Puzzles and Normal Science

The best paper that ever wrote was one in which not just my thesis but the entire premise of my argument was wrong. It was for a “Economic Organization of Ancient Complex Societies,” and I wanted to argue that structural similarities existed between the temple-centered redistributive economies of Sumer et al and the Church-centered redistributive economies of late antiquity. Given the paucity of evidence for late antique economic practices, the wealth of well-preserved cuneiform tablets could provide some indication of the mechanics of religiously based redistribution of essential foodstuffs, developing a model that could then be productively applied to the late antique Church.

As I said though, I was totally wrong.

Why do I then consider it my best paper? It’s because of a fundamental problem I have noticed in the majority of my work, a problem that I was first able to name—and so first really see—when I recently read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In brief, Kuhn argues that ‘normal science’ operates within a given framework of assumptions and ideas that structure knowledge in such a way that certain questions can be asked. Without this structure—a scientific paradigm—there can be no rigorous scientific investigation.

My problem is that I operate within miniature paradigms every time I write a paper, and like Kuhn’s ‘normal science,’ the process of writing these papers becomes in essence nothing more than a puzzle. I pick a thesis—based usually on a combination of a theoretical work and a few historical examples—and try either to apply the theoretical model to the examples or use the examples to problematize the theory.

A concrete case: I wrote a paper, also one of my best, for Arnold Davidson’s class “Self-Transformation and Political Resistance: Michel Foucault, Pierre Hadot, Primo Levi, Martin Luther King.” I argued, against Hadot, that the promise of an eternal reward meant that early Christian martyrdom could not be phenomenologically equated with a tradition of philosophical truth telling going back to Socrates. It was a good paper—but it was, in a sense, just academic puzzle solving. I had a case study and a theory, and I used the former to problematize one aspect of the latter. 

Given that I was, as far as I can tell, right in that second paper, why do I think that the comparative economic paper—one in which I was definitely wrong—was the better one? 

Well, it’s because I realized I was wrong.  Two days before the paper was due my thesis went from “we can productively compare X and Y” to “despite superficial similarities, X and Y are not comparable.” The puzzle broke. It didn’t fit together. And I had the intellectual humility and flexibility to a) realize that I was wrong and b) accept that and move on.

This ties in with the other book that changed the way I think about studying history, one I wrote about in this space a while ago: a book about Karl Popper. Popper argues that we need not try to prove ourselves right—that the way to do real productive scientific work is to prove our theories wrong. That’s how you move from paradigm based normal science to really making something new, how you move from puzzles to progress. 

And it’s something I’ve only done once. Only one time in my life have a realized that, try as I might, I couldn’t neatly tie up the evidence I had gathered into 8, 10, 15, or 80 pages. I had started with a thesis, had collected data to support it, but those data in fact disproved my thesis. I had moved past looking for the pieces that would fit my puzzle and begun to look at what image the pieces actually wanted to form. And the hope is that that image is, in some sense, the truth.

© Henry Gruber 2013