19 Jan 2008, 1:14pm
by admin

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”:

It holds that fire is biologically constructed, that its integration occurs within the organic medium that propagates it, that its fundamentals reside in the living world. Life creates fuel, life creates oxygen, life through ecological and evolutionary selection sculpts the essential conditions that make fire possible. Fire’s core chemistry is a biochemistry that takes apart what photosynthesis puts together. … The issue is not whether fire is “natural” but what kind of natural process it is.

The second alternative paradigm Pyne presents is the “cultural paradigm”.

It says that fire’s fundamentals reside within us. Humanity has become the primary means for shaping fire regimes globally and is apparently even warping climate, that ultimate expression of physical constraints. It says that fire studied apart from human practices is meaningless, that our problems with fire, be they too much or too little, whether a million-acre burn is deemed a disaster or an ecological marvel, are culturally conditioned. Even what we choose to study (or not) and how we choose to study it is a cultural call. The integration of the physical and biological parameters occurs, that is, within institutions and the realm of ideas.

Pyne then compares the three paradigms by speculating how each might work in a (not so) hypothetical situation:

By way of illustration, consider how each might address the megafires that have blistered our planet over the past 15 years. The physical paradigm might liken those fires to a tsunami, an expression of geophysical forces, primarily climatic, over which humanity has scant control… The biological paradigm might, instead, liken those outbreaks to an emergent plague such as avian flu, the outcome of broken biotas… The cultural paradigm would note that almost all of these disturbances have resulted from human land-usage or changes in institutions … It would seek remediation through modifying human behavior and understanding, which is to say, how we define and respond to the problem.

Then Pyne takes an unexpected turn. He does not attempt to reconcile the three paradigms. Indeed, he says, they cannot be reconciled because the physical paradigm will win every interdisciplinary battle. He eschews the cultural paradigm and selects the biological one to armor up and go it alone toe-to-toe with the physical paradigm.

What I do urge is a lusty attempt to center fire within biology. … What is needed is to assert that in its essence it is biologically constructed and to elaborate that proposition into a unifying theory that can range from genes to the biosphere. Today fire remains a sidebar in the life sciences. It should be on the commanding heights.

I part company here with Dr. Pyne, with all due respect, etc. I agree that fire is fundamentally a biological process, but the biological paradigm must include forest science, wildlife science, and all the other biologically-oriented disciplines. Firefighters, by and large, are not biologists and cannot re-invent biology. Instead they must serve biology and operate within biological imperatives. I also think the cultural paradigm must be included. Today all fires and forests occur within a cultural context; no forest or fire is isolated and apart from human concern and influence.

The biological paradigm would be more attractive if biology, and specifically ecology, was not so handicapped by its basic axioms. Modern (Old Paradigm) forest ecology has summarily ignored and denied the effects over millennia of human beings upon the planetary biota. Anthropogenic impacts are not folk tales or amorphous scholarship but scholarly scientific inferences drawn from hard empirical evidence. Ecology is or should be an historical science. The changes in plant communities during the Holocene have been human mediated. Ecology needs to grasp that empirical fact.

Kuhn’s theory is that Science itself has little structure, when you peel away the outer layers of the onion. There is no single path to knowledge. However, sure signs of an ailing paradigm are anomalies, phenomena that the established view cannot explain. When the anomalies build up, the paradigm shifts, tipped over by the burden of its own inability to explain the world as it exists. Paradigm shifts are not imposed by scientists upon Science, although they are often struggled against. Instead, shift happens, regardless of individual intentions pro or con.

The biological paradigm is shifting as I write. The evidence of human impact on species, landscapes, and the entire biosphere over a very long time, deep into prehistoric eras, is too voluminous to deny any longer. Human impact has produced anomalies, such as old-growth stands that were once open and park-like due to anthropogenic fire, that the Old Ecological Paradigm, lacking any recognition of human impact, cannot explain. It is those evident anomalies that are defuncting the Old Paradigm.

When the biology paradigm finishes shifting, and accepts the empirical reality of human influence, then maybe fire science will fit. In other words, when it is accepted that the physical paradigm and the cultural paradigm both have a biological basis, and that the “natural” biota has had lengthy human cultural impact via anthropogenic fire, then we will be able to understand fire as a quasi-biological, quasi-cultural phenomenon.

In truth, I don’t really feel like I part company with Dr. Pyne on these points. His view of science may be slightly more nuanced than mine, however. In his own words:

I’m not a scientist. I did most of my graduate work in the history of science, however - was first hired as a historian of science, wrote a biography of a scientist for my first book, and do have opinions about how science works.

Or not. Its saving grace is that it must deal with the Real World Out There (RWOT): at some point it has to ground-truth, even it never gets to the Prime Mover Unmoved. That’s not the case with other scholarships, and is the reason why I gravitated to environmental history because it must allot nature a genuine presence. It remains a culturally constructed echo chamber.

But I don’t consider science as secular revelation. I have little patience with the positivists that infest most natural-resource departments and agencies-they belong with other ideologues (including many environmentalists) that are the fundamentalists of the culture. When someone begins demanding categorically that “science says,” I start looking for an exit. I regard them as evangelicals of secularism, forever denouncing and damning and speaking in tongues. I’m at heart a Jamesian pragmatist. Truth is too slippery, even for science. Which is why I regard academic freedom as non-negotiable. Unless we have a democracy of ideas, even a pragmatic, working truth is beyond us.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta