The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn (Science Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does)

How does the general public think Science operates? How is it performed? How does it progress? How do working scientists assist and enable progression into revised and new theories over time?

 

The Misconception

Most laity and fans of science typically think of science this way:

  • It’s an objective search for truth and reality of all things in nature and the universe.
  • It adheres strictly to the Scientific Method and yields results leading to welcomed changes, improvements and refinements in the field of study.
  • Science progresses one new discovery after another in a smooth, continuous, linear and cumulative effort; an ever-increasing body of knowledge over time.
  • Scientists willingly look for new discoveries and readily adapt their field of study by revising their theories and adopting new ones that better reflect an accurate representation of nature and reality as they are discovered. Scientists follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
  • This progression is a peaceful process where the ideal values of science easily convince scientists that old theories need to be replaced by new and better theories that improve the field.

We picture scientists constantly searching for truth and reality through experiment and observation.  We assume their theories transform from one version to another very naturally as new empirical data and discoveries overturn or modify prior theories and beliefs.

Empiricism rules the day and leads to a more accurate picture and representation of nature and reality.  Science dominates our discovery and enlightenment!

<sigh>

Such a naive, inaccurate view.  If it only really worked that way.

 

The Reality

Enter Science Historians & Philosophers – specifically Thomas S. Kuhn. Science historians research and identify how science really operates and progresses over time. They look beyond the sugar-coated, oversimplified image presented to everyone – scientist and laity both.

In 1962 Mr. Kuhn published his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It shook the scientific community because it cracked open that naively-construed exterior of smooth, brick-upon-brick, linear and cumulative scientific progress that everyone just assumed to be true. What follows is a summary of Kuhn’s findings and concepts, as well as my thoughts on his findings.

It turns out that rather than a steady, cumulative, peaceful path to current understanding, the true path is littered with example after example of paradigms being steadfastly and pigheadedly fought, supported and defended – even in the face of profound, objective proof and evidence of a better alternative paradigm – only to eventually be usurped by that superior/alternative paradigm.  This process sometimes left some senior scientists of a ‘traditional’ paradigm out in the cold as they refuse to accept the new paradigm that changed their scientific frontier in a revolutionary way.

This convoluted process can take from decades to over 100 years before real scientific progress is made in a given field.

 

Paradigms

The origins of the word “paradigm” have been around since the Greeks/Romans and is defined as representing a pattern, model or example.  But it wasn’t until Kuhn’s work that the word became grounded in its contemporary definition.

According to Kuhn, a paradigm is a framework – the framework of acceptable concepts, theories, assumptions, vocabulary, methods, equations, experiments, methods, skills, standards, data capture and analysis – all used by a community of scientists while operating within an accepted, prevailing, controlled orthodoxy. Simply . . . .it’s the rigid, dominating world-view currently in control.

Kuhn states that a paradigm drives what he calls “normal science.”  It’s adopted, shared and guarded by a mature scientific community. And interestingly enough, because of the framework noted above, a paradigm drives interpretation.

“A paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself. What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.”   – Thomas Kuhn

So, how does science actually work and progress?

  • Science is a subjective search for data and results that will confirm the prevailing orthodox paradigm.
  • Most science is “Normal Science” – aka Paradigm science.
  • It uses only standards, expectations, assumptions and laboratory equipment designed to confirm the prevailing orthodox paradigm.
  • Results are typically known in advance – based on the methods, standards and expectations of the prevailing paradigm.
  • Normal science is not looking for novelty, new discoveries, anomalies, or any other revelations that could rock the foundations of that prevailing paradigm and lead to a more accurate picture of reality.
  • When experimental and observational anomalies do arise that could lead to new discovery they are typically not noticed, ignored, or at some point intentionally suppressed.
  • When those anomalies become so numerous and tenacious that they can’t be ignored, ad-hoc adjustments are made to the prevailing paradigm in attempts to allow the new anomalous data to be accounted for.
  • When that fails, some scientists make new discoveries and adopt a new paradigm – but not without great resistance and battle from those holding tight to the reigns of the controlling power of the prevailing paradigm.
  • Science progresses with extreme difficulty from one paradigm to another, sometimes waiting 50 to 100 years for the resisting guardians of the prevailing paradigm to die off and allow newer practitioners to pursue the new paradigm.
  • This process is really never peaceful.

“Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science. . . . that enterprise seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies.”   – Thomas Kuhn

This isn’t what you expected is it?

Read on . . .

 

What is a Scientific Revolution and what causes it?

According to Kuhn science progresses through the following stages:

  1. Pre-paradigm science
  2. Normal science (paradigm science)
  3. Crisis
  4. Revolutionary science (paradigm shift)
  5. Post-revolution

Let’s take a look at what these stages mean:

Pre-paradigm science is what occurs prior to science adopting it’s first acceptable paradigm – or, alternately, where it find itself after a state of Crisis and searching/experimenting for new solutions to unsolved problems the existing paradigm can’t fully resolve.  It’s a flurry of various undirected hypotheses and experiments in an attempt to find a path to an acceptable theory or set of theories (a new paradigm).

Normal science is conducted once a paradigm has been accepted by the majority of a scientific community in a field of study.  It’s “established” and becomes the “mature” science and is where all scientific work is funded and directed.  All future work is conducted within the parameters and expectations of the prevailing orthodox paradigm.

But at some point during normal science, the framework (equipment, experimentation, observation, data gathering) suddenly produces output that doesn’t fit the existing paradigm.  Those unexpected results are referred to as an anomaly. Anomalies “violate deeply entrenched expectations.”  When not ignored, anomalies are an awareness that something is wrong with the current paradigm.

Those practicing normal (paradigm) science are not equipped educationally or perceptually to deal with the anomalies. So, how does the paradigmatic scientific community deal with anomalies?  Resistance.

“Normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none. . . . .Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science”  – Thomas Kuhn

Anomalies refuse “to be assimilated to existing paradigms.”

“Its defenders [the paradigm] will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by an anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.” – Thomas Kuhn

Crisis is what occurs once a set of anomalies becomes too great to ignore, and some scientists start questioning the prevailing paradigm and begin searching for other answers. These scientists are typically young and have not yet totally invested themselves entirely in the prevailing orthodox paradigm. In fact, periodically, some even come from outside the field of the orthodox paradigm. The ad hoc adjustments made to the existing paradigm are not enough to account for the anomalous data.

“In so far as he [the scientist] is engaged in normal science, the research worker is a solver of puzzles, not a tester of paradigms. . . . . Unanticipated novelty, the new discovery, can only emerge to the extent that his anticipations about nature and his instruments prove wrong.” – Thomas Kuhn

Crisis leads to new discoveries via the next step, Revolutionary Science.

Revolutionary science comes about when one or more of those questioning scientists actually has an epiphany (what Kuhn calls a “gestalt switch” or “paradigm shift”). They suddenly experience the “scales falling from their eyes” or a “lightning flash” and they see a whole new paradigm/reality.

They perform experiments, share data, argue with the protectors of the prevailing paradigm. Over time other scientists also start experiencing the “gestalt switch” and fall into the camp of the revolutionaries. Kuhn notes that this gestalt switch does NOT typically occur based on logic, reason and empirical evidence (as you would expect a scientist to adhere to and respect). It comes suddenly and sometimes in one’s sleep.

Ultimately, the change from one paradigm to another is scientific revolution. As previously mentioned above, it’s almost always someone young and not yet totally immersed and invested in the existing paradigm (or periodically it’s someone outside the specialization of the prevailing paradigm).

“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. This generalization about the role of youth in fundamental scientific research is so common as to be cliche. Furthermore, a glance at almost any list of fundamental contributions to scientific theory will provide impressionistic confirmation.” – Thomas Kuhn

The interesting thing about paradigm change in science is that most often the scientists are dealing with the same set of data – it’s just that some of them suddenly “pick up the other end of the stick” – being able to see a new way of relating the data in a different framework.

“Rather than being an interpreter, the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses. Confronting the same constellation of objects as before and knowing that he does so, he nevertheless finds them transformed through and through in many of their details. . . . The scientist after a revolution is still looking at the same world.” – Thomas Kuhn

Post-revolution science occurs once a new paradigm-shifting theory becomes accepted by a vast majority of the scientific community. At this point the revolutionary science (new paradigm) becomes itself the prevailing paradigm –  a new “first principle.” Sometimes the older protectors of the prior paradigm never adopt to the new/accepted paradigm – so, after a time, they are simply “written out” or die off.

 

Advantage of Normal Science

There are advantages of Normal (Paradigm) Science.  It allows a group of practitioners to study a small range of problems in a level of “detail and depth that would otherwise be unimaginable.”  It leads to an extremely high level of precision in terms of the affirmation of the details of the prevailing paradigm.

Normal Science = articulation of the prevailing paradigm to a great depth

But, at what cost?

 

Why Don’t we Hear About Scientific Revolutions?

The overlapping reasons Scientific Revolutions are invisible include Education, Textbooks, Community/Authority:

Education

From an education perspective, students of science are not taught the history of their field.  There’s no reading of the “classics” as it exists in almost all other college education (music, art, literature, history, philosophy, social sciences, etc.). Students of science are given a thorough summary of all accepted paradigm beliefs, standards and expectations.  Their brains are pummeled into “understanding” that what they are taught is the ultimate truth for this field of study.

“Of course, it is a narrow and rigid education, probably more so than any other except perhaps in orthodox theology.” – Thomas Kuhn [emphasis mine]

Textbooks

What is the primary driving factor in scientific education?  Textbooks.

Kuhn refers to the use of textbook education as “initiation.”  Science students have no alternative. Textbooks “expound the body of accepted theory.” They are written so it appears that science progresses smoothly and progressively without conflict. They control how science is perceived and how it is understood to progress. Kuhn says that textbooks are “pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal [paradigm] science.”

“Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. Characteristically, textbooks of science contain just a bit of history, either in an introductory chapter or, more often, in scattered references to the great heroes of an earlier age. From such references both students and professionals come to feel like participants in a long-standing historical tradition. Yet the textbook-derived tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed. For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks (and too many of the older histories of science) refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems. Partly by selection and partly by distortion, the scientists of earlier ages are implicitly represented as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific. No wonder that textbooks and historical tradition they imply have to be rewritten after each scientific revolution. And no wonder that, as they are rewritten, science once again comes to seem largely cumulative.” – Thomas Kuhn

Much akin to “history is written by the victors,” science textbooks are written in the aftermath of a scientific revolution and they simply gloss over the actual revolutionary steps in scientific history to arrive at the current paradigm.

“Inevitably . . . . the member of a mature scientific community is, like the typical character of Orwell’s 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be. Furthermore, that suggestion is not altogether inappropriate.” – Thomas Kuhn

Wow.

Community/Authority

Kuhn emphasizes that a paradigm is wholly owned, supported and defended by a mature scientific community. That community is led by the authorities of that prevailing scientific paradigm.

The student is fully expected to adhere to the professional expectations of the prevailing paradigm. The student really has no other option than unquestioned acceptance.

The community has “unparalleled insulation” from the demands of the everyday world, as well as any challenges that could be presented by other scientific specialties (scientific, engineering, etc).

“Revolutions have proved to be so nearly invisible. Both scientists and laymen take much of their image of creative scientific activity from an authoritative source that systematically disguises – partly for important functional reasons – the existence and significance of scientific revolutions.” – Thomas Kuhn

“For the sciences, like other professional enterprises, do need their heroes and do preserve their names. Fortunately, instead of forgetting these heroes, scientists have been able to forget or revise their works. The result is a persistent tendency to make the history of science look linear or cumulative, a tendency that even affects scientists looking back at their own research.” – Thomas Kuhn

 

Progress only through the deaths of “authorities”?

In several places within Kuhn’s work he refers to the unfortunate result of scientific revolutions wherein it sometimes requires 50 to 100+ years before a new paradigm is taken seriously and adopted by the scientific community.  He even quotes Max Planck’s famous statement:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”  – Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. F. Gaynor (New York, 1949), pp. 33-34

Other pertinent and revealing quotes around this concept:

“Though some scientists, particularly the older and more experienced ones, may resist indefinitely, most of them can be reached in one way or another.” – Thomas Kuhn

“The older schools gradually disappear. In part their disappearance is caused by their members’ conversion to the new paradigm. But there are always some men who cling to one or another of the older views, and they are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work. . . . Those unwilling or unable to accommodate their work to it must proceed in isolation or attach themselves to some other group.” – Thomas Kuhn

“Gradually the number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based upon the [new] paradigm will multiply. Still more men, convinced of the new view’s fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practicing normal science, until at last only a few elderly hold-outs remain. And even then, we cannot say, are wrong. Though the historian can always find men – Priestley, for instance – who were unreasonable to resist for as long as they did, he will not find a point at which resistance becomes illogical or unscientific. At most he may wish to say that the man who continues to resist after his whole profession has been converted has ‘ipso facto’ ceased to be a scientist.” – Thomas Kuhn

 

My thoughts on Kuhn’s work and what it reveals

Does the above array of behavior sound like a desirable and acceptable way to conduct science?

The reality is that science is fraught with idiotic human frailties that should be transcended for the ultimate benefits of scientific progress – the pursuit of truth and reality, reason and rationality – but instead are held hostage by stupidities.

Resistance, cognitive biases, professional hubris, total indoctrination of students, progress only via gatekeeper deaths. . . . Unbelievable.

We tend to revere scientists as arbiters of objective, empirical evidence, accurate and reliable truths, reason and logic over irrationality, the ability to operate above silly human cognitive errors.  Yet, we find that they’re like everyone else:  . . . . stupidly retaining flawed theories simply because of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, group-think, and other ego-driven stupidities that blind them from immediately and effectively pursuing the path of truth and reality – a more accurate picture of nature and reality.

In addition, Kuhn doesn’t specifically call this out, but it seems that authority figures in a prevailing paradigm essentially defend their turf at all costs. We seem to find senior paradigm owners doing anything they can to maintain control over their field…..the field they’ve invested their entire career (teaching, researching, writing, professing); emotional investment, professional investment, and ego-driven investment – – – – logic, reason and empiricism be damned!

This is disgusting; absolutely disgusting. The pursuit of natural truths and reality should NEVER wait or delay for a generation of senior scientists to die. It should NEVER wait for blind dogma to finally acquiesce to overwhelming objective reality. The path of science should always be driven by objective evidence and objective analysis of that evidence.

Prevailing, orthodox, paradigm science is dogma – a repressive community of “scientists” who squash anything and everything that threatens their power structure.  It has become a new type of religion.

Are you seeing why Kuhn calls it a revolution?  New ideas that threaten a paradigm are NOT readily accepted.  They are ignored, denied, denigrated – until such time that they are blatantly obvious to the scientific community – or the controllers of the paradigm die off.  At some point the majority (and usually new practitioners) see the new theories for what they are – revelations in the field – and accept them as such based on their own, recent and valid science.

Instead of doing what science should do and objectively searching and testing the paradigm against actual nature/reality, the TRUE concern is over the current paradigm owners’ losing face/ego/stature/ownership/notoriety/authority/respect/prominence/etc. against a competing, threatening new paradigm. Existing paradigm owners have their ENTIRE career grounded in, and invested towards, the prevailing orthodox paradigm.

Does this sound like science by the scientific method?

It’s dogma . . . plain and simple. Where is Intellectual Integrity in this process?

 

Is there a solution?

Perhaps two camps (communities) of science need to coexist simultaneously for each field in order to more rapidly progress science to attain the most accurate understanding of nature:

  • Normal (paradigm/orthodox) science
  • Questioning/challenging/heterodox/paradigm-breaking/extraordinary science

Use the competition to push scientific research results as rapidly as possible.

There’s always the issue of funding – which I will cover in another article. Briefly . . . funding always comes from either government or corporations and neither group are interested in pursuing science for its purist motives – objective reality. Those that fund science expect the results they’re paying for (not objective reality).

I’m PRO-science – if it’s done properly. I abhor dogma, whether science or religion. I cannot abide by ego-driven stupidities; ignoring reality; fraudulent activities; . . . all to protect the prevailing paradigm. When science and its self-anointed god-priest authorities refuse to address questions and challenges to its base theories and assumptions, then it has become nothing more than another religion.

Remember:  Science is NEVER settled. The concept of “settled” science is the antithesis of real science.

In the end . . . Nature cares not a whit about fitting a prevailing paradigm. Nature is the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality. Question everything. Don’t accept orthodox answers (to science, religion, politics or any element of belief and culture).

Carpe diem my friends!