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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ()


Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

    THESIS: Scientific disciplines, once they have emerged from the pre-paradigmatic stage, undergo
    periods of "normal science" which allow them to obtain a high degree of precision and progress
    rapidly. Normal science is dependent on the adoption of a universally accepted paradigm which
    defines research problems for the scientist, tells him/her what to expect, and provides the methods
    that s/he will use in solving them. However, in the course of research, scientists inevitably stumble
    upon anomalies which the paradigm is unable to explain. If the paradigm repeatedly fails to explain
    the anomaly, a crisis ensues and alternative theories develop. Eventually a competing theory proves
    relatively successful in explaining the anomaly and it replaces the old paradigm. This replacement is
    Kuhn's "scientific revolution." Initially, the scientific community resists the replacement, but with
    time the success of the new paradigm gains enough support to win out. According to Kuhn, the
    adoption of a new paradigm necessarily establishes the creation of new research problems,
    methods, and expected results. The scientists within the discipline thus sees the world in a different
    way than it "was" under the old paradigm. Once the old paradigm is replaced and the revolution has
    ended, normal science reemerges only to await the discovery of new anomalies.
           -SYNOPSIS: Prof. John Dowell at Bowling Green

There, that was certainly easier than going through the exercise of coming up with my own version of Kuhn's argument.  Just a quick perusal of the resources on the Internet indicates that there are two general bases of attack on Kuhn.  First, there is a semantic attack because he is somewhat lackadaisical in his use of the term paradigm.  Some nitwit has actually counted 21 different definitions for it in this one book.  Big whoop!  I think it is, or should be, generally accepted that we know what he means; a paradigm is basically the accepted wisdom of a society as it pertains to one area of knowledge--it is the prevailing explanation for something.

Second, many scientists attack him on the basis that his theory is too cynical, implying as it does that scientific theories are simply temporarily useful utilities for explaining things.  And since, on some level, we are always awaiting the next paradigm shift, this theory undermines our confidence in their work.  This, it strikes me, is precisely what makes Kuhn's theory so valuable.  Like Karl Popper he has laid down a challenge to science.  In the heady days of the Enlightenment, The Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution, it was argued that it was possible that all of existence would yield to human reason and science would explain everything to us.  Personally, I feel that this is true and we will eventually reach such a stage.  But what Popper and Kuhn combined to do was to remind how far we are from such a point and to demonstrate the importance of doubting the current models of thought.  Some scientists would like us to believe that they are discovering abstract truth; this is simply not the case.  Science provides us with the best current explanation for things, not with truth.

Now Kuhn and Popper are also challenged in regards to whether history has actually followed their theories.  Have scientific revolutions really followed the incremental paths that Kuhn describes?  I don't honestly know the answer to that question.  But it seems to me that his idea of a paradigm shift, taken metaphorically, does fit with our intuition about how a society's view of big issues evolves.  Take Welfare Reform as an example.  For 50 years the received wisdom of the elites was that government spending would alleviate poverty and provide the necessary stopgap to tide people over so that they could get jobs.  Government agencies and liberal colleges spent millions of dollars on studies to show that this system was working.  Even as research and observation steadily ate away at that notion and conservative critics began to question the system, the establishment clung tenaciously to the outmoded model.  As competing theories were tried in states like Wisconsin and met with success, the public simply lost faith in the assurances of the bureaucracy and President Clinton was forced to adopt the conservative's competition model or be left on the dust heap of history.  The paradigm had shifted and the revolution occurred.

It may be that Kuhn's thesis, like any of the paradigmatic systems of the past, will be disproved or has so many anomalies that it too will be discarded.  But it certainly seems that, for now,  it is a useful way of understanding how revolutions in our understanding of the world around us come about.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Thomas Kuhn Links:
    -BIO: Thomas Kuhn
    -BIO: Thomas Kuhn: Biography
    -OBIT: Thomas Kuhn, Devised Science Paradigm (Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times)
    -SYNOPSIS: Prof. John Dowell at Bowling Green.
    -Outline and Study Guide  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
    -SYNOPSIS: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn (Professor Frank Pajares)
    -Thomas Kuhn: Paradigms Die Hard (Harvard Science Review)
    -PROFILE : of Thomas S. Kuhn : Coming to Blows Over How Valid Science Really Is (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)
    -Philosophy of Science & Information Technology:   A Tribute to Thomas Kuhn
    -ESSAY: On Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Imran Javaid, Harvard Science Review)
    -ESSAY: The Revolution That Didn't Happen  (STEVEN WEINBERG, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions; Thomas Kuhn
    -ESSAY:  Thomas Kuhn's irrationalism (James Franklin, New Criterion)
    -SCIENCE Friday (REAL AUDIO): Thomas Kuhn and Scientific Revolutions
    -Thomas Kuhn (Andreas Ehrencrona)
    -REVIEW: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  (STEVEN HODAS, Princeton Review)
    -REVIEW: of Thomas S. Kuhn Ã� The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Ã�(1962) (Daniel P. Moloney, First Things)
    -Philosophy of Science: Kuhn (Shifting Science)
    -REVIEW: of Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History  for Our Times by Steve Fuller (CHET RAYMO, Scientific American)

GENERAL:
    -Philosophy of Science: Popper (Shifting Science)
    -Karl Popper Web (1902-94)
    -Scientific Progress, Relativism, and Self-Refutation (Tim McGrew, Washington State University)
    -REVIEW: of Scientific Change edited by A.C. Crombie (Ernest Nagel, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of   Karl Popper by Bryan Magee (Peter Singer, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Revolution in Science by I. Bernard Cohen  (Ian Hacking, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : How ideas change (David Warsh, Boston Globe)

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