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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at 50

A review at TNA:

Fifty years ago, Thomas Kuhn, then a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, released a thin volume entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn challenged the traditional view of science as an accumulation of objective facts toward an ever more truthful understanding of nature. Instead, he argued, what scientists discover depends to a large extent on the sorts of questions they ask, which in turn depend in part on scientists’ philosophical commitments. Sometimes, the dominant scientific way of looking at the world becomes obviously riddled with problems; this can provoke radical and irreversible scientific revolutions that Kuhn dubbed “paradigm shifts” — introducing a term that has been much used and abused. Paradigm shifts interrupt the linear progression of knowledge by changing how scientists view the world, the questions they ask of it, and the tools they use to understand it. Since scientists’ worldview after a paradigm shift is so radically different from the one that came before, the two cannot be compared according to a mutual conception of reality. Kuhn concluded that the path of science through these revolutions is not necessarily toward truth but merely away from previous error. . .

The argument of Structure is not especially complicated. Kuhn held that the historical process of science is divided into three stages: a “normal” stage, followed by “crisis” and then “revolutionary” stages. The normal stage is characterized by a strong agreement among scientists on what is and is not scientific practice. In this stage, scientists largely agree on what are the questions that need answers. Indeed, only problems that are recognized as potentially having solutions are considered scientific. So it is in the normal stage that we see science progress not toward better questions but better answers. The beginning of this period is usually marked by a solution that serves as an example, a paradigm, for further research . . .

A crisis occurs when an existing theory involves so many unsolved puzzles, or “anomalies,” that its explanatory ability becomes questionable. Scientists begin to consider entirely new ways of examining the data, and there is a lack of consensus on which questions are important scientifically. Problems that had previously been left to other, non-scientific fields may now come into view as potentially scientific.

Eventually, a new exemplary solution emerges. This new solution will be “incommensurable” — another key term in Kuhn’s thesis — with the former paradigm, meaning not only that the two paradigms are mutually conflicting, but that they are asking different questions, and to some extent speaking different scientific languages. Such a revolution inaugurates a new period of normal science.

Hmmm, any of this sound familiar?

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25 Responses to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at 50

  1. Anyone want to buy an autographed copy?

    It’ll be my autograph, but what the hey, that’s worth something, right?

  2. Haven’t read the full review, but the quoted portion above is spot on. Excellent insights.

    Mung @1: LOL!

  3. There is no paradigm shift!!
    Its just a exalted way of saying/trying to avoid saying smart people doing science collectively were wrong.
    Kuhn is like fonzie! he can’t admit ‘scientists” were wrong!
    The few people thinking about a subject just failed in imagination or basic investigative abilities.

    There is no such unique humanoid category of thought called science.
    Science is a verb and not a noun!
    All there is IS people thinking about things and proving their conclusions this way or that way. Accumulation of data or experiments or committees of truth.
    The latter backs up evolution etc.

    These revolutions are just a few knowledgable people, in that subject, correcting a few other knowledgable people in the subject.
    Everybody else can’t take the credit for the revolution or the discredit for not seeing it coming.

    It shows why ID and YEC thinkers easily can be already seen as the revolutionaries of a old error.
    Its unlikely, especially ID researchers, could possibly exist and thrive if evolution etc was a scientific theory and that well supported.
    Well degree-ed people in the ID movement couldn’t be wrong if creditials matter as thinking scientists.
    The old guard know this is unlikely and so MUST attack ID thinkers as not real scientists/dumb or as liars.
    These charges are in fact the evidence that evolutionists are discomforted just by ID academic credentials alone before the merits of the case even are addressed.

    I’m saying probability math is powerfully in the creationists favour in these times.
    A paradigm shift is coming with 15 years I think or sooner.

  4. OT: CMI’s latest video features an interview with Dr. John Sanford:

    Genetic Mutation – Magnificent Modifier or Mega Meltdown? – video
    http://creation.com/creation-tv?fileID=9IfV5iRQbIU

    Special guest, former atheistic evolutionist Dr John Sanford provides remarkable insights into new discoveries in genetics,,,.

  5. Great book, just glanced across at my copy. Well worth revisiting. A key chapter is here, and Wiki provides a good enough overview here, though of course they cannot but snipe at “creationists.” Which is of course a sign of their favoured paradigm being in unacknowledged crisis, as in Denton’s key book is an echo. KF

  6. Great article. Hey guys! Long time no see =)

    Hey Kairos, do you mind if I shoot you an email on something that might be post-worthy?

  7. Hi Paul! See you Monday?

  8. PN: Go right ahead. KF

  9. Hey Mung! Not if I see you first! HA!

  10. Email en route Kairos!

  11. All of this reminds one of the Idealist view of Hegel: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis.

    Of course Darwinism has already gone through this process at least once with the emergence of the “Modern Synthesis”, having weathered the storm of Mendelian genetics.

    Now it’s the storm of biological complexity that Darwinism faces. I think that the efforts of Michael Behe, in particular, have pushed Darwinism to the breaking point.

    Just a few days ago there was an article review about particular breeds of pigeons. It turns out that a rather dramatic phenotypic character is the result of a “single” a.a. substitution/mutation. For Darwin, this was almost proof of “evolution.” Yet, from a molecular biology point of view, this is almost incidental change. Behe’s malarial parasite study, revealing that but TWO a.a. substitutions account for the acquired resistance to chloroquine, is damning evidence for Darwinism: no changing frequencies among populations (a la the ‘Modern Synthesis’), but simple molecular changes, which leave an infinite ocean of complexity unchanged. It’s like explaining the origins of a Boeing 747 by explaining how the name, “Air Alaska”, came to be painted on its body.

    Today, another study showing that insect ‘diversity’ appears to be much less today than 60 million years ago appears. Per Darwin, it should either be more, or, at least the same; yet, per notions of “genetic entropy” and such—i.e., the notion that knowledge can deteriorate, but not accumulate, randomly—we discover even more evidence of the feebleness of the once mighty theory of Darwin.

    Crisis time it is. But “synthesis” is only marginally possible here. So, forget Hegel. Instead, let’s hear it for Kuhn’s coming “revolution”!!

    Another day; another bad day for Darwinism!!!

  12. 12
    Kantian Naturalist

    Except that Hegel is explicitly committed to a fairly demanding notion of progress, and Kuhn is implicitly committed to denying it.

  13. ““synthesis” is only marginally possible here. So, forget Hegel. Instead, let’s hear it for Kuhn’s coming “revolution”!!

    That would make one a wanna-be ‘revolutionary.’ Is it time to read “Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare” by Alexis de Tocqueville?

    “Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them.”

    Kuhn’s view of ‘paradigm shifts’ can also be understood in an ‘evolutionary,’ rather than a ‘revolutionary’ framework. This is one of the amazing contradictions of Kuhn’s work, which is reminiscent of the ‘essential tension’ he advocated. I had a discussion with 3 distinguished professors in St. Petersburg when I first heard that approach to Kuhn and post-Kuhnian views.

    Indeed, it is one of the strange ironies of the IDM that Kuhn was an atheist, that the IDM’s PR claims not to care about religion/worldview, and that a vast majority of ID advocates are Kuhnians! This is seemingly because they want to be revolutionaries in democratic America. Soon perhaps atheists will come to dominate the IDM, almost completely reversing the current make-up of the Discovery Institute and its right-wing, fundamentalist base of support.

    “Bill Dembski is, above all, a revolutionary.” – Charles W. Coulson (Foreword to “The Design Revolution,” 2004)

    IDists are being and have been indoctrinated to believe that ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’ theory represents a ‘revolution’ in natural science. Isn’t that what most posters at Uncommon Descent think?

    Yet the Discovery Institute believes in “the evolution of [C.S] Lewis’s views.” And Dembski believes in ‘technological evolution,’ following the work of Kazakh engineer Genrich Altshuller. (While, ironically, the Russians speak at length about the mid-century ‘scientific and technological revolution,’ in their literature.)

    So on the one hand, this paradox allows IDists to say “ID is not anti-evolutionary.” Otoh, it shows that IDists are most probably not nearly as ‘revolutionary’ as they seem to think. They are just as ‘evolutionary’ as everyone else; advocating gradual, slight modifications, trial and error, etc.

    And if we look at things differently than using ‘synthesis,’ then ‘synergy,’ ‘symbiosis’ and ‘mutual aid’ become ripe topics, even if they fundamentally, and to the core of people’s supra-scientific identities, go against the tide of most American social-economic-geo-political theories. America is mainly a thesis-anti-thesis (e.g. USSR, ‘with us or against us,’ China, etc.) nation in its global relations. But that’s probably going beyond the scope of what’s been offered so far regarding Kuhn’s American HPS.

  14. For those who don’t trust anything that anti-Big-IDists say, here’s an ‘external’ source re: Kuhn’s atheism:

    Kuhn was an atheist/agnostic

    All the better, more ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ for IDists to depend so heavily on his ‘paradigm shift’ theory of natural science, even if he didn’t personally believe in an Intelligent Designer!

  15. Correction: G. Altshuller was born in Uzbekistan, not Kazakhstan.

    Dembski following, i.e. depending for his chosen language, on a Uzbek-Soviet instead of a Kazakh-Soviet in promoting the idea of ‘technological evolution’ is surely not such a grave oversight that I’ve made in the views of most (neo-Cold War) ‘westerners’! ;)

    What’s the difference amongst the ‘Stans’ anyway?! Dembski nevertheless accepts and even promotes ‘technological evolution’ (“Are We Spiritual Machines?” Discovery Institute, 2002), but does not give a clear ‘edge of evolution’ in his explanations of supposed ‘technological revolution’ in his works. Big-IDists can supposedly still be flip-flop ‘evolutionists’ and ‘anti-evolutionists’ too!

    p.s. recent news: the ISCID encyclopedia, one of the previous research hopes of the IDM, in which Dembski claimed “The theory of [small-id] intelligent design is rapidly gaining advocates at the highest level of the academy, both in the humanities and in the sciences. (To see this, refer to http://www.iscid.org)” has apparently now been closed or is off-line. An entry I wrote on Altshuller and TRIZ was posted there.

  16. F/N: Onlookerd, remember G’s accounts are to be taken with a grain of salt, about 6″ on the side, starting with his characerisation of versions of ID with whatever capitalisation. Most of us do not fit into his pigeonholes, and he has been told this but ignores it as he continues with his preferred talking points. As to the relevance of where the founder of TRIZ was born, that is utterly tangential. TRIZ does now and has for several decades provided a useful context and point of departure to analyse technological evolution, and even as a guide to design. Kuhn has provided a watershed moment in the history of phil of sci, and whether we take him or we move on beyond him, we are all influenced by him. I am partial myself to Lakatos’ ideas about research programmes and armour belts, with protected cores that can be the explosive magazines a la British Battle Cruisers at Jutland. There are of course many other relevant contributions. KF

  17. Gregory:

    Indeed, it is one of the strange ironies of the IDM that Kuhn was an atheist, that the IDM’s PR claims not to care about religion/worldview, and that a vast majority of ID advocates are Kuhnians!

    YAY! Yet another meaningless label from Gregory.

    Gregory, is there some reason you cannot discuss ID without attaching labels to everyone?

  18. Gregory:

    IDists are being and have been indoctrinated to believe that ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’ theory represents a ‘revolution’ in natural science. Isn’t that what most posters at Uncommon Descent think?

    Not really. Teleology pervades biology. Always has, always will. No revolution required.

  19. Kuhnian = people in the school of Thomas Kuhn. Not that complicated.

    As if ‘Mung’ didn’t understand that Darwinian = people in the school of Darwin!?

    And we don’t write ‘kuhnian’ with a small ‘k’ because it’s a proper name. ;)

    Elevate!

  20. Shouldn’t there be an ‘ism’ attached?

  21. Indeed, it is one of the strange ironies of the IDM that Kuhn was an atheist, that the IDM’s PR claims not to care about religion/worldview, and that a vast majority of ID advocates are Kuhnians!

    So agreeing with one person’s observations automatically makes you their follower? Interesting…

    So tell me Gregory, would you agree that a plant will thrive in proper soil and atmospheric conditions?

    The reason I ask is because Christ made this observation in one of his parables =)

  22. Perhaps a Christian ecologist?

    Most importantly to the theme of this thread, perhaps you think someone crying out, PaulN, “let’s hear it for Kuhn’s coming “revolution”!!” doesn’t accurately describe most people’s thoughts, perhaps not even your own, i.e. those who claim to be IDists or Big-ID advocates?

    Intelligent Design theory isn’t really necessarily a ‘revolution’ or ‘paradigm shift,’ is it PaulN?

  23. Not really. Teleology pervades biology. Always has, always will. No revolution required.

  24. Gregory @13

    Is it time to read “Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare” by Alexis de Tocqueville?

    “Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them.”

    Methinks de Tocqueville was talking about literal revolutions, while Kuhn was talking figuratively.

    Then again, if IDists keep infiltrating their ranks, maybe scientists will begin breaking their beakers on the edge of their lab tables, like beer bottles against the saloon bar, and start going after each other for real.

    You never know…

  25. Gregory wrote:

    “it is one of the strange ironies of the IDM that Kuhn was an atheist … and that a vast majority of ID advocates are Kuhnians!”

    I don’t find it either strange or ironic. It just shows that ID thinkers are willing to take their Truth from wherever they can get it — atheists, agnostics, Jews, Aquinas, Paley, Gould, Margulis, Shapiro, Denton. And it shows the fair-mindedness of ID folks, that they can say: “I disagree with Kuhn’s atheism, but I won’t let that prejudice me against his philosophy/history of science. I think his analysis of science is a good one.” You certainly won’t find such fair-mindedness regarding ID claims — admissions that ID people make some good points as well as bad ones — coming from Coyne, Moran, Shallit, Myers, Shermer, the NCSE, Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson, Francis Collins, Dennis Venema, etc. For such people, everything that ID people argue is automatically false, misleading, dishonest, creationist, lousy science, heretical theology, etc.

    I think that the “revolution” in 21st-century evolutionary biology will be the insight that the 19th century went badly wrong in trying to exclude teleological analyses from biological science. And while I think that ID people have certainly facilitated that revolution by opening up narrow minds and loosening the hold of dogmatic convictions, I think that ultimately the revolution will succeed because it will come from within evolutionary biology (and the life sciences generally), from scientists who are not particularly attracted to ID, but who see that the prevailing paradigm — the claim that change just happens, and then natural selection makes the best of it — is lousy science.

    Already the smartest evolutionary biologists, like Shapiro, have left that paradigm behind. But it takes a while for the rank and file in any science to catch up with the more advanced thinkers. And there is strong resistance to Shapiro as well, from those committed to the old ways. The population geneticists, who have more or less had evolutionary theory as their private preserve for the 20th century (albeit grudgingly sharing it with those inconvenient paleontologists, who persisted in telling the public the embarrassing truth that the fossil record contradicted gradualism), deeply resent the uppity molecular biologists and developmental biologists who are telling them that their merely statistical analyses are superficial and grossly misleading. No academic likes to be told that he has spent his life defending an essentially false theoretical framework. Egos bristle, and vengeance is exacted on the dissenters, especially on those dissenters who lack jobs, tenure, or research grants.

    All of this is in line with Kuhn’s analysis. The old paradigm will continue to defend itself, using increasingly improbable and awkward ad hoc patches to hold together the torn and tattered garment, until the garment is simply no longer wearable, and no bright young scientist will put it on. Then, when the old scientists die off, it is game over for the old paradigm. People like Ayala and Eugenie Scott and Ken Miller and Coyne and Dawkins won’t be around much longer, and when they go, neo-Darwinism will go with them. And if, mirabile dictu, BioLogos should still exist 25 years from now, when a septuagenarian Dennis Venema is still writing columns about whale fossils and the similarity between chimp and human DNA, and arguing for a view of evolution that died with Mayr, people will just regard him as an intellectual curiosity, like someone today who insists on using a typewriter rather than a word processor, or who keeps his old 8-track tape player running and haunts musty old stores to find that missing Ike and Tina Turner or Roger Whittaker album.

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