The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In his heavily influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, author Thomas S. Kuhn challenges the then traditional view of scientific progress by outlining his own schematic for the way in which science is practiced and moves forward. The concept of science as a progression from lesser theories toward the ultimate goal of understanding the natural world, Kuhn argues, is a construction primarily articulated and perpetuated through the way in which science is taught — through textbooks that focus on the prevailing “paradigm” and glorify those scientists who led to its formation and acceptance. The reality of the way that science is carried out, however, is far different.

Science is practiced haphazardly and independently until, united under an agreed upon framework composed of theory, methodology, and instrumentation (what Kuhn calls a paradigm) leads to the pursuance of problem-solving in the realm of “normal science.” Following the unspoken rules implied by the paradigm, scientists attempt to articulate it and solve problems they know to be within its power to solve. When enough anomalies, or inconsistencies, accumulate, a crisis results in which extraordinary research is conducted in an attempt to either “fix” the existing paradigm so that it will include or explain the anomalous data or construct a new paradigm. When shifts in paradigm occur, a scientific revolution has occurred.

Kuhn’s book was at least mentioned in almost all of the reading this week. It clearly had a very important impact on the field; it was the inspiration for the sociology of scientific knowledge movement, which had huge implications for the direction the field went in redefining what science is. By pointing out that science is far from a linear process, getting more “right” as time passes, Kuhn called into question the very basis on which the history of science situated itself.

Reading this book helped me understand the huge implications of the constructivist movement in the practice of the history of science. Kuhn addresses in several statements the prevailing view of science as an accumulation of data and theory that has ultimately led to the superior practice of it today. As someone who grew up reading history that acknowledges the flawed, disjointed, and far from objective characteristics of science, it has been difficult for me to imagine a time in which these adjectives were not used to describe scientific progress (or even science itself). The clear schematic presented as an elucidation of scientific development leaves out many factors that today we know are quite important — institutional authority, cultural predispositions, economic motivations, etc. — but tearing down the goal-oriented idea of scientific endeavor was, I now understand, an important and monumental step in understanding how science is actually carried out.

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