Evolution of Descriptive Theory

  1. Preparadigmatic Phase
  2. Maturation of a New Branch of Science
  3. Self-correction of descriptive science
  4. Revolutions in Descriptive Sciences
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From surviving documents we know that the development of theories has not always been an undisturbed, steady progress. Instead, there have been many upheavals on their road from antiquity until our time. Inherited doctrines have been several times replaced with new ones and many venerable professionals have eventually lost their authority. Such state of things is, of course, not uncommon in research activity. Fundamental revisions of theories have occurred, even successively, in the history of many branches of science. Some historians of science believe that revolutions belong to the normal and even inevitable development of any branch of science. These researchers think that there are recurring patterns, "laws of evolution" that most sciences follow. Some of them are presented by Thomas Kuhn in the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Preparadigmatic Phase

Each science that we know today has begun with a chaos of isolated suggestions by solitary authors. Today we would call these suggestions "hypotheses" and we would expect them to be tested and become either accepted or rejected. However, in their time there were few means to test the validity of these hypotheses because of the absence of scientific methodology. Those hypotheses that (as we now know) would have been most fruitful for scientific development were not selected as the basis of subsequent study more often than the bad ones. In other words, research was not self correcting but continued in haphazard directions as long as resources could be found for such futile work.

This "preparadigmatic" confusion was destined to last until the first researcher was able to create so extensive theoretical models that they covered not only his own findings but also those of some other researchers, and this new theory gained general acceptance. If practical applications could be expected from the new theory, it would also boost its acceptance and help finding the finances for further work; however before 18 century practical benefits from science were seldom expected.

An often quoted example of the preparadigmatic phase of science was the era of alchemy which ended only in 17 century with the advent of the earliest reliable theories of chemistry. Another example is given by Kuhn (p.13). He describes the situation in optics before Isaac Newton gave this science its first durable basis:

"Being able to take no common body of belief for granted, each writer on physical optics felt forced to build his field anew from its foundations. In doing so, his choice of supporting observation and experiment was relatively free, for there was no standard set of methods or of phenomena."

The preparadigmatic period often persists for a long time because there are many obstacles in finding the first general theory for a field of science. They include:

Pseudo-science. Sometimes it happens that researchers in a preparadigmatic field of exploration manage to gather resources and organize themselves ostensibly like a real institution of science. For example, alchemy and astrology could in their heyday occasionally find patrons who would pay the expenses of research; today tobacco industry is such a patron to those scientists that can find evidence against the dangers of tobacco. Scientology is another modern example of pseudo-science.
The proponents of pseudo-science usually declare themselves to be honest scientists; however the distinction to real science can easily be seen by noting the following characteristic traits of pseudo-science:

Maturation of a New Branch of Science

Creation of an independent and operational paradigm marks the turning point on the road to new science. This road is always a collective process of several researchers and it entails normally the following advancements in generally applied practices of study:

The process of amalgamation of initially separate scientific theories has been studied by many historians of science, among others by George Santayana (p. 267) who attributes the original idea of scientific unity to Heraclitus: "Men asleep live each in his own world, but awake they live in the same world together" ... "Languages and religions are necessarily rivals, but sciences are necessarily allies." ... Besides, Santayana describes the process in a beautiful parable:

"A geographer in China and one in Babylon may at first make wholly unlike maps; but in time both will take note of the Himalayas, and the side each approaches will slope up to the very crest approached by the other."

Self-correction of descriptive science

An important factor in the evolution of a branch of science is its ability to respond to the requirements of society, in other words how accurately the internal system of science can detect external needs and problems and steer its own activity accordingly. Both in descriptive and normative research there are mechanisms for this task, but they work quite differently.

The traditional self-corrective procedure of descriptive science is based on verification, the mutual peer criticism of all published descriptive research findings, as is explained in Assessing Theoretical Output. It quite effectively points out results that seem not credible because of bad research methods, of insufficient empirical data or even of faked data. While this is an admirable mechanism in itself, we should keep in mind that it does nothing to discourage scientific work that is correctly made but useless because the problem has no practical interest. This type of "normal science" is, indeed, only too common in universities where research is funded not by users of the results but by the community. Kuhn, 20, describes its results as follows:

"The creative scientist can ... concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group. And as he does this, his research communiqués will begin to change in ways ... whose modern end products are obvious to all and oppressive to many. ... They will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers."

It could be interesting here to recall the system of self-correction in normative science where the principal criterion is the utility of the findings. The close contact with practice helps in directing research into those topics that industry and the non-scientific community regard as important, and it also tests the utility of each research project and the results that are achieved when applying the findings into practice.

It would certainly not be judicious to propose replacing verification with utility testing in descriptive research projects, but it might be possible to include utility appraisal in an early phase of a descriptive project, in its project planning stage. It could help in guiding the objectives of the study and its whole content into a direction more acceptable to the world outside the normal-science community, while preserving or even augmenting its scientific merit, as well.

Revolutions in Descriptive Sciences

The progress in most sciences does not advance at uniform speed. On the contrary, it often happens that several great discoveries are made during a short interval, after which the progress gradually slows down and no spectacular findings turn up for a long time. This frequently occurring pattern has been cleverly explained by Thomas Kuhn who has also given names to these two alternating phases of research: normal science and scientific revolution.

During the period of normal science the scientists cultivate an existing paradigm which includes those theoretical concepts that most scientists in this field approve. They pertain to the basic nature of the objects of study and how they shall be viewed, approached and measured; research methods; models that describe or explain the phenomena; the accumulated bank of data.

In normal-scientific research the areas of study and of theory grow steadily, but this is done cautiously: most scientists prefer to articulate those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies (Kuhn p.24).

As long as the paradigm functions satisfactorily, scientists do not aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of the theories proposed by others. This seemingly conservative tactic has a rational explanation: it improves the productivity of research.

"More than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternates. But that invention of alternates is just what scientists seldom undertake except during the pre-paradigm stage of their science's development and at very special occasions during its subsequent evolution. So long as the tools a paradigm supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it defines, science moves fastest and penetrates most deeply through confident employment of those tools. The reason is clear. As in manufacture so in science -- retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it" (Kuhn p.76).

The productivity of normal science that Kuhn speaks of, means apparently such things as the yearly number of theses, of published pages and of reciprocal references to publications -- in other words, productivity as measured from inside the scientific community. High productivity of this kind is typical of government-financed research institutions which can often select the problems to be studied so that they can do research on the basis of earlier models and perhaps also repeat the approaches of earlier investigations.

Note, however, that productivity is not always equal to efficiency as measured from outside the scientific community, not to speak of the utility of research publications. For example, aesthetics, the study of art and beauty, has now continued over 2000 years, but are we getting today more beautiful works of art with its help?

Anyway, the normal science mode of study continues in most fields from generation to generation and its theory grows consistently. Eventually it can turn out that there are some anomalies, i.e. empirical cases which are in conflict with the paradigm. The normal strategy then is to inspect if existing theory could be adjusted to conform to these anomalies; if this is impossible the normal routine is to leave the disturbing anomalies in peace as unsolved problems, for the moment. The old paradigm will not be rejected just for the reason that there are some anomalies.

"Once it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place ... The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another" (Kuhn, 77).

In descriptive sciences a change of paradigm, which Kuhn calls scientific revolution is possible only when there is available a new theory in concord with all the evidence, including the anomalies and also all those instances which were covered by the old theory. Even then, the revolution is not over at once -- it is not uncommon that established scholars in the field of study stick quite a while to the old paradigm in the hope of preserving their authority.

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August 3, 2007.
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