- Paperback: 264 pages
- Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Fourth edition (April 30, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226458121
- ISBN-13: 978-0226458120
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
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- Average Customer Review: 438 customer reviews
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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition Fourth Edition
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“Like Thomas Kuhn, Ian Hacking has a gift for clear exposition. His introduction provides a helpful guide to some of the thornier philosophical issues. . . . We may still admire Kuhn’s dexterity in broaching challenging ideas with a fascinating mix of examples from psychology, history, philosophy, and beyond. We need hardly agree with each of Kuhn’s propositions to enjoy—and benefit from—this classic book.”
(David Kaiser Nature)
(National Post (Canada))
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A review of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
50th Anniversary Edition
By David Butler
I am a retired computer scientist educated in math and physics with a Master of Science degree from Oxford University where I studied the mathematical foundations for quantum mechanics in the early 1970s. One of my sons is a PhD student studying the philosophy of religion. He told me that he read a book that shows science is not an accumulative endeavor leading closer and closer to the true nature of the physical world. This went against what I had come to believe, so I had to read the book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.
At first I didn't know what to make of it. I was struck by Kuhn's negativity towards scientists (puzzle solver, slaves, addicts, etc.). But there was a deeper message in his story that I wanted to understand, so I put the derogatory comments aside. What I found was a very interesting attempt to put science on the same footing as other disciplines. Let me explain.
Science is the systematic study of nature. Nature is its anchor. It constrains theories. It judges paradigms. It is an absolute task master. And its secrets are extremely hard to unravel. Over time, engineering advances have created new instruments and improved their sensitivity: the telescope, the microscope, the spectrascope, colliders, MRI machines, etc. These instruments reveal more and more of nature's secrets. And as they do, old paradigms are lost, and new paradigms are created to explain the new phenomena. But science sets up previous paradigms as boundary conditions via Bohr's `Correspondence Principle'. Kuhn, with a PhD in physics, is very familiar with this principle and had to use it in both relativity and quantum mechanics. It's not an accident that Kuhn never mentioned this principle.
The existence of multiple simultaneous conflicting paradigms is not permitted by nature. This is not a constraint in other fields such as philosophy, history, art, music, literature, law, and economics to name a few. Removing nature as a task master for science frees the mind. It puts science on a similar footing to philosophy. It makes Aristotle's paradigm (he did not measure things) equal with Galileo's (he did measure things). Having established the legitimacy of all paradigms, the concept of steady or even unsteady progress towards the truth could be removed from our understanding of science.
It only takes some examples from the text to show how Kuhn's did this. I'll cover 1) his goal to show scientific advancement is an illusion, 2) his view of scientists as slaves to absolute arbitrary paradigm laws established by men and not nature, and 3) his attempt to separate scientific revolutions (paradigm shifts) from the nature of nature.
On Kuhn's goal
On page 1, Kuhn writes that, using history, we can "produce a decisive transformation in the image of science" from what we have today (1960s). The view to be transformed is that science is on a cumulative path to the truth about nature. Referring to scientists, Kuhn states that "we have been misled by them in fundamental ways." The first part of this statement identifies Kuhn's goal. The second part is the first of many unsubstantiated disparaging remarks about scientists that you'll find in this book.
On scientists as slaves to the paradigm
Kuhn goes after this idea in two ways. First, he attacks science textbooks. Second, he plays up the strength of the rules associated with a paradigm to make them look absolute, leaving little room for scientists to think for themselves.
On Science textbooks:
* [page 5] Science textbooks are rigid and "exert a deep hold on the scientific mind." And [page 80] "Science students accept theories on the authority of teacher and text, not because of evidence."
o This was not my experience. We had labs for physics, chemistry and biology - not just text to study.
* [page 81] Kuhn provides the following as evidence for his claims about science textbooks: "If applications were set forth as evidence, than the very failure of texts to suggest alternative interpretations or to discuss problems for which scientists have failed to produce paradigm solutions would convict their authors of extreme bias."
o The textbooks that I read pointed out: 1) that we do not yet have a satisfactory theory of light that would bring both the particle and wave natures together; 2) that relativity theory fails to mesh with quantum mechanics; 3) there may be deeper theories that won't need statistical mechanics to explain nature the way quantum mechanics does; etc. I can't accuse Kuhn of ignorance on this subject. He read the same texts and used them to teach others.
* [page 142] Here Kuhn concludes his attack on science textbooks. Referring to the consequences of their misleading text, he writes "More than any other single aspect of science, that pedagogic form has determined our image of the nature of science and of the role of discovery and invention in its advance."
o But only scientists read science textbooks. The general public's view that science is progressing towards the truth has come from another source altogether - could it be the absolutely stunning success science has had explaining the world they exist in.
On Paradigm rules as straightjackets for the mind:
* [page 24] Kuhn describes normal science as `mopping up' and that it "seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies."
o It's important to note at this point that Kuhn includes the following discoveries as mopping up: discovering a cure for cancer; discovering the black holes at the center of most galaxies; discovering DNA; etc. Are these just fillers designed to distort nature to support the current paradigms?
* [page 38] On normal science as `puzzle solving', Kuhn writes "On most occasions, any particular field of specialization offers nothing else to do, a fact that makes it no less fascinating to the proper sort of addict."
o Again, `puzzle solving' (aka mopping up) includes discovering a cure for cancer. How can this be interpreted as "fascinating to the proper sort of addict"? When I came across this claim, I understood why his book was dismissed by virtually the entire scientific community. It had lost its sense of objectivity and descended into a rather vindictive diatribe.
* [page 39] In attempting to demonstrate that the rules of a paradigm are absolute, he gives an example of a scientist building an optical wavelength measuring machine. If all doesn't go as dictated by the paradigm, Kuhn speculates that "his colleagues may well conclude that he has measured nothing at all."
o Kuhn misses the real life example of Joseph Fraunhofer's invention of the spectroscope. His machine showed hundreds of dark lines across the spectrum of light from the Sun. No one knew what these were. They did not fit into the existing paradigm. But they were not ignored. They were called Fraunhofer lines and research into their nature lasted 45 years before quantum mechanics finally came up with an answer. This shows that Kuhn's speculation that Fraunhofer's "colleagues may well conclude that he has measured nothing at all" is incorrect.
* [page 39] Another example on the same page tries to point out how far scientists will go to preserve an existing paradigm. He chose the 17th century attempts to get the Moon's orbit to fit Newton's equations when a change in the paradigm would have sufficed. Interestingly, this problem was solved within the paradigm [page40]. You'll find repeated references to this idea throughout the book, noting that he has demonstrated the lengths scientists will go to try make new facts fit the existing paradigm. All of them are designed to show that scientific facts are just contortions of nature to fit a preconceived theory and not facts at all.
o Obvious counterexamples familiar to Kuhn are ignored. The one I like is when the orbit of Uranus failed to fit Newton's equations. Some scientists worked to replace Newton's paradigm, and others predicted the existence and location for a new planet further out from the Sun that would explain the data in a way that fits the paradigm. This planet was indeed found - Neptune! Is Neptune a fiction - just another attempt by scientists to contort nature into their view of the world? After Voyager's visit to the planet, I thing even Kuhn would have to grudgingly admit that the planet exists.
* [page 147] Kuhn uses an example to show that the power of the paradigm can actually limit the "permissible questions" that can be asked.
o If you change the word permissible to reasonable, you'd be closer to the way it is. For example, now that we know the Earth is rotating, is it reasonable to ask "What is the velocity of distant stars as they journey around the Earth each day?"
In the final analysis, based on my personal experience and the experience of other scientists, paradigm law, so absolute in Kuhn's writings, are as Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean said so well, just guidelines.
And most importantly, on the separation of scientific revolutions (paradigm shifts) from the nature of nature:
On page 5, Kuhn points out that scientific research is a "strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes" established by the current paradigm. His case for this is to be made in sections III, IV and V. Here we get a look at how Kuhn plans to make the case that the nature of nature is distorted by scientists to fit an existing model rather than the models being created to reflect nature.
* [page 10] Kuhn writes that new paradigms were created in the past by noted scientists for two reasons: 1) "their achievement was sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents"; and 2) "it was sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.
o Here we get a good look at Kuhn's technique of omission. The two listed reasons are secondary. He leaves out the most important reason, namely that the new paradigm demonstrates a better fit to nature as it becomes more visible through new instrumentation.
* [page 53] Here Kuhn explains that any phenomena not yet explained by the paradigm theory, "is not quite a scientific fact at all."
o Again he way overstates the reality he himself as a student/teacher of physics knows. The examples of Fraunhofer lines and the orbit of Neptune are only two of a host of examples where the theory failed (for a time), but the findings were considered science.
* [page 94-95] Kuhn points out that in order to understand paradigm shift, we need to not only look at logic, and nature, but also "the techniques of persuasive argumentation". This is an interesting take, and worthy of philosophical study, but he goes on to say that "paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone."
o The counter examples to this are many. The one I like best is the paradigm shift to the Big Bang theory (articulated between the first and second editions of Kuhn's book). The scientific battle raged on from the 1920s to the 1960s with the two major schools of thought. In 1964, `cosmic background radiation' was discovered. That sealed the deal for the Big Bang. The opposition went silent. The battle was over. The new paradigm was crowned king and master over all scientific minds. But don't you know that it has its critics even to this day. This history illustrates three very important points: 1) Contrary to Kuhn's presentation, normal science went on in the field of astronomy during those years without a paradigm; 2) The final determination was based on experiment alone - not possible in Kuhn's theory; and 3) Normal science progresses in astronomy to this day with many scientists not bound by the prevailing paradigm - again an impossible situation given the hold a paradigm has on the minds of scientists according to Kuhn.
* [page 96] Here Kuhn hits his key premise right on the nose: New paradigms "demand the destruction of a prior paradigm".
o This is simply incorrect. We still study old paradigms as good approximations of how nature works. The Correspondence Principle requires all scientists working on a new paradigm to study, understand and use key parts of older paradigms. Steven Weinberg said it best in his review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
"It is important to keep straight what does and what does not change in scientific revolutions, a distinction that is not made in Structure. There is a `hard' part of modern physical theories (`hard' meaning durable, like bones in paleontology). Then there is a `soft' part; it is the vision of reality that we use to explain to ourselves why the equations work. The soft part does change; we no longer believe in Maxwell's ether, and we know that there is more to nature than Newton's particles and forces. The changes in the soft part of scientific theories also produce changes in our understanding of the conditions under which the hard part is a good approximation. But after our theories reach their mature forms, their hard parts represent permanent accomplishments. We will go on teaching Maxwellian electrodynamics as long as there are scientists. I can't see any sense in which the increase in scope and accuracy of the hard parts of our theories is not a cumulative approach to truth."
o Goggle "The Revolution That Didn't Happen" by Steven Weinberg for a really good review of Kuhn's book by a Nobel Prize winning physicist who helped develop the Standard Model.
* [page 98] Kuhn writes "It is hard to see how new theories could arise without these destructive changes in beliefs about nature."
o It is not hard once you break the monolithic view of a paradigm shift into hard and soft components. A breakup demanded by an objective look at the history of scientific development.
* [page 103] Kuhn writes "Let us, therefore, now take it for granted that the differences between successive paradigms are both necessary and irreconcilable."
o It is true that they are necessary. Nature makes it necessary. For once it was discovered that the speed of light was a constant, a new paradigm was required because the old one had a variable speed of light. But the little that has been discussed in this book to this point does not allow us to `take it for granted' that new paradigms are irreconcilable with old ones. On the contrary, every attempt to do so has required a "one size fits all" explanation for paradigms that is not supported by history.
The only other way around Kuhn's assertion that `new paradigms are irreconcilable and incommensurate with and destroy past paradigms' would be to change what we mean when we say an old paradigm is destroyed. If the word `destruction' of an old paradigm allows for: 1) continuing to teach the old paradigm to all new scientists; 2) holding that the old paradigm provides the framework upon which to understand the new paradigm; 3) requiring that all new formula satisfy the equations of the old paradigm in the limit that corresponds to the old paradigm's applicability; and 4) praising the formulators of the old paradigm as providing the shoulders upon which new science has been built, then we can begin to give Kuhn's premise some credibility. But I am sure Kuhn used the common definition of `destroy', otherwise his book is meaningless.
A better way to look at paradigm shift is to see it for what it does: 1) it removes errors from past paradigms identified by discoveries enabled by improved instrumentation (not available during the development of the older paradigm), and 2) it adds theories to cover areas not accessible to the developers of older paradigms such as atomic structure made accessible via particle colliders, intense gravitational fields made accessible by x-ray observatories, and cell structure made available by electron microscopes.
* [page 109] Kuhn asserts that during arguments between supporters of competing paradigms, the winner revolves around questions like "Which problems is it more significant to have solved?" He does not permit physical measurements, experiments or scientific observations to play a significant role.
o As Kuhn continues to make this claim, it is enlightening to show the many counterexamples, but my space and time is running out.
* [page 115] Kuhn continues with the assertion that statements like "I was mistaken" when referring to past paradigms "does not recur in the aftermath of scientific revolutions."
o This is flatly not true. Science texts are replete with statements like `We were wrong when we thought that space was flat.' and `We were wrong when we thought that the Earth was fixed'. By this point in the book, the number of false statements is alarming.
* [page 119] Kuhn likes to compare Aristotle's rock on a string to Galileo's pendulum. When comparing Galileo to Aristotle, Kuhn writes "Descriptively, the Aristotelian perception is just as accurate." On page 128 he comes back to this with: it's the change in paradigm that "makes the swinging stone something else." The `something else' is the pendulum.
o This is a concrete example of what Kuhn was talking about when he said on page 111 that "What were ducks in the scientist's world before the revolution are rabbits afterwards." But it is measurements that made the difference, not just point of view as claimed.
o I think Kuhn's constant referral to Aristotle is telling. Kuhn refers to Aristotle throughout the book. It was his study of Aristotle the philosopher that created the epiphany that took him away from science and sent him on a decades long quest to find a way to give Aristotle's model equal footing to modern science's view of the world. This book review asks the question "Did he succeed?"
* [page 134] Here Kuhn uses his selected examples to show that scientists "beat nature into line" to fit the paradigms in vogue.
o For every example of a scientist falsifying data to fit a paradigm (global warming anyone?), there are literally thousands of examples all across mainstream science where the paradigm in vogue had to give way to the way nature actually works. Of course, his cherry picking is understandable. To cover the whole space in a systematic way would counter Kuhn's goal to show that scientific revolutions do not represent advancements in our knowledge about the world we exist in.
* [page 151] Continuing his argument, Kuhn needs to remove the concept of `proof' as an influencer over paradigm decisions: "paradigm decisions cannot be justified by proof."
o How about another example where it was indeed justified by proof. The germ theory for diseases was hotly contested for decades. But it was Louis Pasteur's laboratory research that provided the scientific proof for germ theory. Proof was provided and the argument ended. As a historian of science, Kuhn was familiar with this example.
o As we have seen throughout the annals of science, they are resolved by evidence - experimental and or observational, not philosophical.
* [page 153] At least Kuhn doesn't shrink from the implications of his theory. Here he acknowledges that, from his point of view, the Ptolemaic theory that the Earth is at the center of the solar system is "more reasonable but uniformly qualitative than competitors."
o For readers who get to page 153, this passage ought to raise alarm bells if nothing else has. In essence, Kuhn is saying that qualitative views of nature provided by philosophy are equal to or more reasonable than quantitative views of nature provided by science.
* [page 157] Having ruled out actual observations of nature as a reason for new paradigms, Kuhn needs to articulate a different reason. He writes "A decision of that kind can only be made on faith."
o Kuhn's arguments that reason and evidence are not the keys to paradigm shifts have been shown to be false. It follows that a jump to `faith' is not needed.
* [page 165 - 166] Here Kuhn is trying to show that scientific revolutions don't make progress. It's just that its believers say it is making progress. "Revolutions close with the total victory for one of the two opposing camps." The winners write the history. Future scientists are "like the typical character in Orwell's 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be."
o We have come to understand Kuhn's opinion of scientists, but I prefer facts. Science is the study of nature. Scientific progress is measured by how close to the nature of nature we are getting. The proof is not in the books that say progress is being made. The proof is in the diseases cured, particles found, galaxies photographed, volcanic eruptions predicted, etc. The list of tangible accomplishments is growing every day.
On pages 166 - 167 Kuhn writes: "The very existence of science depends upon vesting the power to choose between paradigms in the members of a special kind of community." He goes on to describe the "tenuousness of humanity's hold on the scientific enterprise." In a 1991 interview with John Horgan from the Scientific American magazine, Kuhn said "There was a beginning to it. There are lots of societies that don't have it. It takes very special conditions to support it. Those social conditions are now getting harder to find. Of course it could end." I couldn't disagree more. As long as there are people interested in understanding how the world works, there will be science.
It has been over a half century since Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The whole world has changed and now talks in terms of `paradigms'. And, for the most part, the book has persuaded some philosophy scholars that science is not cumulative and Aristotle's paradigm is just as valid as Einstein's. To this extent, Kuhn was influential. But this is relatively trivial compared to what he stated he wanted to change. His goal was to convince the world at large that "science is not a cumulative march over time towards understanding the true nature of nature."
Since the book's publication, science has launched great telescopes into outer space to see galaxies billions of light years away [See my free video book "How Far Away Is It" on YouTube.], and created huge particle colliders to see eliminatory particles undreamt of in the 1960s. These new instruments have revealed a world much bigger and much smaller than we have ever seen before. The list of discoveries alone would fill volumes. One of the side effects of all these new scientific discoveries is that science itself and the public at large more than ever hold to the understanding that science is on a march to the truth - totally at odds with Kuhn's stated goal. I take great comfort in this. The world feels like a safer place when I see facts triumphing over speculation.
The primary implication of "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is that science has no, and should be granted no, privileged standing amongst competing methods of ascertaining reality. It claims that knowledge is "created" merely by "assent" (not *discovered*), and likens the replacement of one theory with another - like Newtonian physics with Einsteinian - to "religious conversion" (an act regard by most critical thinkers as the example par excellence of irrationality).
That being the case, it is no wonder that the book should have become so popular amongst members of the softer sciences, like sociology, philosophy, political science, history, etc., as well as amongst the clearly insane, like astrologers, religious lunatics, and palm readers. To quote Kuhn himself, "as in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice - there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community". Well, of course not, once it has been adopted as a premise that nothing about the world-in-itself can ever be known. All "facts", in that case, only become a matter of *what "relevant" people decide are, or should be, the "facts" (it is no wonder that Steve Fuller has been able to make the case for Kuhn as a Platonic [in the worst way] elitist. See Fuller's "Kuhn vs. Popper" or his "Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History For Our Times").
Kuhn also argues that the idea that there has been an accumulation of objective knowledge about the world is a myth. I can only hope that those readers who may have noticed the existence of electricity, cell phones, air flight, radios, immunizations, and about three billion other discoveries and inventions over the past few hundred years, will regard Kuhn's claims as as ludicrous as they deserve to be regarded.
For an unsparing (and frequently hilarious) critique of Kuhn's philosophy (and that of Popper, Feyerabend, and Lakatos), I strongly recommend "Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Post-Modern Cult", by the late University of Sydney philosopher David Stove.
I hope this review has been of benefit to someone.
Good luck in your studies.