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Scientific Revolutions
The 3rd article in the series "Political Catastrophes".



Progress in science does not occur by accumulating old knowledge but by revolutionary steps. Each scientific revolution alters the historical perspective of the community that experiences it. In both political as scientific development the sense of malfunction can lead to a crisis that is prerequisite to revolution. These are some sentences from the book  The structure of scientific revolutions” from Thomas S. Kuhn (1962).

Even before the eleventh of September the situation in the world was horrific (malfunctioning). A political solution can hardly be found by slowly changing the existing situation. It is very unlikely that the situation in which every year 50 million people die only because they cannot get enough food can be solved gradually. Therefore a revolution is needed, a catastrophe after which scientists, who are led by a new paradigm, see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community has been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well. (Kuhn).

Though it is dangerous to compare the scientific world with the much more complicated political world this is just what the world needs: a fundamental change in which ideas are different though the same objects and the same people are still present. But people will see different things in places they have looked before and they will solve problems that were impossible to solve in the old situation.

How can such change occur? In science this occurs after scientists become increasingly dissatisfied with the ruling paradigm. In the Middle Ages the earth was seen as the centre of the universe. More and more people did not like this. Suddenly Copernicus concluded that the paradigm was wrong, that the sun was a better centre of the universe. Many dissatisfied scientists took his side and astronomy changed. Many new things were found though some old ideas were still preserved.

I will to translate this to politics. Many people are dissatisfied with the present situation. They do not know what to do because an old paradigm (capitalism, but also communism, socialism, Christianity, Islam, evolution, etc.) obstructs their view. The old paradigms paralyze development and the world petrifies. A new paradigm must not only contain a more or less vague concept of a possible new society but must also include a practical way to reach this new society. The new paradigm will have in the beginning only a few supporters. But the mind of more and more people will change when they see that contemporary practical activity opens the road to a new future.

In a scientific catastrophe a few scientists advance a new idea. Because of their strong arguments other scientists will be won over and the situation slowly develops in the direction of a jumping point. Then suddenly a fundamental change takes place after which the vast majority of scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. Copernicus, Newton and Einstein are only some of the people that changed science. They became aware that the old situation was not right and that existing theories could not solve the anomalies and their activity caused a sudden change in the old paradigms.

After the new situation is reached you need normal scientists who re-establish order by solving yet unsolved puzzles within the boundaries set by the new theory. This normal science does not aim at novelties and its findings are seldom or never an increment to what is already known. Often it even suppresses fundamental novelties because it is necessarily subversive to the basic commitments of normal science.
Political revolutions bring a new situation and new politicians will  order the new situation. They often make a mess of it (Soviet Union for example) but some new ideas are accepted and some of the outlived ideas are discarded. Since the Middle Ages the Western society has progressed in a jumpy way while the situation petrified in countries that where then more advanced (Arabic World, China etc.). The Chinese Revolution brought China in a new situation while India stayed behind. The Moslem world also needs a revolution to get out of the quagmire. The present warmongering policy of the USA pushes them deeper in the morass and that will also influence our progression, which is already threatened by the waning power of the idea of democracy. Once this was a progressive force, now it has become an obstacle for further progress. The democratic paradigm has to be replaced by another political idea because anomalies are growing and the danger for a blockade of further progress is looming around the corner.

Nobody can predict how the situation will change after a catastrophe. Take as example the stretching of an elastic string. It is very difficult to determine beforehand how the two ends will move when the string has snapped. But we can say much about the period before the string snaps, about the way how to accomplish a catastrophe that will fundamentally change (and progress) our world. From science we learn that a revolution is coming nearer when awareness of an anomaly grows, the recognition that nature somehow violates the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science. Scientific revolutionaries must not discuss their new views with normal scientists but develop their own theory and practice and only make clear that the old situation is fundamentally wrong. They know that old theories cannot solve existing problems. The state of Ptolemaic astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus's announcement. Galileo’s contribution to the study of motion depended closely upon difficulties in Aristotle’s theory. 

A political revolution comes nearer when more people see the anomalies and difficulties. Awareness grows by pointing to the idiocy of the Afghan War or to a Globalization that increases the differences between the Rich and the Poor. Discussions about gradual solutions on the basis of the existing paradigm are useless. A new theory has to be developed that gives room to another society in which problems will be solved because politicians will look with different eyes with the same instruments at the same places they looked before. The minds of some politicians will indeed be changed by the revolution but many old politicians will not be flexible enough to assist in this new process. And it will still take some time before all problems are solved. The new revolutionary theory of Copernicus was only widely accepted after normal scientists had worked it out – and that lasted a century. Without Copernicus the world would still be the centre of the universe. Nowadays time is going faster.

Though a revolution seems far away, a small change can have large and amplifying effects in our chaotic social system. That is a fundamental principle of the theory of catastrophes. Nobody expected that the Wall should fall in 1989 and the few people who caused the WTC catastrophe did indeed change the world. Nobody knows how the future will be but the present abominable world has to change. Therefore I am developing a new theory and a new practice that has nothing in common with existing ideas. Because when you are caught in endless discussions with ‘normal’ politicians nothing will change.

I have elaborated these ideas in Political Catastrophes, Lessons from the WTC catastrophe, some mathematical background in the Mathematical Appendix of "The Scarists" and also in the 11th Chapter of that book. 
For more information on Thomas S. Kuhn see
http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/Kuhnsnap.html

Joost van Steenis (November 11 2001)


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