Home > education, management, Planning, research > Reflection on Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (part 2)

Reflection on Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (part 2)

Thomas Kuhn’s influential book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” ignited a firestorm of debate and controversy in 1962 which continues unabated to this very day. Noted as the most widely cited book in the 20th century, Kuhn’s writing has penetrated the public consciousness to shape our collective language and thinking about science, truth and ethics. If anything, his work is timelier today than when it was originally written. His concepts and concerns are at the center of many important policy debates raging in the headlines of the popular press. I will review several of his important concepts, the immediate reaction of his peers, his connection to the history of the philosophy of science and describe how his ideas shape modern policy debate with several examples. I conclude by examining how his ideas have shaped my thoughts on the nature of the relationship of science to society.

Several important concepts:

Kuhn characterizes the conduct of science as occurring within three distinct phases: pre-paradigm, normal and revolutionary. In the pre-paradigm phase, groups of scientists begin inductively creating proto-theories from their observations. They offer tentative hypotheses about the nature of cause and effect and organizing principles within their domain of study. Until such time as a particular theory dominates all of the others in its field and offers a broad explanation that most practitioners can support, Kuhn describes scientists as operating within the pre-paradigm phase. (Kuhn, 1996; Pajares, 2004)

When scientists studying a particular domain merge their ideas into a comprehensive body of knowledge upon which they can all mostly agree, they have moved into the phase of normal science, with Kuhn’s term “paradigm” describing their consensus worldview of how the world works. The paradigm can be thought of as a meta-theory encompassing the broadest possible view of that scientific domain. It lays out the concepts, processes, terms of art, laws of cause and effect and offers insights into recommended areas for further research. The paradigm represents the body of commonly agreed professional knowledge that a scientist must master in order to be credentialed and therefore certified to work in a scientific domain. During the course of normal science, conducted within the boundaries of the governing paradigm, anomalies will naturally occur where observations contradict the predictions derived from the paradigm’s theory. During periods of normal science, these anomalies are reconciled routinely or explained away; they do not challenge the underlying validity of the paradigm in the minds of the scientists. When, however, a sufficient number of scientists interpret the anomalies as a challenge to the underlying paradigm itself and they begin to offer alternate, incommensurable paradigms then Kuhn says the scientists have entered the revolutionary phase of science. (Kuhn, 1996; Pajares, 2004).

The revolutionary phase of science, Kuhn says, consists of a battle of survival between competing paradigms which cannot be resolved until one paradigm dominates. The competing paradigms offer such dramatically different interpretations and understandings of the world that they cannot even share concepts. As an example, there is no synthesis or middle ground between the view of combustion as oxidation and the phlogiston theory of combustion. The paradigms are so complete and separate that you cannot hold both in your mind at once. This is what Kuhn means by incommensurability. The revolutionary phase of science is over when one paradigm dominates, which allows a return to the phase of normal science. (Kuhn, 1996; Pajares, 2004)

Kuhn observed that the history of science, obviously written with an eye towards the past, had taken the form of grand narrative. This means that the explanation of the evolution of scientific theory was written as if the dominant paradigms discovery and propagation was a matter of inevitable necessity, with scientists progressing inexorably along the path towards truth and knowledge. He believed, however that the actual development of scientific knowledge did not follow such a romantic, narrative tradition. Instead, he believed that science proceeded in non-linear leaps and bounds, shaped by social and political dynamics of groups of scientists and sponsors and not by the rational, logical development of inquiry, experiment and reflection. (Kuhn, 1996; Stanford encyclopedia, n.d.; Pajares, 2004)

Kuhn was directly concerned about the development of physical sciences, but his work was used by social scientists and critical philosophers to support their views on the nature of rationality and objectivity in ways that generally opposed the positivism. His work has become very influential in the worlds of business and popular culture to the point that the word paradigm has developed so many meanings as to be meaningless in a precise sense. (Goldman, 2008, Pajares, 2004))

Philosophers of science have observed that Kuhn’s work broke no new ground, with his central theory dating back to the debate between Plato and his Ideals and the ”earth gods” represented by Protagoras and his belief that man was the measure of all things. (Goldman, 2008; infed,n.d.). History abounds with examples where social, religious and political pressures have shaped the scientific consensus of the day. The debates of theoretical physics concerning the wave theory and particle theory of light, and the nature of space, time, mass and velocity in the early 20th century, contain many of the philosophical implications that Kuhn later developed. It is fair to say that Kuhn brought together these disparate strands of argumentation into an accessible and timely book which brought the debate to the forefront.

My summary of Kuhn’s key assertions, developed in our Moodle discussions (Long, 2009)

The book is an argument that science is not entitled to the claims that:

  • science deserves special consideration as the most reliable means of creating knowledge of the world
  • science and scientists deserve their reputation for objectivity and truth seeking
  • science is a process driven by reason, rationality, logic and facts and which values Truth above all else
  • scientists even understand their own profession

This is a book which has been taken seriously by world class scientists and philosophers on both sides of the question of the nature of science and its place in society for over 40 years, is one of the most cited books in academic circles in the 20th century, and has even penetrated the popular consciousness. Its central idea remains an important part of theoretical debate even today.

Kuhn’s use of paradigm was as a construct to describe the reasons why revolutions in science occur at critical times, as opposed to the tactical disputes that arise when particular elements of theory are in dispute, but which do not threaten the meta-theory held by the vast majority of the mainstream at a given time.

He argues that the method of making knowledge and deciding on what shall constitute the paradigm is not exclusively a rational process.  He argues that there are times when paradigmatic crises occur that transcend the dialectic of normal science. He doesn’t argue against the scientific method at all; in fact as a scientist he favors its use; he is pointing out that scientists have not been true to the principles of the scientific method by allowing social dynamics to guide scientific consensus instead of using the scientific method. (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.)
            Climategate is the popular name given to the revelation of decidedly unscientific practices of certain climate scientists that cast doubt on the validity of their research methods, data, conclusions, and reports. I think Kuhn would point at the Climategate news story as a validation of his central thesis. I look at Climategate as a serious indictment of certain scientists guilty of fraud on many levels if the worst allegations are substantiated. Look how far the field has come from the time of Galileo, who risked his life by confronting the powerbrokers of his time by standing up for the truth revealed by the scientific method, to the scientists of Climategate, who have allegedly perverted the search for truth by falsifying data, slandering skeptics, denying them access to peer reviewed journals, and very nearly committed politicians to supporting policies with billions of dollars which could be better spent on real issues. That’s a 180 degree turn. Their actions stand to cast all scientific claims into disrepute. I expect the event will be cited by extremists on both sides of the political aisle to justify disregarding scientific opinion in future policy debates. 

Why Kuhn matters

We are facing the rise of mob-ocracy, schooled by television and Twitter; this is Socrates’ worst nightmare (he distrusted democracies for this very reason) (Hadot, 2002). Properly employed, the scientific method is supposed to have the checks and balances required to prevent exactly this kind of perversion of knowledge creation (SparkNotes, n.d. for a discussion on Descartes and ideal objective scientific method).

With science becoming more complex, it becomes harder for the public to judge the merits of specific scientific arguments in matters that affect public policy. At the same time, scientific policy decisions have global consequences. Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus (Lomborg, 2006) is an example of the real trade-off decisions facing public policy makers, and with scientists representing many sides of each individual policy position, it becomes problematic for non-scientists to evaluate the merits of the scientific claims. In Jefferson and Franklin’s era it was still possible for policy makers to be men of science who could evaluate claims on their own. The complexity of modern science has made that impractical. At a time when we need scientists to be honorable, objective and rational more than ever, an issue like Climategate serves to reinforce ever possible negative stereotype and cast all scientists as advocates instead of disinterested investigators.

In a recent edition of The American Thinker two articles ran side by side to demonstrate this point. Lisa Schiffren castigates journalists, businessmen and the public for cooperating with the false image of Tiger Woods public persona, and wonders why the public could not penetrate the charade (Schiffren, 2009). In the very next article, Charles Chantrill uses the same language and reasoning to castigate all scientists and their claims to objective knowledge and truth, not just those implicated in Climategate. (Chantrill, 2009). His recommendation is to treat science as simply another mode of making policy claims, co-equal to that of journalists, politicians and other advocates. This is a practical application of the theoretical position of radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, who thought Kuhn didn’t go far enough in his deconstruction of post-positivistic science (wordIQ, 2004; Goldman, 2008).

My reflections on the meaning of Climategate and Kuhn

With policy issues requiring scientific assessment more prominent than ever before, we need a way to integrate scientific recommendations and assessments into our policy debates in a reliable manner. Issues of health care, beginning and ending or life, medical ethics, privacy concerns and national security, stem cell research, climate change, alternate energy, student centered education, intelligent design and public school curriculum are representative of the far reaching issues that need to be informed by scientists. We must be able to trust but verify the claims of scientists regardless of their funding sources.     We must have transparency and a vigorous public debate with full access to all datasets, especially those that have been publicly funded. The public must be educated to understand the difference between vigorous and healthy public debate between scientists seeking the truth, and empty rhetoric. In an age of decreasing attention span and multi-media saturation with consumerist advertising, this could be our most important intellectual challenge. For better or worse, Climategate will drag scientists to the center of public scrutiny; their days as privileged guardians of the truth are over.


Chantrill, C. (2009). Climategate’s Bullyboy Scientists. The American Thinker. Retrieved Dec 08, 2009 from http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/12/climategates_bullyboy_scientis.html

Goldman, S. (2006) Course notes: Science wars: What scientists know and how they know it. The Teaching Company.

Hadot, P. (2002). What is Ancient Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Infed editors. (n.d.) michael polanyi and tacit knowledge. infed: the encyclopedia of informal education.  Retrieved Dec 02, 2009, from http://www.infed.org/thinkers/polanyi.htm

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions .Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 Lomborg, Bjørn (ed.), How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 MGM830 Moodle entry authors. (2009). Assorted.  MGM830 Moodle discussions. Retrieved Dec 04, 2009, from http://www.instituteforadvancedstudies.net/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=27823

 New World Encyclopedia editors. (n.d.) Kuhn, Thomas. New World Encyclopedia.  Retrieved Dec 03, 2009, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Thomas_Kuhn

 Pajares, K. (2004). Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; A Study Guide. Pajares’ Kuhn page at Emory University website.  Retrieved Dec 01, 2009, from http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/Kuhn.html

Schiffren, L. (2009). Tiger, Barack, and the Law of Transitivity. The American Thinker. Retrieved Dec 08, 2009 from http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/12/tiger_barrack_and_the_law_of_t.html

SparkNotes Editors. (n.d.). SparkNote on Descartes: Discourse on Method. Sparknotes. Retrieved Dec 02, 2009, from http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/discoursemethod/analysis.html

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy editors. (2004). Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific revolutions.  The Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy (SEP). Retrieved Nov 30, 2009, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thomas-kuhn/ 

WordIQ editors. (n.d.) Demarcation problem: Identification and overview. WordIQ dictionary and encyclopedia index. Retrieved Dec 01, 2009, from http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Demarcation_problem

  1. Terry Lesniak
    December 17, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    “It is significant that the nationalization of thought has proceeded everywhere pari passu with the nationalization of industry.”…E.H.Carr…from F.A.Hayek’s(The Road to Serfdom)Ch.11 The End of Truth.


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