Redefining Science With Thomas Kuhn

Redefining Science With Thomas Kuhn May 15, 2019

A reread of Kuhn’s essay makes me realize that those who claim to love science still define it all wrong.

I’ve discussed Thomas Kuhn before on my Anti-Science channel, and my colleague PD has posted an essay on the Popper-Kuhn debate. I recently reread Kuhn’s 1962 volume The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and it still strikes me as an innovative way of looking at scientific endeavor. The view of science that he tried to put to rest is still popular in the science-fan community.

Gimme That Old Time Science

The standard view of scientific inquiry is the model of Baconian induction, where data points are organized by researchers who create a theory to interpret and explain them. The evidence-based theory forms the basis of a framework for further research which tests the theory. New ideas are introduced by additional research, and the theory may have to change or be replaced to accommodate the information. This scenario of scientific inquiry is the one that’s largely accepted by science fans these days, and it stresses the importance of evidence. The self-correcting mechanism of science is the constant testing that all ideas and theories are subject to; scientists are constantly challenging and testing ideas to make sure they’re still reliable in the face of new evidence. Like a house being built brick by brick, science progresses incrementally throughout history and the strength of the evidence gives us confidence that our knowledge is true and corresponds to objective reality.

Kuhn made that scenario look like folklore.

Stuck in the Paradigm with You

In his work, Kuhn described what he called the paradigm, the cognitive and intellectual infrastructure that forms the worldview of a scientific research community. Through education, socialization, and professional development, scientific communities do work that’s defined by and intended to reinforce the paradigm. In contrast to the romantic notion of scientists as mavericks constantly challenging assumptions and theories, Kuhn painted a picture of groupthink and conformism: he said that the vast majority of scientists were involved with normal science, puzzle-solving that makes Nature fit the paradigm.

Like any community biased by its expectations and conditioned to validate its own assumptions, scientists working in a given paradigm emphasize the data that works and ignore the anomalies. In time, however, the anomalies may start to create the awareness of crisis in the paradigm; researchers may try to contextualize the data into a new framework that rivals the old paradigm. If it proves useful enough, like-minded researchers will support the new framework and it will produce a new paradigm when the proponents of the old one either come around to the new way of thinking or (more often) leave the profession and die out.

How Evidence Is Beside the Point

The most striking things about this scenario is the lack of emphasis on evidence. The ease with which scientists can ignore or de-emphasize anomalies is a hallmark of normal science. The very way data is conceptualized and defined under the new paradigm is vastly different than under the old one:

Many of the puzzles of contemporary normal science did not exist until after the most recent scientific revolution. Very few of them can be traced back to the historic beginning of the science within which they now occur. Earlier generations pursued their own problems with their own instruments and their own canons of solution. Nor is it just the problems that have changed. Rather the whole network of fact and theory that the textbook paradigm fits to nature has shifted. Is the constancy of chemical composition, for example, a mere fact of experience that chemists could have discovered by experiment within any one of the worlds within which chemists have practiced? Or is it rather one element—and an indubitable one, at that—in a new fabric of associated fact and theory that Dalton fitted to the earlier chemical experience as a whole, changing that experience in the process? Or by the same token, is the constant acceleration produced by a constant force a mere fact that students of dynamics have always sought, or is it rather the answer to a question that first arose only within Newtonian theory and that that theory could answer from the body of information available before the question was asked?

Different Paradigm, Different World

Most infuriating for the science fans, Kuhn stresses that scientists’ ways of thinking are so theory-laden that researchers in different paradigms are looking at different worlds. That is, they’re seeing the phenomena with such a different basis for understanding it that they have no common language with which to discuss it and make objective theory-choice decisions. “Kuhn’s Gap” is the term philosophers of science use to talk about the incommensurability of competing scientific frameworks; the evidence doesn’t bridge this gap, but rather the notion of cogency in scientific communication.

So Kuhn has done away with the idea of scientific truth having a degree of correspondence to reality; he compares the concept of science progressing toward truth to the outmoded concept of biological evolution progressing toward some goal. A scientific theory or framework is only better if researchers find it more useful in inspiring problem-solving that generates coherent data.

In a book of barely two hundred pages, Kuhn shook the foundations of the way we define scientific inquiry and conceptualize progress, and described the limitations of our knowledge of what’s real. I highly recommend this book to people who want to understand the scientific process in a more nuanced and realistic way.

Who else here has read Kuhn? Do you agree with his ideas? Has his influence been good or bad?

Browse Our Archives