OSD 139: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
3D-printed guns and channeling Thomas Kuhn
JStark was a pioneer of the decentralized manufacture of firearms. That’s important for all the well-loved reasons that we like to discuss around here:
The powerful thing about 3D-printed guns is the same thing that’s powerful about the computer network that transmits them (i.e. the Internet): it becomes impossible for centralized decision-makers to keep ideas out of a culture’s information bubble. They’re going to get in, one way or another. And what happens after that will be dictated by how people respond to learning more about the idea. As we’ve dived into before, that tends to go well for gun rights.
Isaac Botkin also did a good podcast episode on this subject.
So from a pro-decentralization, cypherpunk, ”the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it“ lens, we don’t have much new to say about the impact of 3D-printed guns.
There is, however, a different aspect of their impact we can underline. To get there, first a quick diversion into prescription drug development.
And before that: you’ve heard the term “paradigm shift”. People use it when they want a more fun way to say “a big change”. It turns out that it’s actually a technical term, coined by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The book is about what it sounds like it’s about: how scientific revolutions work. Before Kuhn, a naive prevailing view might have been that scientists accumulate observations over time, and new discoveries happen as they replace old, mistaken conclusions with new, correct ones. A less-naive-but-still-prevailing view might have been a little more aggressive, saying that sometimes scientists are just wrong, and then new scientists come along and figure out the mistakes their predecessors were making.
Kuhn’s view was more radical. He said that fundamental advances don’t happen through iterative improvements. They happen when the entire approach — the paradigm — changes. Wikipedia summarizes it well:
Kuhn dated the genesis of his book to 1947, when he was a graduate student at Harvard University and had been asked to teach a science class for humanities undergraduates with a focus on historical case studies. Kuhn later commented that until then, “I’d never read an old document in science.” Aristotle’s Physics was astonishingly unlike Isaac Newton’s work in its concepts of matter and motion. Kuhn wrote “… as I was reading him, Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics, but a dreadfully bad physical scientist as well. About motion, in particular, his writings seemed to me full of egregious errors, both of logic and of observation.” This was in an apparent contradiction with the fact that Aristotle was a brilliant mind. While perusing Aristotle’s Physics, Kuhn formed the view that in order to properly appreciate Aristotle’s reasoning, one must be aware of the scientific conventions of the time. Kuhn concluded that Aristotle’s concepts were not “bad Newton,” just different.
A scientific paradigm isn’t just the particular measurements one takes, or the specific way some studies are designed. It’s the entire toolkit. The terminology, the history, the assumptions, the full corpus of work that everyone’s building on top of.
So, for example, you will never get to the germ theory of disease by running more and more studies on the four bodily humors. They’re different paradigms.
Paradigm shifts are contentious, because they’re inherently hostile and destructive to incumbents. So they rarely come from incumbents. Max Planck summed this up in 1950 like so:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
That quote is more famous in its paraphrased form: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”
There’s a corollary here: if paradigm shifts are how innovation happens, and if only rebels produce paradigm shifts, then any domain which snuffs out rebels will also snuff out innovation.
There’s a fun illustration of this called Eroom’s law. Well, “fun” may not be the word once you see what it is, but hey, the name is definitely pretty fun. Eroom. It’s Moore — as in Moore’s law — backwards.
Moore’s law is Gordon Moore’s observation that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years — i.e. chips are getting better at O(2^n).
Eroom’s law is the observation that the cost of developing new pharmaceutical drugs has been doubling every nine years — i.e. drug discovery is getting worse at O(2^n).
2^n grows quickly. You want that curve to be working for you, not against you.
This is why 3D-printed guns are important. Yes, for all the freedom reasons. But critically, also for product reasons. Modern firearms are 100-year-old technology. Over that century, sure, there have been advances in materials science and manufacturing (themselves driven by paradigm shifts in those fields!). And those advances have been used to stack up incremental firearm design improvements, such that a gun from 2021 is in every way superior to a gun from 1921. But fundamentally, the two guns work exactly the same way.
In 2031 or 2041 or beyond, maybe that will no longer be true. Whoever makes it untrue, it’s not going to be some big company we’ve all already heard of. It’s going to be a startup, a rebel who probably doesn’t even exist yet. Maybe they’ll do it via 3D printing, or maybe they’ll find some other path. But like any rebel, their path won’t be one that’s pre-approved by the incumbents.
That’s the greatest value of 3D-printed guns, and of JStark’s work. They’re a reminder that the pre-approved path is not where the most important discoveries live.
This week’s links
Glass half empty: you’re stuck in a dystopian battle royale to the death.
Glass half full: you get to ogle the guards’ MP5s all day.
(Side note: if you didn’t know the Internet Movie Firearms Database exists, now you know. Some strong entries: John Wick 1, Sicario, and of course Heat, because James from TFB would rightly be mad at us if we didn’t include it.)
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