Strong-Point Defense

 This map features standard military symbols for a strong-point defense. It represents infantry and anti-tank units dug in within a circle, with perimeter screening from a cavalry unit, prepared to hold their position at all costs. (It’s sometimes called the “die in place” defense.)

Elsewhere in this book, we look at a case of irrationality (Owen v Crumbaugh), where a father changed his last will and testament to endow spiritualist enterprises, including their practice of séances. But a measure of irrationality has been at play, through the years, in so august a sector as the sciences, and Thomas Kuhn put the matter on the table with his 1970s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argued that science didn’t progress by building a great wall of wisdom, with current insights resting on those of early scientists, rows of bricks resting on rows of bricks, all the way down. Instead, it proceeded by a series of revolutions as one model (“paradigm”) was overthrown by another.

In The Fabric of the Heavens, Stephen Toulmin provided a case in point. In Aristotle’s day, astronomers were convinced that everything in the heavens was round, whether in terms of spherical bodies or circular orbits. But careful observations, night after night, revealed a problem, an anomaly or failure at lawlikeness. The planet Mars wasn’t behaving. When they connected the dots (say, concerning the position of Mars at midnight on successive evenings), they found an elliptical loop-the-loop instead of an orderly run along a wide arc. But instead of saying that they were wrong about necessary roundness since Mars did non-round things, they doubled-down on roundness, postulating a variety of circles within circles with off-centered points to generate astronomical whirligigs to keep the theory intact. It sort of worked on paper, but things got so unwieldy that, by the time Kepler suggested that some heavenly movement was elliptical (as when planets sling-shotted around the sun and took long trips into space before gravity took over and they returned for another sling-shot). Furthermore, Kepler’s model helped lay to rest the notion that the earth rather than the sun lay at the center of things. (The earlier confusion kept them from realizing that the retrograde motion of Mars was really a matter of perspective, of parallax, as earth overtook Mars in its obit.)

One might think that the old scientists would simply say, “Oops. Never mind. Sorry. Now I get it.” Rather, they dig in and defend their original system to the end. As Kuhn quotes Nobel physicist Max Planck to say, the scientific ruling class pretty much has to die off before the transition can come. After all, they’ve invested their whole lives in one way of thinking, and they’ll fight tooth and nail on behalf of their convictions, their grants, their honor, their professional prerogatives, and their legacy, never admitting that they’ve been leading their students and the public on a snipe hunt all along.

Some of this is good. You don’t toss off your deep commitments lightly. Indeed, you spend your whole life defending them against all sorts of gainsayers and critics. (Christians should be as familiar as anyone with the need for perennial apologetics, and no single observation, e.g., the death of a child despite the parents’ prayers, should cause you to say, “Well, I guess God isn’t good or all-powerful after all.”) But there may come a time when you need to throw in the towel and consider that what you thought was an “inference to the best explanation” (IBE) didn’t get you to the best explanation after all. Of course, some do this, but a lot fight to the finish. Not strictly rational, but such are the creatures we are, notwithstanding all our degrees and awards and notoriety.