Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Review of Thomas Kuhn's Theory of Scientific Revolution

Thomas Kuhn, in his book 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' he describes the reactions of scientists to new discoveries and hard it is for them to make changes in their basic beliefs.

Kuhn noticed that scientists would go to any lengths to deny the validity of new theories or the need to change their minds. He describes the symptoms associated with fundamental change:

1. Persistent denial
2. Refusal to consider evidence
3. Reluctance to criticize old ideas
4. Slander of new-thinking colleagues
5. Anger at having to give up cherished dogmas

Kuhn begins by formulating some assumptions that lay the foundation for subsequent discussion and by briefly outlining the key contentions of the book.

A. A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs (p. 4).

1. These beliefs form the foundation of the "educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice".
2. The nature of the "rigorous and rigid" preparation helps ensure that the received beliefs exert a "deep hold" on the student's mind.

B. Normal science "is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like" —scientists take great pains to defend that assumption.

C. To this end, "normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments".

D. Research is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education".

E. A shift in professional commitments to shared assumptions takes place when an anomaly "subverts the existing tradition of scientific practice". These shifts are what Kuhn describes as scientific revolutions—"the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science".

1. New assumptions (paradigms/theories) require the reconstruction of prior assumptions and the reevaluation of prior facts. This is difficult and time consuming. It is also strongly resisted by the established community.

2. When a shift takes place, "a scientist's world is qualitatively transformed [and] quantitatively enriched by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory".

Looking back, Kuhn's insight is astoundingly accurate and penetrating. Some people should feel like they are looking into the mirror of themselves. They can disprove neither the theory nor the physical evidence yet trying to hold onto the old paradigm that no longer helps enhance our understanding of the universe.

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