Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — when it sucks to be young

Some people divide the ways we know about our world into two types, Science and Inquiry. Science typically refers to using falsifiable hypotheses to make predictions about the world. Inquiry refers to any deviation or alteration of this method.


For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about fields in which the objective is to control, predict, and improve the behavior of some object (cancer cell, human being, State, whatever). That is the purpose for which the tool of science is most applicable.

Some people further divide Science into two types: Normal Science and Revolutionary Science. These terms from from Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Normal Science, in Thomas Kuhn’s original model, was capable of progress but governed by religious-like “paradigms.” Revolutionary Science, likewise in Kuhn’s outdated model, was capable of freedom but incapable of progress.


I say “original” and “outdated” because no one — except for pretentious modern literature types, and including Kuhn himself — takes that model seriously anymore. While The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a breakthrough at the time (because it implied that science was not completely free, and that not all science would yield progress), the feedback to the model was intense and Kuhn’s model of science rapidly improved.

Instead of two distinct types of Science, Kuhn’s revised models described any scientific field as having “exemplars,” or examples of how the best research is conducted. Some fields (like structural equation modeling, say) have exemplars which are very similar and allow creativity only within that narrow and defined space. These “Normal” fields are capable of rapid progress. Other fields (like political science, say) have exemplars which are so wide and dispirit that researchers can basically do anything they want, and progress is extremely difficult.


One way this matters is that in less-progressive, more scientific, looser-exemplar, fields, “knowledge” and “experience” are both measured in years. The less things change — the less progress is made — the less youth matters relative to years of experience.


The worse your bargaining position as you start in life, the more you find yourself without experience in an experiential field, the harder everything is. In some antiquated and retrogressive societies, workers with poor negotiating position are even told who they may and may not marry.

Of course, it’s possible for the young to do well in less progressive fields of study, as the old may do well in more progressive fields of study. It’s just that the field is never balanced. Experience pays, and the level of progressive in the field determines how much.

13 thoughts on “Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — when it sucks to be young”

  1. Dan, I agree with your disdain for Kuhn’s model. Tightly coupling the notion of “Revolutionary Science” with a lack of progress crumbles under scrutiny: quantum theory was considered quite revolutionary at the time, so unless the adjective has more meaning than the cultural stigma it’s a false equivalence.

    And if the gradient in your bottom diagram is intended to represent a continuum (vice discreteness), then I think that is a useful measure.

    But history is replete with youthful “revolutionaries” whose theories had a decisive impact on the evolution of science. Both Newton and Einstein did their best work before the age of 25.

    Zenpundit suggested adding “theoretical / experimental” to the mix, and that is a good recommendation. The theorist needs only a white board and patience, while today’s experimentalist needs a team of interns and post-docs as well as significant stable funding. Consider the effort needed to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson: hundreds of physicists and many years, with a national-scale capital investment like the LHC to reach the energies needed.

    This all supports your thesis: that it sucks to be young, especially in the sciences….

  2. Hey Deichmans,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I want to step in to defend Kuhn somewhat: one amazing thing about him is the way he was able to take serious criticism, acknowledge it, and incorporate it into his model. His follow-up “Second Thoughts on Paradigms” is both clearer [1] than his more famous “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” and more practical.

    If I ever do an edited volume of career advice, this post will be in that, as well as some past ones [2,3,4]…


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