08 May 2012

Paradigm Shift: Shift Harder

Hardcover, 149 pages
Published 2009
Acquired October 2011

Read April 2012
Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy
by Sandra D. Mitchell

Sandra Mitchell's book is a volley against Thomas Kuhn, against the idea that all mature sciences operate under a single paradigm where problems can be solved against a master idea.  Mitchell argues that some sciences-- psychology and ecology, for example-- will never be reduced so easily, that we'll never be able to say, "This is the cause of depression" because depression is caused by an array of complex factors and two people can have all the same factors and yet still only one of them will have depression.  We should not disparage this irreducible complexity, but embrace, she says.

I am pretty sure she is arguing against what the Victorians would call "scientific materialism," or what we would now call "monism."  And when I first picked up the book, I was all ready to believe her.  Despite the fact that I really liked The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I could also see how there was an alternative.  Indeed, Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach left me primed to believe in emergence, which is Mitchell's main argument against monism.  But then I started reading-- and I'll admit that maybe this is just my comprehension skills at fault, because Mitchell gets very science-y very fast-- and the more I read, the less I believed in emergence.  When I read Hofstadter, I believed that ant colonies could have properties not represented in ants, or that consciousness could have properties not represented in neurons.  But every example Mitchell gave showed how the high-level properties very clearly came out of low-level properties.  Is that emergence at all?  The depression example was good, and I feel like ecology examples could be good, but she spent a lot of time talking about genetics in ant colonies.

So I wanted to believe her, and I accept her point that focusing on simplicity disadvantages our society's ability to make decisions based on complex scientific principles, but nothing in this book actually leads me to believe in her.

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