Thomas Kuhn and COVID-19

Reginald Williams

When I learned I’d be teaching online for seven weeks, my first thought was one that Facebook and YouTube might censor. My second was: What to read while at home? My first answer was Camus’s classic The Plague. Would that be how COVID-19 plays out? Would rats be to blame? Would some atheist doctors eventually save us? But The Plague was too obvious.

Over the past months, doctors, states, and nations have counted COVID deaths differently. Projections, models, and theories have spawned more projections, models, and theories. Scientific consensus has been framed in terms of may, might, and could, rather than quantifiable, verifiable, and falsifiable claims. Doctors who have questioned the consensus have been rebuked and censored rather than analyzed and improved upon. Science and politics have grown less distinct, and politicians have mentioned the possibility of martial law.

The more time has passed, the more Orwell’s 1984 has come to mind. But that, too, is too obvious. No, the book to read—or reread—is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn was a University of Pittsburgh physics professor who became interested in the history of science. Kuhn’s history sparked a revolution, and not just in his field. Kuhn’s work transformed education and the social sciences. Over fifty years after publication, it stands to illuminate our approach to combating COVID-19. Kuhn essentially applied Gestalt theory to the history of science. According to Gestalt theory, people process information and understand their experiences in terms of preexisting worldviews. If a religious person overcomes cancer, he or she might consider it a miracle or an answered prayer; a secular person would be happy the odds worked in his or her favor. A vegetarian might consider beef a moral affront, whereas a carnivore thinks it is a delicious source of protein.

Kuhn calls these worldviews paradigms, and his use of the term has had huge influence. For Kuhn, a paradigm is a network of basic assumptions, preexisting theory, fundamental concepts, and technical vocabulary that frame our thinking and help us solve problems. Paradigms also raise problems, suggesting research programs to solve them.

Prior to Copernicus, astronomy was dominated by the geocentric theory of planetary motion, which made sense of many early observations of the heavens. The geocentric theory also raised questions—such as about retrograde motion. While Ptolemaic epicycles provided an explanation, Copernicus’s heliocentric theory eventually won favor, marking a fundamental shift in how we understand astronomy: a paradigm shift.

The history of science is full of paradigm shifts—consider relativity and quantum mechanics. Kuhn wasn’t the first to notice these shifts. He was the first to appreciate the time leading up to them, a window of time we’d be smart to appreciate right now.

Prior to Kuhn, Copernicus came along and immediately won over his peers. However, if Kuhn is right, that is not how scientific revolutions tend to occur. They are more like hard-fought wars, with earlier theories eventually capitulating when a new paradigm and research program succeeds in wearing them down.

Scientists are trained by previous scientists. They learn a preexisting vocabulary, a canon of theory, and an existing analytical framework for solving problems. They also inherit research programs. Scientists are not quick to abandon their training or research. They tend to be recalcitrant. When presented with a theory that is fundamentally divergent to theirs, they tend to dig in deeper to what they already believe and reject alternative theories. In this way, scientists exhibit a basic human feature that psychology has long understood via Gestalt theory. People tend to resist the overturning of their worldviews—their paradigms—particularly when their careers and potential livelihood are on the line.

Paradigms aren’t a bad thing; in fact, they’re essential. One needs concepts and vocabulary to understand the world. Paradigms, however, can also serve as blinders. When one insists on seeing the world through a particular lens—and refuses to entertain alternative perspectives—one can fail to see what is right in front of oneself. One can trivialize and write off counterevidence that is readily available: counterevidence that could point us in the direction of discovery. For these reasons, even when science has established an orthodox position on something, it’s crucial to remain open to possibilities, especially in the early stages of combatting a novel problem. This openness has been lacking with COVID-19.

We’re told that there’s a scientific consensus on the facts and proper protocol for combating COVID-19: a unitary scientific consensus. If Kuhn is right, though, long-standing scientific consensus tends to be rare in the face of new problems. Scientific consensus is something that emerges over time as the result of an intense interplay of divergent scientific opinions, long-term careful study, and an eventual emergent confluence of thinking. To impede that dynamic—to posit a scientific consensus prematurely—is to impede our progress toward a new scientific consensus.

Currently there are at best national scientific consensuses, because not all nations are being similarly advised on how to combat the virus. Sweden is the obvious example, where medical authorities have recommended procuring a “herd immunity” and have not mandated large-scale shutdowns. Sweden’s scientific consensus has faced a lot of criticism. So have some U.S. doctors and studies—for example, by Stanford and the University of Southern California—that endorsed Sweden’s consensus over the general U.S. consensus. That disagreement is great. Careful disagreement, with good listening and sophisticated reasoning, is a sign that science is healthy and scientists are engaging each other and considering a range of possibilities in the face of a new problem, gathering data along the way that can hopefully be used to verify or falsify the alternative theories on how to combat COVID-19. Many, however, don’t seem to appreciate this process. Many would rather ignore, rebuke, or even censor alternative scientific approaches to COVID-19, insisting that there is a univocal scientific consensus and impeding the standard scientific path toward discovery.

This is sad, and it’s dangerous. Thousands of people are dying, and we need answers. I anxiously await an international conference—virtual, I suppose—at which a range of scientific consensuses can address one another’s clinical experience, recorded data, and assumptions about COVID-19. Perhaps, then, we can truly arrive at a univocal scientific consensus and stop seeing people die.

Reginald Williams

Reginald Williams is professor of philosophy at Bakersfield College.

When I learned I’d be teaching online for seven weeks, my first thought was one that Facebook and YouTube might censor. My second was: What to read while at home? My first answer was Camus’s classic The Plague. Would that be how COVID-19 plays out? Would rats be to blame? Would some atheist doctors eventually …

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