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Have you heard of something called “paradigm shift”?
Of course you have: it’s mentioned in every second “Big Bang Theory” episode.
Well, this is the book where that phrase was first invented:
Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”
Who Should Read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”? And Why?
“When it was first published in 1962,” – states the blurb on the 50th-anniversary edition of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” – it was a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science. Fifty years later, it still has many lessons to teach.
In other words, this is a landmark book: one that has changed the way we understand a certain thing once and for all, and one that will, most probably, never get old.
It is required reading in most curricula for students of philosophy, history, or science. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of thought or how progress happens.
About Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American philosopher of science, historian, and physicist, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He is most famous for his 1962 landmark study, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which not only radically changed the way humans think about scientific progress, but it also questioned the very concept of “objectivity” in the world of science.
Kuhn’s other books include “The Copernican Revolution” and “Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912.”
He died from lung cancer at the age of 73, on June 17, 1996.
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions PDF Summary”
Since science organizes our knowledge of the world “in the form of testable explanations,” it’s only natural that one assumes that its progress is incremental.
In other words, if an explanation is scientific, that means that it is essentially true, which, in turn, implies that every other explanation must not be contradictory to it and merely build upon and add to the already established knowledge.
However, that doesn’t explain how Ernst Mach was able to resurrect Leibniz’s explanations of space and time and, even less, how, once Einstein came along, suddenly none of the previously existent scientific theories were correct?
What about the centuries between?
What about the geocentric universe and the ether theories? Some of the greatest minds in histories believed and tried testing those? How did they end up being mere myths?
If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths,” interrupts Thomas Kuhn, “then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.
Wait a second!
That’s a bit controversial, isn’t it?
Because doesn’t that imply that some of our existent scientific theories may be about as correct explanations of life and the universe as Lamarckism and pre-Copernicus models of the cosmos?
Interestingly enough, as Kuhn convincingly argues, it does.
(But hold your horses there, buddy: evolution is here to stay!)
Now, how can that be?
Well, to understand Kuhn’s explanation better, you must first do away completely with your preconceived ideas of what it means to be a scientific innovator.
Because, if history has taught us anything, an innovator isn’t someone who works with a specific goal in mind: most innovations actually happen by mistake.
And there’s a reason for that!
You see, to become a scientist, you need to study a lot. And what is studying if not acquiring the wisdom of your predecessors.
Kuhn calls this wisdom a scientific paradigm, a phrase he uses to refer to the shared framework of knowledge and accepted theories a new scientist operates within. This framework is vast and highly networked, but it is never capable of encompassing everything.
It is in the gaps of the existent framework where most of the normal science happens.
Normal science – writes Kuhn – the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.
Or to explain this in an even more vivid manner:
Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.
Put simply, most scientists do experiments the results of which they can guess in advance; that’s why most experiments start with a hypothesis.
As Thomas Kuhn says, “The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not… just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly.”
In case you think any differently, just ask yourself: would you be granted any money from a respected scientific fund if you proposed an experiment which should prove that we live in a simulated universe and that we are basically just characters in a game?
No, you’ll have to start a Kickstarter campaign to do that – because the existing scientific paradigm says that something like that is all but impossible.
Which brings us to the main point of Kuhn’s book:
Unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can emerge only to the extent that [an innovator’s] anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong… There is no other effective way in which discoveries might be generated.
To give you an example of this:
A few years back, scientists at the CERN research center in Geneva – more or less established to experimentally prove Einstein’s theory of relativity – announced that they had managed to observe faster-than-light neutrinos!
In the existing Einsteinian scientific paradigm – the one which has helped organize our existing knowledge so well – there is no such thing as speeds faster than light.
So, the observation had to be either an anomalous one or one which proves Einstein wrong.
Many scientists vehemently claimed the former, since the latter would mean that we are operating within a wrong scientific paradigm.
In the end, it turned out that they were right, but many times in history the conservative scientific parties end up on the losing side.
In other words, the anomaly questions the existing scientific paradigm and ushers a new era, the era of extraordinary science.
If proven right by the revolutionaries, then the anomaly becomes the basis of a new scientific paradigm, and a paradigm shift occurs.
Now, suddenly, there’s a new jigsaw puzzle waiting to be solved, and scientists start using their old instruments to see new things.
It’s like that duck-rabbit illusion: once an anomaly inaugurates a paradigm shift, scientists start seeing the same information in a completely different manner.
And they reshape the world.
Key Lessons from “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”
1. Scientific Progress Is Not Incremental
2. Paradigm Shifts Are the Result of an Anomaly
3. Novices, Science Welcomes Your Amateurism
Scientific Progress Is Not Incremental
Science is not linear accumulation of knowledge.
It’s, in fact, progressing in leaps – from one paradigm to another.
The moment Copernicus appeared, the geocentric model was made obsolete; but once we understood the structure of the Milky Way, Copernicus’ heliocentric model was suddenly unscientific as well.
Paradigm Shifts Are the Result of an Anomaly
Most of the time, scientist work within an existing paradigm – a shared body of knowledge, a framework of accepted theories – trying to fill in the existing gaps via experiments.
But once they encounter an anomaly, they are incited to reconsider the existing paradigm.
And that’s when paradigm shifts – radical changes – occur!
Novices, Science Welcomes Your Amateurism
If paradigm shifts happen only when an existing paradigm is questioned, then scientific progress may depend largely on the unconservative novices:
Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.
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Our Critical Review
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” caused great controversy very soon after it was published since many felt that science is much more objective and scientific than Thomas Kuhn’s book suggests. And even half a century later, numerous scholars keep questioning its core concepts.
However, many others believe that Thomas Kuhn’s book has radically and irretrievably changed the way the world looks at science and that, consequently, it produced the paradigm shift it discusses.
If you’re making a list of books to read before you die,” – the latter think – “Kuhn’s masterwork is one.
We agree with them.