I recently read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions because I see it mentioned so damn much and as both a science and history major, I thought it would be a good idea to see what a history of science may look like. Clearly I lack the philosophical or historical background to really evaluate his ideas (which has been done thousands of times already anyway), and so instead I will just discuss what I took from the book and what I found to be provocative – namely, science as puzzle-solving, the obscuration of the history of science, and of course, paradigm shifts.
Science as puzzle-solving. One provocative argument of Kuhn’s is his description of “normal” science as puzzle-solving. While there are scientists who radically change our way of thinking, most scientists simply solve puzzles – problems to which they know they will find answers. Much like a puzzle, the current theoretical framework (or paradigm) is sufficient to produce the solution and it’s just a matter of actually doing the work. Rarely is a puzzle solution not consistent with the paradigm. I think all of the genome sequencing going on today is a perfect example of this. We do not know the sequence of such-and-such organism, but we know the sequencing can be done and we have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Obscuration of history of science. Another argument of Kuhn’s I found provactive was the revision of the history of science. For example, the history of astronomy is often summed up as Aristotle -> Ptolemy -> Copernicus -> Galileo -> Kepler -> Newton -> Einstein. While this history is nice and simple, it ignores the thousands of years of debate surrounding concepts we now take as granted. The simplification may be due to the huge amount of information that students would need to learn in a single course. It also may be interesting to only a few historians and scientists. What is for sure is that the obscuration offers an incorrect picture of how science has changed.
A great example of the revision of history of science is Arlin Stoltzfus’ current blog series, the Curious Disconnect, which explores the debate between Darwinism and Mendelism in the early 20th century and how members of the Modern Synthesis downplayed the influence of the Mendelians/mutationists. Stoltzfus’ history attacks the simplification and obscuration of a critical point of time in the history of biology and Stoltzfus is giving those Mendelians a second chance.
Paradigm shifts. Clearly this idea is the driving theory of Kuhn’s work and it seems to make sense on the surface. Once a forceful theory is established, such as Newtonian mechanics or Einsteinian relativity, most working scientists solve the puzzles offered by that paradigm. If a significant number of those puzzles actually can’t be solved, such as the orbit of Mercury, a time of crisis arises in which a new theory is worked out to explain that anomaly, and a new paradigm is established. It’s beautifully simple.
Although I have not investigated any reviews of Kuhn’s work yet (aside from what I have read so far in What Is This Thing Called Science? by Chalmers), I do think there is some truth to what Kuhn writes. This could be because my history of science is a bit like the Galileo -> Newton -> Einstein presentation of history – those are all major paradigms! – and not because I actually understand how science historically works. Oddly enough, the obscuration of history which Kuhn laments offers a ton of support for his framework.
Another aspect of paradigm shifts I found intriguing was the idea that members of different paradigms view the world in different ways and thus cannot truly communicate with each other. I have been wondering about this “communication breakdown” idea for several months now – could Newton understand Einstein?, for example – and was pleased Kuhn discussed it. I think the problem is not only important for the history of science, but also the future of science. Can we even imagine what science will look like 100 years from now? Can we even imagine the anomalies that could be discovered in the future? Right now it seems science is getting closer and closer to answering many of the BIG questions – are those questions puzzles we can solve now with our current paradigms or are they the causes of the next scientific revolutions? Is there even a way to know until we actually experience the future? I’m not even sure where to look for answers…
If Kuhn had discussed more biology, I may have been able to be a bit more critical of his work. One prominent example of Kuhn’s is the phlogiston theory, a theory that I knew nothing about before reading this book, and so my understanding may have been limited. I plan to look around the web for a analysis of biology through a Kuhnian framework to see what it would look like and see if his historical framework makes any more sense to me (or maybe less sense). Again, Arlin Stoltzfus’ history may be a great example – paradigms and crises included.