Book Club: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (August 2018)

This month we read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn.

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American historian and philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn was a leading contributor to the change of focus in the philosophy and sociology of science in the 1960s. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kuhn received a doctorate in theoretical physics from Harvard University in 1949 and later shifted his interest to the history and philosophy of science, which he taught at Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, Princeton University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1962, Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which depicted the development of the basic natural sciences in an innovative way. According to Kuhn, the sciences do not uniformly progress strictly by scientific method. Rather, there are two fundamentally different phases of scientific development in the sciences. Kuhn’s theory has triggered widespread, controversial discussion across many scientific disciplines.

In many ways, Kuhn broke the understanding of science:

In Kuhn’s study, science as it was actually practiced, didn’t work like this at all. Instead it was an oscillation between the normal, commonplace expansion of existing theories and results, and revolutions whereby entire fields were upended and replaced with a new model from the ground up.

Although Kuhn rarely pointed directly to some easily recognizable object as being *the* paradigm he sought to describe… if you’re studying physics for instance, the paradigm is embodied by Newtonian mechanics is balls rolling down inclined planes, pendulums swinging at constant periods or celestial objects following elliptical orbits.

The view, prior to Kuhn, had been that science works via accumulation. Paradigms, in contrast, don’t work this way. Consider a pendulum:

In Newton’s day, it was known that a pendulum, once it started swinging, would continue to swing at the same rate, and the closer it approached ideal conditions (less friction or air resistance), it would keep swinging forever. Kinetic energy becoming potential and back again.

Kuhn argues that the Aristotelian view of a pendulum wouldn’t have been to see it that way. In other words, science didn’t just get an accumulation of new facts when it went from Aristotle to Newton. 

In Kuhn’s view, scientific revolutions, like political ones, are a violent affair.

They are not merely the supplanting of the current regime using the tools and structures currently available. Instead they’re a rejection of those tools and often supplant the new theory by breaking the accepted practice of the old one.

In fact, science, according to Kuhn, progresses in a process of three distinct phases: normal science, crisis and revolution.

Normal science is, well, normal. It’s the thing scientists do, except in the times of revolution. Kuhn argues that most of normal science is a kind of puzzle solving. The crisis eventually evolves and soon the anomalies are so prevalent that they cannot be contained in the current paradigm. As a result, scientists increasingly diverge, exploring stranger and broader methods for tackling the problem that begin to depart from the paradigm.

Finally, there’s success, a new theory or paradigm explains the anomalies so well, that other scientists are converted and a revolution is afoot. If the new theory can be pushed successfully to encompass enough of what was already known beforehand, it may triumph over its predecessor wholesale.

In my own life and writing, I feel like I’ve gone through the same process Kuhn describes with many of my ideas. I’ll start with some idea of how life or the world works, and then problems begin to appear in the theory which I push aside. Eventually a new idea comes around that resolves those problems better than before, and I switch over. The old ideas are usually not entirely wrong, but in the new way of thinking they’re wrongly conceived. They don’t match up with the concepts and ideas that now exist in my mind.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was our book for this month in my monthly book club. Each month, I read a new book, and I invite you to read it along with me. At the end of the month, I’ll post a recording or discussion podcast episode like this one, to share my takeaways from the book. I highly recommend reading at least a couple of the books, even if you can’t always keep up with the one-per-month pace.

I’ve been trying to pick books that I think are particularly important, not because they’re necessarily easy to read. My hope is to expose you, even if you just follow this podcast, to some books that are a little different from the usual self-help and business books that populate bookshelves. However, I think the effort you put into reading them can be well worth the effort, perhaps even provoking the revolution in thought that Kuhn described.

Next month, I’m going to be tackling a book that many of you may not agree with. Indeed, when I first encountered the ideas of the book, I was highly resistant, as these too formed an anomaly I wanted to reject. However, much to my chagrin, the book is incredibly good: extremely thoroughly researched, carefully argued and backed up with enormous amounts of data. The book is Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, and I’ll be discussing it on next month’s episode.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there.