Book Review: Kuhn’s Structure

thomas kuhnThe structure of scientific revolutions

The book summary and comments

 

INTRODUCTION
CONTEXT
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
CHAPTER 1: A ROLE FOR HISTORY
CHAPTER 2: THE ROUTE TO NORMAL SCIENCE
CHAPTER 3: THE NATURE OF NORMAL SCIENCE
CHAPTER 4: NORMAL SCIENCE AS PUZZLE SOLVING
CHAPTER 5: THE PRIORITY OF PARADIGMS
CHAPTER 6: ANOMALY AND THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES
Chapter 7: CRISIS AND THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENTIFIC THEORIES
CHAPTER 8: THE RESPONSE TO CRISIS
CHAPTER 9: THE NATURE AND NECESSITY OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS
CHAPTER 10: REVOLUTIONS AS CHANGES OF WORLD VIEW
CHAPTER 11: THE INVISIBILITY OF REVOLUTIONS
CHAPTER 12 THE RESOLUTIONS OF REVOLUTIONS
Chapter 13 PROGRESS THROUGH REVOLUTIONS
AFTER KUHN

INTRODUCTION

Thomas Kuhn was a graduate of Harvard University in physics. However, while at Harvard, he made a switch from physics to the history and philosophy of science. His most seminal work is the structure of scientific revolutions which was published in 1962 and a second edition was published in 1970. It gained immediate popularity (and notoriety) after its publication as we will shortly see in the ensuing discussion. You can also consult the Wikipedia entry for further information on Thomas Kuhn.

 

CONTEXT

Before Kuhn signs were thought to proceed in a linear fashion and in a cumulative way. Kuhn discrete with both these characterizations. Before Kuhn, the predominant scientific theories in philosophy of science were logical positivism and Popper’s theory of verification through negation.

Logical positivism seeks verification of scientific facts through induction and empiricism. For more on that see Wikipedia entry.

Karl Popper on the other hand, sought to verify scientific facts through falsification. For more on that see Wikipedia entries on Karl Popper and falsifiability.

 

 

SUMMARY OF THE BOOK

 

CHAPTER 1: A ROLE FOR HISTORY

 Kuhn begins by formulating some assumptions that laid the foundations of his book. His scientific community works according to a set number of beliefs. In normal day-to-day science under one paradigm (which Kuhn calls “normal science”) nature is boxed into certain set of beliefs or a paradigm (Kuhn, page 5). This day-to-day activity is disrupted by accumulation of anomalies which ultimately sometimes result in scientific revolutions.

CHAPTER 2: THE ROUTE TO NORMAL SCIENCE

Normal science or paradigm has two characteristics: achievement that is sufficiently unprecedented to attract a large group of adherents and it’s open-ended nature to leave unanswered questions for posterity.

Paradigm is practiced through law, theory, application, and instrumentation together (Kuhn, page 10).

Scientific revolutions, which is a relatively new historical phenomenon after Newton, is a process where one paradigm transitions to another paradigm.

A paradigm is essential to scientific inquiry as it gives normal science a theoretical and methodological system and belief that helps with scientific inquiry.

 

CHAPTER 3: THE NATURE OF NORMAL SCIENCE

Normal day-to-day science has to do quite a bit of “mopping up”, an activity that tries to force nature into that particular paradigm (Kuhn, page 24).

It has three general areas of problems which take up most of the energy of the scientific community. This includes determination of significant fact, matching of facts with theory, and articulation of theory.

 

CHAPTER 4: NORMAL SCIENCE AS PUZZLE SOLVING

According to Kuhn, normal  science on a day-to-day basis does not look for novelties but is more concerned with puzzles following. Nowhere else it is more apparent than at individual level (Kuhn, page 38). All these activities, conceptual or theoretical or instrumental or methodological are geared toward puzzle solving by the scientific community. At the highest level it of course seeks to understand the world better.

 

CHAPTER 5: THE PRIORITY OF PARADIGMS

Here Kuhn is making a distinction between paradigm, rules, and normal science.

A paradigm is not hard to discover according to Kuhn it lies in textbooks, lectures and laboratory exercises.

To determine shared rules it takes a second step. However, to extract rules of a paradigm is not easy sometimes because Kuhn claims that under certain paradigms there may not be any concrete rules. In this,: is trying to reframe the concept of attributes by Wittgenstein. For example when we say what is a chair? Usually, people will understand what a chair means because according to Kuhn chair belongs to a concept of natural families, each constituted by a network of overlapping and crisscross resemblances. If these resemblances were merged into one concrete concept then we would be successful in identifying and naming all these objects. Something of the same sort holes for research problems and techniques within a certain paradigm. That is, in other words, scientists work with models instead of a concrete set of rules.

From this, he goes to the next step of his argument that is, within a certain paradigm without a concrete set of rules scientists learn their paradigm by practicing problem-solving both with paper and pencil and in the laboratory. So as a consequence scientists are better in PRACTICING a paradigm than ELUCIDATING it.

Moreover, scientists working within an established paradigm don’t question the rules.

Chapter summary: whereas rules definitely need a paradigm, a paradigm can work without obvious rules.

 

CHAPTER 6: ANOMALY AND THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES

Normally, the puzzle solving activity of science is a highly cumulative enterprise and this is the image of science that we identify with most.

However, paradigm changes do take place. They take place by two mechanisms (according to Kuhn this distinction is sometimes artificial):

– Discoveries or novelties of fact that are the focus of this chapter.

– Inventions or novelties of theory will be discussed in the next chapter.

DISCOVERIES are novelties of fact: 

These could be of different kinds,

1. Intertwined factual and theoretical novelties as in the discovery of oxygen. This went through several steps namely, first, recognizing that something is (in this case oxygen); second, what it is (like the realization by Lavoisier that it is a different species of gas); third, gradual paradigm change (that is from phlogiston theory to modern chemical theory); and finally the advanced awareness beforehand that something is amiss with the current theory.

2. Instrumental, as in the case of x-ray discovery by Roentgen. (Page 57)

3. Theory induced, as in the case of Leyden jar. (Page 61)

Chapter summary: as in the words of Kuhn himself, “in science, as in the playing card experiment, novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.

Discoveries are completed when all the steps including observation, awareness, and adjustment of conceptual categories are all completed.

 

Chapter 7: CRISIS AND THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENTIFIC THEORIES

 

Normally, the puzzle solving activity of science is a highly cumulative enterprise and this is the image of science that we identify with most.

However, paradigm changes do take place. They take place by two mechanisms (according to Kuhn this distinction is sometimes artificial):

– Discoveries or novelties of fact that are the focus of the previous chapter. 

– Inventions or novelties of theory will be discussed in the present chapter.

Kuhn argues that discoveries are not the only sources of destructive – constructive paradigm changes. For larger shifts result from the invention of new theories. (Page 66) 

To this effect he gives three examples:

1. The Copernican revolution that resulted from the breakdown of astronomical puzzle solving and social pressure.

2. The discovery of oxygen that resulted from a breakdown of instrumentation.

3. The Einsteinian revolution that resulted from a breakdown of prevailing theories to explain ether drag.

Chapter summary: inventions result from either social breakdown, or instrumentation problems, or theoretical problems. They result in the retooling of prevailing theories and the creation of new paradigms.

 

It is interesting to note that, in the early stages of paradigm shift there are several competing theories that adequately explain a particular set of data.

 

CHAPTER 8: THE RESPONSE TO CRISIS

If crisis is the seed that generates new paradigms then how does the scientific community respond to crises in different ways?

Business as usual:

There is always a lag phase between the emergence of crisis and change paradigms. Normally, the understanding is that new scientific theories emerge by falsification by direct comparison with nature. However, the contention of this chapter is that new scientific theories emerge by comparison of paradigms with nature and with each other.

The other misunderstanding is, that, scientists will reject prevailing paradigms when confronted with new facts. The contention of this chapter is, that, scientists will first devise ad hoc modifications to the present paradigm in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. (Page 78)

Another way scientists deal with this “the essential tension” is to simply leave science (Kuhn, Page 79). 

Contrary to these popular beliefs, science on a day-to-day basis works by matching paradigm – fact rather than “continually strive to bring theory and fact into closer agreement” through confirmation or falsification.

To be fair, a lot of little anomalies will go away over a long period of time. (Kuhn page 81)

True crises:

For Kuhn, a true crisis has the characteristics of pervasiveness, length of time and failure to explain several phenomena (Kuhn page 82).

This crisis may be recognized by contemporary scientists as in the case of Copernicus (Kuhn page 83).

More often, the crisis is implicit. It is resolved in one of three ways. First, normal science can handle the crisis. Second, no solution is reached and the problem is labeled and set aside for future generation. Third, a new paradigm emerges (Kuhn page 84).

From crisis to new paradigm:

The emergence of a new paradigm is not a cumulative process but more off demolition of the old order.

A new paradigm may emerge in its embryonic stage even before the crisis has taken full form as in the case of oxygen discovery and rejection of phlogiston theory (Kuhn page 86).

In other cases, there is a considerable lag between the breakdown of the old paradigm and the emergence of a new paradigm. Examples include Copernicus, Einstein, and contemporary nuclear theory (Kuhn page 86).

Formation of a new paradigm:

this can be achieved in various ways according to Kuhn. First, it could take the form of haphazard experimentation as in the case of Kepler (Kuhn page 87), second, it could take some philosophizing on the part of the scientist or, third, it could be a flash of brilliance.

 

CHAPTER 9: THE NATURE AND NECESSITY OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS

 

The subject matter of this chapter is to develop the argument even further.

In the previous chapters, he showed how a new paradigm explains things differently.

In this chapter, he shows how a new paradigm changes theory, methods, and standards. That is in Kuhn’s own words, “paradigm provides scientists not only with the map but also with some of the directions essential for mapmaking”.

Scientific revolutions according to Kuhn, are like political revolutions in that they are bred from discontent and they are destructive in nature (of old institutions).

Competing paradigms according to Kuhn, do not go through logical discourse but need “techniques of persuasive argumentation” to win the day.

From this analogy, Kuhn proposes his radical premise: scientific progression is not CUMULATIVE as normally believed and taught.

Granted that in certain situations a new phenomenon might emerge without being destructive to the old paradigm or, a new theory does not have the conflict with the old paradigm but just discover some unknown fact about the same paradigm or finally, the new theory might simply be a higher level theory then known before. However, he argues that science progresses in opposition to the above-mentioned ideals and in a noncumulative way. Not only that, it makes cumulative acquisition improbable in principle (Kuhn page 96). Normal scientific research which is in fact cumulative happens within a certain paradigm. For the paradigm to change, new rules need to be elucidated and that in itself is destructive to the older paradigm.

He applies the same rule to the invention of new theories (Kuhn page 97). In this regard he differentiates between three types of phenomena:

First, phenomena already well explained by 16 paradigms.

Second, phenomena that need further elucidation but within the same paradigm and these are the phenomena, according to Kuhn, that scientific research devotes most of his energies toward.

Third, new theories that are new paradigms. And this is what Kuhn is interested in. These are the theories that are logically incompatible with older theories.

Kuhn here gives a very important example of incompatibility (in his mind) between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. The argument against Kuhn (as spelled out by him, Kuhn page 99) is that Newtonian physics works well under everyday conditions and within a limited framework while Einsteinian physics is a broader theory. The counterargument of Kuhn against his argument is that with this kind of logic you can make any theory compatible with newer findings. Moreover carried a logical step further, scientific research would be restricted or prohibited once it steps out of bound of the old theory into her well where new phenomena cannot be explained by dual theory. In this according to Kuhn is logically unexceptionable (Kuhn page 100).

This argument, in general, had a very profound effect on the scientific community at the time of Kuhn. It punched holes in logical positivism which was the prevalent scientific attitude of the day back in the middle of the 20th century.

From here Kuhn proposes is a highly controversial INCOMMENSURABILITY thesis. Deceases is quite simple to understand. When paradigms change it not only changes the way of thinking but also changes the way of practicing science as well. It morphs into new problems, vocabulary, research methods, etc.

Chapter summary: paradigm change is not cumulative but destructive. Moreover, old and new paradigms are incommensurate.

 

CHAPTER 10: REVOLUTIONS AS CHANGES OF WORLD VIEW

 

In this chapter, Kuhn explains how revolutions bring about changes in worldview. It is based on the premise that “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 (Kuhn, page 113).

The mechanism according to Kuhn is “Gestalt switch”. Very simply, and normal science, anomalies lead to crisis and these are terminated, not by deliberation and interpretation, but by a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the Gestalt switch (Kuhn, page 122)

 

CHAPTER 11: THE INVISIBILITY OF REVOLUTIONS

According to Kuhn, revolutions are hidden in the annals of history.

Textbooks are the written records of the history of science which usually truncate the history part and elucidate only the prevailing paradigm and its details.

This is also because the big three sources of scientific history namely, textbooks, popular culture, and philosophy of science all trace scientific history backward and in a linear fashion. But this view or methodology is simply not how the history of science usually unfolds.

 

CHAPTER 12 THE RESOLUTIONS OF REVOLUTIONS

 

The transition from old to a new paradigm is facilitated by two characteristics of adopting scientists. One, they are focused on “crisis – provoking problems”; other, they are the younger bunch and therefore relatively shielded from the clutches of the old paradigm.

Normally, in day-to-day science, the paradigm itself is not tested rather scientists are engaged in problem-solving within a certain paradigm. However when two paradigms clash this process parallels two important philosophical theories about verification according to Kuhn.

First is probabilistic verification and the second is verification through falsification as developed by Karl Popper. Kuhn, however, is critical of both approaches.

The problem with probabilistic verification is that it can only choose from options at hand. This is similar to natural selection where the most viable option is picked out. However, these choices that are available at hand, are in turn dependent upon particular historical context and the data that is collected. Change any of these variables and you can come up with very different options to choose from.

 

The problem with verification through falsification as made popular by Popper is that it is too stringent. Moreover, in real life, things work more in probabilistic terms as opposed to complete falsification or verification. This is one thing that is just not available to the scientists: absolute certitude. Even if the rules are slackened to allow some “improbability” or of “degree of falsification” this then will run into same problems as probabilistic verification as noted above.

According to Kuhn, a better model would be to utilize both verification-falsification is a two-step process to reach a more probabilistic conclusion. This means that when all is said and done the new paradigm explains facts better than the old paradigm in not an absolute sense but in a more probabilistic sense. (Here he quotes the competing theories put forward by Priestley and Lavoisier. Both had explanatory power, however, Lavoisier’s theory had a better probability of explaining things.

After paradigms clash and the new paradigm comes out as the winner we are now faced with the problem of incommensurability of paradigms. Incommensurability has the following aspects:

One, the standards and definitions of science are not the same in competing paradigms.

Two, the vocabulary in competing paradigms, though similar, maybe assign different meanings. For example, in Newtonian physics space is a three-dimensional concept. However, in Einstein’s general theory of relativity space is curved. Therefore, although the word space is used in both paradigms, it has a different meaning.

Third, not only the vocabulary has different meanings but people from two different paradigms live in two different worlds. Here things are interrelated differently.

Kuhn has an interesting take on conversions and resistance.

Resistance to conversion according to Kuhn, is sometimes legitimate as it keeps the normal science going. However, resistance is usually not amenable to logical or strict proofs. It just boils down to human nature. Human beings resist change.

Conversion on the flipside is equally interesting. It can happen for all sorts of reasons. It could be completely unexpected as in the case of Kepler who became a Copernican because he was a sun worshiper! The idiosyncrasies could be countless. Second, conversion can happen because the new paradigm can solve current problems better than the old paradigm. Third and more importantly according to Kuhn, is the future predictive strength of the new paradigm that helps and conversions. Initially, people did not follow Copernicus but due to better future predictions, the theory gained popularity and acceptance eventually. Fourth, the paradigms may just be more appealing in terms of aesthetics (logical and otherwise) that win over new converts. One of the biggest examples Kuhn cites is the conversion from Ptolemaic to Copernican paradigm.

 

Chapter 13 PROGRESS THROUGH REVOLUTIONS

 

In this chapter, Kuhn tackles the problem of scientific progress. He starts by asking how is scientific progress is different from progress in our, political theory, or philosophy. He divides the discussion into progress during normal science and progress during revolutions.

Progress during Normal Science:

For Kuhn, part of the issue is entirely semantic. To him, the term “science” is reserved for fields that progress in certain obvious ways. This issue is particularly tricky for the social sciences.

After it is recognized that we tend to see science as any field in which there is progress the next question is why is it a characteristic of science. Kuhn suggests that to answer this question we need to rearrange our present concepts about science. Common wisdom dictates that a particular field progresses because it is a science. Kuhn inverts the whole concept and asks is it a science because it makes progress?

Normally, under a specific paradigm work is being done and progress made in terms of new inventions. However, this kind of creative activity also happens in other social sciences. Take the example of a philosopher who refines the Kantian imperatives and contributes to progress in philosophy. Or a theologian who is articulating new concepts. However, in philosophy when progress is made within one school it’s foundations are usually challenged by competing schools. This leads to a make-and-break process where progress is hard to decipher. In normal science, however, there are usually no competing schools when a certain paradigm is in vogue. This gives the appearance of progress which according to Kuhn is part of the answer to scientific progress (Kuhn, page 163). Simply put, is partly an illusion.

The second more important reason is that the scientific community is insulated from common people. So, unlike engineers or physicians or even theologians, scientists “need not choose problems because they urgently need a solution and without regard for the tools available to solve them” (Kuhn, page 164).

This installation is intensified by the fact that real scientific work is often not reviewed by students of science. The exposure is mainly through textbooks which give them a cookbook recipe instead of the original work. This is in contradistinction to works of say poets and singers etc. where they work has maximum exposure to the public, which in turn, makes them open to critique by common people.

Progress during Revolutions:

To Kuhn once again, progress during extraordinary science or revolutions is a definitional quirk. How is that? When a new paradigm wins it is very easy to call that progress. In this regard, a scientist after a paradigm change is not unlike a character from George Orwell’s 1984 who is a victim of a history rewritten by the ruling class.

There is a clear distinction though. Unlike an Orwellian community which is authoritarian, the scientific community has certain unique characteristics. These characteristics are peculiar to the societies that descend from Hellenic Greece and have developed science as a discipline in the past four centuries.

Membership in this community demands problem-solving inclination. Moreover, problem-solving is geared toward the behavior of nature. Also, the solutions should not be personal explanations but should be accepted by many. There is no political appeal but set standards and rules set up and agreed upon by the community itself. With this setup, the scientific community is very efficiently capable or problem-solving but also closed off to external criticism until “nature” intervenes to disrupt their cherished beliefs. The new paradigm should have two important conditions met: first, it must resolve some outstanding issues that the old theory cannot resolve, second, it should promise concrete problem-solving prospectively. When all this happens, the new paradigm narrows the scope of the community’s professional concerns and increases the extent of his specialization with very important aftermath. According to Kuhn, although science grows in depth it may not grow in breath as well.

From here Kuhn purports that science does not have any particular direction. This lack of goal orientation is akin to evolution by natural selection. He quotes the example of the theory of evolution when it first came out, the greatest problem with faced was not the feasibility of the theory but the fact that it purported the idea that evolution was directionless. Not only mentally and psychologically unsettling it was against the scientific grain of the time as well. Thus in his concluding chapter, Kuhn strips scientific progress from any teleological development as well.

 

AFTER KUHN

In progress…

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