The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd Edition
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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is indeed a paradigmatic work in the history of science. Kuhn's use of terms such as "paradigm shift" and "normal science," his ideas of how scientists move from disdain through doubt to acceptance of a new theory, his stress on social and psychological factors in science--all have had profound effects on historians, scientists, philosophers, critics, writers, business gurus, and even the cartoonist in the street.
Some scientists (such as Steven Weinberg and Ernst Mayr) are profoundly irritated by Kuhn, especially by the doubts he casts--or the way his work has been used to cast doubt--on the idea of scientific progress. Yet it has been said that the acceptance of plate tectonics in the 1960s, for instance, was sped by geologists' reluctance to be on the downside of a paradigm shift. Even Weinberg has said that "Structure has had a wider influence than any other book on the history of science." As one of Kuhn's obituaries noted, "We all live in a post-Kuhnian age." --Mary Ellen Curtin
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This most recent purchase of "Stricture" is a gift for a young seminarian who's first grade daughter happens to be my student the Sunday School class which I teach.
The book is relatively small, which means you might think it's an easy and quick read. You'd be wrong. Kuhn's book is dense with information and thoughtful presentation, which makes it challenging to sail through quickly. However, I felt that was also one of its strong points; it forced me to work through the book and really think about what I was reading. If you're looking for fluff and pablum; look elsewhere.
So, what's the book about? As has been stated elsewhere, Kuhn's premise is that scientific progress isn't what it's typically made out to be. Generally, such as in most of my high school presentations, science is portrayed as a steadily moving river; progressing inevitably from one port of discovery to the next. Kuhn's book set that perspective on it's ear, by stating that science progresses relatively seamlessly until it gets near the edges of understanding, where it then begins fragmenting into a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. Eventually, a fundmental [paradigm] shift occurs which completely changes the world-view of that science (and which often creates an academic war to go with it). Once the dust has settled, revisionist history takes over, and we romanticize the struggle that our understanding went through in that period of growth and change.
Kuhn presents all this in a logical fashion, strengthing his argument via both a well-thought-out approach and a variety of supporting anecdotes. In particular, he doesn't rely too heavily on the Copernican revolution, which seems to be the only argument that others can present on scientific revolution. That alone contributes perhaps most heavily to the value of the argument.
So what has this got to do with change management? I worked as a management consultant for a few years, all before I read this book. Upon reading it, I was hit with the most blinding flash of the obvious; a lot of what I saw empirically in the business world echoed the issues of scientific paradigm shift that Kuhn so eloquently presented in this text. If your work involves any change to an organization; you -have- to read this book. It communicates, better than any book I've read on the subject, what's happening and why in the midst of change. The title may say "Scientific Revolutions," but the applicability is across the board. Buy it and read it.
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The reason for my three stars, is that Kuhn does not fully account for what has happened in the last forty years. The arrival of political influence on science, through state sponsored scientific programmes, has made a mockery of a principled approach to science. This is evident in the over reliance on scientific models that vary significantly from actual data, the controversy over the scientific basis of ‘man-made climate change’ is one such example.
Kuhn’s arguments led to a significant attack on the nature of science by political opportunists. These same opportunists then wanted to redefine science and use it to their own advantage. Once weakened by Kuhn’s philosophical assault, science became vulnerable to those with political motivation, who now use it as a weapon. It is common to hear phrases such as ‘scientists believe’ or ‘scientifically proven’ by lay people wishing to come across as authority figures.
Both human psychology and politics have affected the once truthful goals of science and Kuhn certainly got one of these right.
This is how we do science and as a research scientist for now nearly 20 years it is certainly how I see science from the inside. This is not crank philosophy or something from the creationist movement, this is an intelligent discourse. It does not have any hidden relgious agenda. It just states that science is relativistic and science is relativistic, only very bad scientists would ever argue that they know the absolute truth.
More than this it is well written and accessible and it should be read much more widely. It certainly is a clearer view than Popper's and while they are different in some aspects they do not present a completely different view of science. Both agree that certainty does not exist.
Thanks to the Chomskies, Dawkinses and Sokals of this world, who have cunningly bound perfectly sensible Cognitive and Ethical Relativism to silly Post-Structuralism, proper Relativism has become a dirty word these days.
It may be unfashionable but it's also powerful, and if you want to understand it, and its power, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - as short and beautifully written a classic of philosophy as you could possibly ask for - is as good a place as any to start.
Following publication of "Structure", Kuhn had a famous public debate with Karl Popper over what counts as science and the way in which science develops over time. Popper had, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, made the invaluable observation that "verification" as a standard for science is too high, since as a matter of logic an argument based on induction ("since the sun has risen on every day in recorded history, therefore it will rise tomorrow") can never be proven true. The sun rising is a very good example: for all our folksy expectations, current cosmology predicts that there will be a point at some time in the distant future when the sun will explode, and therefore will not rise tomorrow.
In lieu of verification as the scientific gold standard, Popper asserted (seemingly plausibly) that valid scientific theory could be assessed by the lack of any falsifying evidence among the data. The requirement for scientific statements to be "falsifiable" is a useful contribution to the debate: To be of any use, a scientific theory must narrow down from the list of all possible outcomes a set of predicted ones, and rule the rest out. Statements which cannot be falsified by any conceivable evidence don't do that, so fail at science's fundamental task.
Thomas Kuhn's insight was to offer a historian's perspective, and to note that, while that might be theory, that's simply not what science does in practice. Scientific theories are absolutely never thrown out the moment contradictory evidence is observed: the dial is tapped, the experiment re-run, and "numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory" are devised to eliminate any apparent conflict. Indeed, when the data won't do what they're meant to, sometimes it is the question which is rejected as being irrelevant, and not the answer predicted by the theory.
All this activity takes place inside what Kuhn describes (somewhat inconsistently) as a "paradigm" - a "particular coherent tradition of scientific research". The paradigm governs not only the theory but the education, instrumentation, rules and standards of scientific practice, and is the basis on which the scientific community decides which kinds of questions are and are not relevant to the development of scientific research. A paradigm claims exclusivity over the adjudication of its own subject matter, and one only has authority to pronounce on a scientific problem once one has been fully inducted: evolutionary biologists will not take seriously the biological assertions of fundamentalist Christians, for example. Fundamentalist Christians who take biology exams will fail, and thereby will never be able to authoritatively comment on biological matters.
Paradigms are generally a useful thing for the jobbing scientist, since to her they provide a pre-agreed framework - what Dan Dennett would describe as a "crane" - on which additional scientific research can be undertaken without having, literally, to re-invent the wheel. Kuhn characterises this sort of "normal scientist" as being involved in "puzzle solving" in exactly the sense that one solves a crossword puzzle. You have a framework of rules for how to solve the puzzle; you have problems (the blank spaces on the puzzle) and you empirically obtained evidence (clues) which you manipulate using the rules to produce predictions (or answers), and each newly discovered answer then acts as an additional clue to solve the remaining problems.
Superficially, this all sounds fine, but there are brutal, jagged corals just below the water's surface: Once inside a paradigm it informs your view of the world so thoroughly it is not possible to conduct research outside it. To solve a crossword puzzle, there must first be *some* pre-determined rules of engagement (the same puzzle can be solved, differently, with different sets of rules: a "cryptic" crossword yields different answers for the same boxes, and perhaps even the same clues, to a "quick" crossword. But to solve it one needs to use one or the other). Unlike a crossword, Mother Nature doesn't come with a label saying "cryptic" or "quick". So how do we know which paradigm to use? Can the truth or falsity of the paradigm to be judged, other than in terms of the paradigm itself?
Kuhn says no. This is an immensely powerful idea. Not only does it undermine the certitude many people have about their own ways of life, it seems to opens the door to all the whacky alternatives, with no objective means of choosing between them. So can we really not choose between Radiotherapy and Healing Crystals?
That this might be the case terrifies a lot of people, especially scientists, and Kuhn gets a lot of the blame for this state of unease. Post-Modernism: It's all Kuhn's fault.
But this is surely to shoot the messenger: Kuhn's great contribution is not to say that healing crystals are in (he says nothing of the sort) but to say that the sacred and immutable link between science and truth is out, and we owe it to ourselves to keep an open mind about whatever we believe. After all, the history of science (which is what Kuhn started out writing about) is a long history of frequent revolution. Either all the theories scientists have ever believed up to the current day are baloney, always were, never really counted as science and we're just lucky to be around when the human race has finally got it right - which, to put it mildly, is wishful thinking - or the revolutionary history of science, which no-one disputes, tends to back up what Kuhn is saying.
Science does evolve, through the great algorithm of human discourse, and the dominating theories through time will tend to be the ones which most of us are persuaded work the best for us (whether we're right or not is really beside the point). What persuades in Tehran may differ from what persuades in Texas. All Thomas Kuhn cautions against is either side taking its own position as a given.
His enterprise is therefore fundamentally democratic - placing epistemological legitimacy in the hands of the entire community, as contingent and random as it may be from time to time, and not a self-selecting, self perpetuating elite.
One thing economic theory tells us is that concentrating economic control in a small part of the population (as in a monopoly) generally works out worse for everyone except the monopolist. There's no reason to suppose that concentrating intellectual authority should be any different.
In the Western Hemisphere - outside the Grateful Dead tour circuit, at any rate - intellectual authority mostly resides with established science, but it has to work - literally - to earn our respect.
The anti-Kuhn brigade like Richard Dawkins may not like that sort of accountability but, not being a scientist, I do.