Bit of a preface: I hated this book. It contains some really good ideas, which are totally worth discussing, but the whole thing is so much wordier and denser than it needs to be (this, coming from me!); seriously, the ideas put forth in this 200-page monstrosity would have been better shared in a 5-10 page article. Still, we were assigned to read it for LIS 2000, Understanding Information, and asked to write a 400-word review, describing “how the content of this book relates to the information professions. Why do you think this is assigned reading?” followed by a 250-word addendum today, restating our opinion and describing how it had changed in reading the other students’ essays, so I tried my best to get through it. Although I’m a little embarrassed to post this–and nervous that people who already took the class will say “No! You are so wrong! You’ll see!”–I still think it might be useful to do so. I can’t change my answer now (or, well, not after 11pm–but I promise not to, now that I’ve made this public), so I’m curious what people who’ve been through this
hazing ritualbook have to say.
When we were assigned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and asked to define its relevance to the information professions, I falsely assumed my professors were implying that our field is undergoing a “paradigm shift.” Certainly, that argument can be made: With the Internet making information simultaneously more plentiful and harder to find, the effectiveness of distributed tagging and its effects on discussion of cataloguing, and the popularity of digital libraries and plans for automation thereof, nobody would seriously assert that our field is in any way stagnant or unchanging. On the other hand, paradigms point to fundamental thought patterns, and to suggest that our “paradigm” is in flux seems questionable: We still believe that information should be freely available to all, and we still strive to provide it in the best way available to us; that, I claim, is our true paradigm. That we have one at all shows the applicability of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; certainly, we make assumptions about the world and about information, and we consider questions relevant or irrelevant based on those assumptions. Just as scientists are not the impartial observers that we are told they should be, we are not the impartial information providers that we would like to be.
Although Kuhn has many interesting and widely applicable ideas, I do not agree that his is the best way to think about science and progress. Certainly, the book has its fans (London 2008), but I was pleased to see that I was not its only doubter: Weinberg (1998), for instance, disagrees with nearly all of Kuhn’s central assertions. I do not go quite so far. As a scientist*, I believe that science, taken as a whole, does progress with time–to argue that our understanding of the universe today is not fuller than it was 200 years ago seems ludicrous–but we should be cautious in treating any one scientific finding or theory as “progress,” in and of itself: First, a scientist’s paradigm and her puzzle-solving nature restrict what questions she considers asking (p. 37), and second, the explanations provided by a new theory or paradigm may not be any closer to truth than those of its predecessor (see discussion of opium, p. 104). I think the latter point also applies to the information professions: We may find that any one of the “advancements” we make is really a step back, hampering access to information.
With the help of my colleagues’ reviews and Dr. Tomer’s lecture, my views about Kuhn have changed over the last week. While I stand by my assertion that the information professions, like every field, have sets of accepted viewpoints (“paradigms”) at their foundation, I no longer contend that that is Kuhn’s sole applicability. Information Science is, after all, not really a science.
Rather, I believe that Kuhn’s description of incremental advances–and of new paradigms overwriting, if you will, previous work–is relevant to us in our capacity as guardians and gatekeepers of knowledge. A Kuhnian view of progress requires us to remain both vigilant and flexible in our maintenance of the scientific knowledge base; we must catalog the day-to-day work of “normal” knowledge accumulation in every field, particularly science, but we must also be aware that the rules and accepted facts are subject to change. As such, we must struggle to provide the information that daily practitioners of the field will deem relevant, perhaps in addition to previous “advances,” or perhaps instead of them.
I would add that I do not think we can expect to determine, entirely on our own, precisely which scientific information is worth keeping; as Kuhn says, people outside of a sub-field stand little chance of understanding the literature, and even people inside a field cannot predict with certainty which research direction will lead to a paradigm change. Rather, we should maintain a dialog with the experts and seek to improve our collections in collaboration with them.
Kuhn, T.S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
London, S. (2008). Book Review. Retrieved September 9, 2008, from http://www.scottlondon.com/reviews/kuhn.html
Weinberg, S. (1998, October 8). The Revolution That Didn’t Happen [Review of the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions], The New York Review of Books, pp. 48-52.
*As a post-script, separate from my review, I feel it necessary to point out that Kuhn would disagree with my assertion that I am a scientist. My formal training was in engineering (p. 30), and I am female. Both seem to count strongly against me, in his estimation.