Conceptual Jack–in–the–Boxes

When we look back on the history of science, it is clear that major conceptual shifts have occurred around unexpected, conceptual Jack–in–the–Boxes. What made these conceptual advances major? It was the (often sudden) realisation (but far from sudden acceptance) that the whole of a discipline had been built on a flawed assumption — an insecure foundation.

These unjustified presumptions were all overturned:

And now:

The first appearance of a revolutionary paradigm (a fresh approach to the subject) is, by historical rule, both thoroughly counterintuitive and something that the establishment regards as heretical and corrupting. But history also tells us that heresy is the very bedrock of major scientific revolution. The magnitude of the revolution depends upon how long progress has been dammed up by older perceptions. The more counterintuitive the new paradigm, the longer it takes to surface and the more devastating is the outcome when "the dam bursts".

These major shifts tend to be realisations rather than discoveries. The reason being that, somewhere up the line, there was one, or more, (major) false assumption. The growing tensions in the interpretation of facts, the logical construction of its theories and the conversion of these elements into successful technologies brings the discipline to the edge of a fresh realisation. New facts may be quite unnecessary — it could be re–ordered just by reinterpretating extant facts.

Whenever a major realisation emerges in science, the person or persons central to this realisation will introduce a number of their own assumptions and they may remain blissfully unaware that they have done so. So, when a scientific belief becomes known as "Newtonian", "Darwinian" or "Einsteinian" (for example) then we can rest assured that others would — eventually — have fallen across the same (valid) realisations but that these would also have been coloured by the authors' own unique sets of hidden assumptions (distortions). Perhaps the stature of a radical natural philosopher can be judged — in retrospect — by the paucity of assumptions that he or she has introduced without recognising their potential frailty.

The personalities involved are really rather irrelevant. It is the discipline that has moved to the verge of a Kuhnian revolution. Someone, somewhere, very soon, is going to notice and history suggests that many people will have been working towards this realisation. Once enough interest has been generated the flood will become unstoppable. But a new perception can only be built around extant knowledge. This knowledge is made up of a large set of observations that have been made under the influence of extant theoretical assumptions – they represent what the current corporate discipline has uncovered. I have likened theoretical exploration to "trying to drag consistent signals out of the background noise".

Censorship of ideas

Censorship has little valid place in science. We should be learning our subject by becoming embroiled in the adventure of discovery rather than indoctrinating the incumbent workers in set beliefs and set ways of doing things. It is perfectly legitimate to point to past work and past conclusions where these have been overlooked. But, we must remember that the adventure (and speed) of learning comes from exploration and adventure rather than from an indoctrination. Radical thought needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed.


I recently came across a response that I sent to the BMJ in 2003. It reminded me of some important aspects of so called "facts". The following is paraphrased from this response.

I think that our concept of a "fact" is a bit misleading. We tend to use "fact" where we mean an observation; we regard "facts" as immutable and irrefutable. It is an observation that the sun rises every morning. Observations should be entirely empirical and detached from any interpretative explanatory paradigm. They should describe carefully what is observed and they should be as unprejudiced as possible. Now, we are all quickly tempted into interpreting observations in the light of some preconceived and (quite likely) distorting perspective; it is most often then that we call them "facts". In actual practice, nearly all our "facts" are interpretative opinions about our observations. So, the most productive distinction is not between a fact and an opinion but between an observation and an opinion. An observation should be made using every effort to avoid interpretation. As soon as an interpretation is interwoven with the observation (eg, the sun rises because the earth rotates) we add in an opinion about the reason for that observation and we prejudice any novel interpretation of it.

In the progress of science, conceptual Jack-in-the-Boxes regularly come along that make us reinterpret our ("facts") observations. Science gets hung up on old paradigms because the reigning cognoscenti act as if "facts" are immutable and irrefutable. But they are heavily interwoven with assumptive explanations. We must ensure the quality of our observations by ensuring that they are made in the least prejudiced way that we can manage. And, we must try to identify and reduce the bias of extant opinion.

I suggest that we need to "catch ourselves out" and "flag up" the event whenever we embellish an empirical observation with an interpretation.