (e.g Descartes Mind-Body dualism, dissection of the Optic and other sensory nerves by Alcmaion of Crotona in 500 BC, the works of Sigmund Freud, Korbinian Brodmann, Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Gordon Holmes as well as contemporary neuroscientists) are integrated into an inclusive but overwhelming collection without a clear narrative.

There is a lot of work ahead in the field of the history of Neuroscience in order to develop an understanding of a remarkable series of discoveries made by people from many civilisations, continents and eras. Unlike other branches of science which Kuhn refers to, the problem is not one of caricaturisation of paradigm shifts but instead making sense of how we got to where we are. This understanding though is integral to establishing an identity of the field of Neuroscience. Perhaps it has taken thousands of years for scientists to get to the stage where they realise that all of these discoveries fall under one umbrella. This umbrella – Neuroscience – is perhaps one of the most complex and challenging scientific fields that has ever developed.

This field is so complex that even the basic question of what are the foundations of Neuroscience and a clear understanding of its identity remain elusive. Even while this identity is being developed a global transformation of the Neuroscience infrastructure is happening with a fast evolving alliance of different scientific communities and technologists. The applications of Neuroscience in clinical specialities such as Psychiatry are without question and the realised and potential benefits to society are immense.

Appendix 1 – Review of Chapter 11 of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ on this Site

The 11th Chapter in Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is titled ‘The Invisibility of Scientific Revolutions’. In this chapter Kuhn revisits the themes developed in earlier chapters. He explains that the celebrated scientific revolutions that he uses as examples are selected solely that the reader is already familiar with them. Kuhn suggests in this chapter that revolutions are invisible because of historical revisionism in science textbooks. His argument runs along the following lines. Firstly assuming that scientists and laypeople use textbooks as the primary source of learning about a scientific field then the presentation of the field within the textbooks is of central importance. Secondly Kuhn suggests that there is a central assumption that science is independent of the historical context (note that he himself does not hold this view). Thirdly Kuhn argues that when a revolution has occurred there is a need to rewrite the science textbooks. This rewriting follows a pattern. Thus the central problems which were solved in order to create the paradigm change are reframed as the only problems that existed prior to the paradigm change. The main scientific players are then described in relation to this problem solving exercise. Fourthly through this revisionism science is presented as a cumulative endeavour whereby incremental improvements in solutions to central problems lead to the paradigm change. In this manner the subtleties around the scientific revolution become invisible. Kuhn gives examples to support his argument about the importance of historical context in scientific revolutions. This chapter addresses an important criticism of Kuhn’s central arguments namely that scientific revolutions are portrayed as cumulative developments of scientific knowledge rather than transformational paradigm shifts. Kuhn’s response is to characterise the simplistic narratives as examples of historical revisionism and he emphasises the importance of context in interpreting scientific revolutions.

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

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 5

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 6

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 7 – A Discussion of the Anomaly and Beyond

Do We Need A Crisis in Science For A Revolution to Occur? – An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 8

What is the Effect of a Scientific Crisis in Neuroscience? An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 9

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

Is Neuroscience a Collection of Neuroscience Memes?: An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 11

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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