19 Jan 2008, 1:14pm
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The Wrath of Kuhn

Pyne, Stephen J. The Wrath of Kuhn: Meditations on Fire Philosophy. Informal talk presented to Association of Fire Ecology, November, 2006.

Full text [here]

Review by Mike Dubrasich

The paper’s title is a pun, a play on words (Steve Pyne is partial to puns, see his satirical novelette, Brittlebush Valley [here]). The Wrath of KAhn is a StarTrek movie featuring Ricardo Montalban as an angry Klingon. The wrathful KUhn in Pyne’s title is Dr. Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and popularizer of the notions of scientific paradigms and paradigm shifts.

The titular jest is an apology of sorts, because although Pyne bemoans the overuse and misuse of Kuhn’s concepts,

[C]alls for paradigm shifts are a cliché of our times, and deserve the righteous wrath of Thomas Kuhn.

he more or less calls for a paradigm shift in the scientific study of fire.

Sidenote: If any wrath is forthcoming, it will be from Thomas Kuhn’s ghost, because the Greatest Philosopher of the Post-Modern Era merged with the Infinite in 1996 at the age of 75.

Pyne’s essay is sparkling and brief, as befits a good speech, but it is also very profound. In The Wrath of Kuhn he examines three parallel but contrasting paradigms in fire science. The first is the physical view of fire. This is the dominant paradigm today:

Fire is a chemical reaction, the rapid oxidation of hydrocarbons, shaped by the parameters of its physical environment. These determine how the zone of combustion moves about the landscape. From this premise all other fire scholarship and fire practices arise. …

So dominant are these beliefs that I am willing to assert that few now among us can imagine any other configurations.

Pyne can, however, and does offer two others. The first alternative paradigm he presents is the “biological paradigm”:

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