Kuhn on science

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Kuhn on science

In 1962, Kuhn produced a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The book caused a storm of controversy. His account challenges the rationality of science. His theory, based on historical examples, suggests that science is characterised by phases of very conservative practice (normal science) followed by periods of revolutionary upheaval. The sociological characteristics of communities of scientists play a very important role in his account.

Kuhn argues:

1. Scientists are not open-minded but are strongly committed to their theories.

2. Scientists try to defend rather than falsify their theories.

3. Scientists, if forced, will modify theories rather than give them up.

4. Scientists are socialised into the academic culture of scientific communities, centered on particular disciplines.

5. The communities work in consensus groups based on a shared paradigm.

Kuhn on science

6. A paradigm is a research tradition, a whole way of thinking and working (see later notes on paradigms).

7. Once socialised into a paradigm scientists find it difficult to describe it. It becomes common sense and is rather like us trying to describe riding a bike - it's obvious.

8. The paradigm is necessary. If scientists constantly questioned it little empirical research would get done.

9. Within the paradigm, normal science is a puzzle solving activity. Kuhn compares it to doing a jigsaw. Failure to solve puzzles reflects not on the paradigm but on the researcher.

10. In the course of normal science anomalies occur. Many might be talked away or ignored, but gradually they accumulate. The paradigm becomes unstable.

11. The seriousness of the crisis deepens when a rival paradigm appears. The new paradigm will regard different kinds of questions as more appropriate and meaningful and will apply different and incompatible standards.

12. When scientists switch paradigms Kuhn likens it to a religious conversion. Once converted the scientist understands the world in a new way, and one that is incompatible with the old.

13. New paradigms cannot be tested by old methods.

Kuhn on science

14. Once scientists adopt a new paradigm they cannot revert to their old way of seeing the world.

15. A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents, but because the opponents die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with the new paradigm.

16. Scientists convert for social rather than rational reasons.

17. The triumph of the new paradigm Kuhn calls a revolution. Once complete a new period of normal science sets in.

18. Kuhn holds that social factors do not merely affect the conditions under which scientific knowledge is produced, they also affect the theoretical judgements of scientists.

19. Thus the problem of cultural relativism is raised in a very acute form. If all knowledge is shaped by social and cultural forces, can we distinguish between genuine knowledge and mere belief?

Kuhn's work is particularly interesting to social scientists for two reasons:

1. He forces us to reconsider our assumptions about science. Assumptions that may carry over into social science.

2. The concept of the paradigm has been very influential within social science.

The essential features of a paradigm are:

  • It forms the underlying theoretical model on which a particular branch or sub branch of science is based at any given time.
  • It is accepted without question by all of those working in the field at that time.
  • It effectively determines the sort of problems that scientists should and should not investigate (for example, chemists don't do physics).
  • It effectively determines the way in which such problems are tackled by giving rise to set procedures, rules and standards.

Normal science means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice. This knowledge is visible in the form of text books.

People educated in the same way and doing research into the same areas tend to be committed to the same rules and standards of scientific practice. There will seldom be disagreement over fundamentals, and so there develops and is sustained a particular research tradition.

When problems arise that cannot be answered without a radical revision of the paradigm the possibility of a scientific revolution occurs. Guided by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places.

Even more importantly, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking in places they have looked before. The familiar becomes strange, and is seen in a new light. After a revolution, scientists are responding to a new world. However scientists do not call these changes what they are; a change in opinion, but rather a correction of a mistake.

Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism does not say, 'I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite'. That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. Instead, a convert to the new astronomy says, 'I once took the moon to be a planet, but I was mistaken'. The shift in scientific vision is disguised as an advance in knowledge.

Kuhn on science

Examples of revolutions in scientific paradigms are:

  1. The Darwinian revolution in the 19th century.
  2. The Copernican revolution.
  3. The Einstein revolution.

If correct Kuhn is suggesting that natural science, like social sciences, is studying not an objective world but a created world, one created by the interpretations of the scientists studying it. Kuhn rejects objectivism and announces the relativism of all knowledge.