Thomas S. Kuhn - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

...the search for assumptions (even for non-existent ones) can be an effective way to weaken the grip of a tradition upon the mind and to suggest the basis for a new one. (p. 88)
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a book that is so frequently quoted and referenced that I felt I had to read it to find out for myself what made this work so famous (or infamous as the case may be). There are already a host of summaries available on the internet so I'll try not to merely regurgitate what others have said and, more or less, correctly summarized. The basic premise is summed up by Kuhn himself in the quote below.

After the first few dozen pages, I had the impression that Kuhn may be anti-science, but the book seems to wax and wane between pro and anti-scientific sentiments. In the end Kuhn admits that he is "a convinced believer in scientific progress". (p. 206) Despite this and other admissions in the text, it isn't difficult to see (for instance by reading p. 126-7 in a vacuum) how post-modernists and those with a religious agenda can (and do) misuse Kuhn to further their agenda. As John Catalano wrote to me:

Your review of Steele's book reminded me that I find a common pattern in popular science books which argue for radical theories of evolution or intelligent design. I find this pattern very irritating, no matter if the theory is correct of not. It typically goes like this:

- parade neo-darwinism as incomplete dogma in deep need of "something", typically with quotes from "within" the field by borderline biologists like Steven Rose or Brian Goodwin.

- give a brief intro to Thomas Kuhn, and how "paradigm" shifts define scientific progress

- explain your radical theories

- show how the scientific community (ie. "the church") resists your theories

- NOW THE KEY STEP, the author falls flat into what I call the Fallacy From Kuhn:

1) The scientific community resists radical, yet valid theories before a new paradigm shift takes place.
2) The scientific community is strongly resisting my radical theories.
3) Therefore MY theories are valid and part of a new paradigm shift.

(for a perfect example of this pattern see Darwin's Black Box)

I'm not claiming that these authors are necessarily wrong, but I'm sick of seeing this style of writing, and maybe they should rise above it to a more professional level of presenting their case.

As Kuhn himself explains, the key to a revolution is not just gaps in the current 'best' theory. A new theory without gaps or with fewer gaps and/or inconsistencies must be proposed. Crisis, as Kuhn uses the word to describe the situation before a new theory is accepted, doesn't mean misunderstanding or ignoring the evidence that makes up the current theory. Kuhn states
The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other. (p. 77)
There are numerous flaws and weaknesses to the book--many of which have been pointed out in the numerous critical reviews presented over the years. Kuhn overgeneralizes. He is overly dogmatic in his criticism of dogma. He practically fails to mention (the first and only time I noticed him say something like "most proposals for new theories do prove to be wrong" is in the postscript on page 186) the large number of false "new paradigms" that have correctly been rejected over the centuries leaving the impression that "new" is "true" and "old" is likely "false". He indicates that students don't understand the underlying assumptions that go into a scientific field and carry these assumptions around with them as though they were fact into their professional scientific careers without bothering to ever examine them. I find this hard to believe. By Chapter XIII, Kuhn seems to have completely forgotten what the scientific method is. He appears in this portion of the book to think that science is purely political and based on professional security. He backs off this position in the postscript which is his attempt to defend himself against critics. Contrary to his claim on page 151 in section XIII, it is not the nature of scientific research to resist strict proof that contradicts one's current beliefs, and it is a violation of scientific standards (i.e. the scientific method itself).

Perhaps the most interesting portion of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the discussion of the interplay between experience, perception, and presupposition. The section entitled "Revolutions as Changes of World View" is particularly interesting to those of us who have gone through such a change (or changes) during our lives. A paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself. Training or 'un-training', as the case may be, is frequently necessary to "see".

Although not the most entertaining, engrossing, or fascinating book (especially since decades have passed since Kuhn's ideas were first widely spread), the dialogue can certainly inspire the reader to continually question and keep an open mind. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is more than a discourse on the philosophy of science history. It is a wake up call to experiment scientifically when you don't already know, or think you know, what the result(s) will be.

Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternates. But that invention of alternates is just what scientists seldom undertake except during the pre-paradigm stage of their science's development and at very special occasions during its subsequent evolution. So long as the tools a paradigm supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it defines, science moves fastest and penetrates most deeply through confident employment of those tools. The reason is clear. As in manufacture so in science--retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it. The significance of crises is the indication they provide that an occasion for retooling has arrived. (p. 76)
from the publisher:
Thomas S. Kuhn's classic book is now available with a new index.
"A landmark in intellectual history which has attracted attention far beyond its own immediate field. . . . It is written with a combination of depth and clarity that make it an almost unbroken series of aphorisms. . . . Kuhn does not permit truth to be a criterion of scientific theories, he would presumably not claim his own theory to be true. But if causing a revolution is the hallmark of a superior paradigm, [this book] has been a resounding success." --Nicholas Wade, Science
"Perhaps the best explanation of [the] process of discovery." --William Erwin Thompson, New York Times Book Review
"Occasionally there emerges a book which has an influence far beyond its originally intended audience. . . . Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . . . has clearly emerged as just such a work." --Ron Johnston, Times Higher Education Supplement
"Among the most influential academic books in this century." -- Choice
Considered one of "The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the Second World War" by the Times Literary Supplement.

Thomas S. Kuhn was the Laurence Rockefeller Professor Emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His books include The Essential Tension; Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912; and The Copernican Revolution.

Table of Contents
I: Introduction: A Role for History
II: The Route to Normal Science
III: The Nature of Normal Science
IV: Normal Science as Puzzle-solving
V: The Priority of Paradigms
VI: Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discoveries
VII: Crisis and the Emergence of Scientific Theories
VIII: The Response to Crisis
IX: The Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions
X: Revolutions as Changes of World View
XI: The Invisibility of Revolutions
XII: The Resolutions of Revolutions
XIII: Progress through Revolutions