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The saber saw, the ashtray, and other stories of misbehaving profs

- April 3, 2011

This recent story of a wacky psychology professor reminds me of this old story of a wacky psychology professor.

This story of a wacky philosophy professor reminds me of a course I almost took at MIT. I was looking through the course catalog one day and saw that Thomas Kuhn was teaching a class in the philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn–wow! So I enrolled in the class. I only sat through one session before dropping it, though. Kuhn just stood up there and mumbled.

At the time, this annoyed me a little. In retrospect, though, it made more sense. I’m sure he felt he had better things to do with his life than teach classes. And MIT was paying him whether or not he did a good job teaching, so it’s not like he was breaking his contract or anything. (Given the range of instructors we had at MIT, it was always a good idea to make use of the shopping period at the beginning of the semester. I had some amazing classes but only one or two really bad ones. Mostly I dropped the bad ones after a week or two.)

Thinking about the philosophies of Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper, etc., one thing that strikes me is how much easier it is to use their ideas now that they’re long gone. Instead of having to wrestle with every silly think that Kuhn or Popper said, we can just pick out the ideas we find useful. For example, my colleagues and I can use the ideas of paradigms and of the fractal nature of scientific revolutions without needing to get annoyed at Kuhn’s gestures in the direction of denying scientific reality.

P.S. Morris also mentioned that Kuhn told him, “Under no circumstances are you to go to those lectures” by a rival philosopher. Which reminds me of when I asked one of my Ph.D. students at Berkeley why he chose to work with me. He told me that Prof. X had told him not to take my course and Prof. Y had made fun of Bayesian statistics in his class. At this point the student got curious. . . . and the rest is history (or, at least, Mister P).