Response: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

7 minute read


When I took my first Physics class as a High School student, my rather inept lab team developed a catchphrase that was frequently invoked when our experiments resulted in data that wildly contradicted the accepted scientific theory: “Mr. Evans,” we would say to our teacher in a mockingly-apologetic tone, “We broke Physics.” Every time without fail, he would dash our hopes by showing us that we had not yet succeeded in breaking his prized subject; indeed, it we poor experimentalists who were broken and must be repaired. This had the immediate effect of us manipulating the experiment to achieve the predicted result, instead of the traditionally-understood method of using experimentation to arrive at a theory. However, this manipulation was simply for the grade; raised on stories of intrepid and independent scientists, we held out for the day when we would break that monolithic institution by discovering an anomaly that would give us agency over the theories and equations instead of the other way around. Putting aside any Friereian critiques of the student/teacher pedagogic model, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions provides an interesting explanation for this story.

Kuhn’s work was published against a backdrop of Popperian falsificationism, in which science was theorized to be comprised of claims that could be empirically tested. A corollary to this is that science moves away from falsehood instead of necessarily towards truth. With such a conception, the enterprise of science became conceptualized as a series of refinements: old theories were rejected when they were contradicted by empirical data, while new theories were accepted when they were confirmed by empirical data. However, as Kuhn and my High School class learned, this depiction is not entirely pure, as there are many documented instances where scientists do not reject theories based on their incongruence with experiment.

It is far more often that scientific practice within this paradigm is refined in order to incorporate anomalies instead of rejecting the paradigm outright: “when confronted by anomaly … [a theory’s defenders] will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict” (78). For example, the Ptolemaic paradigm of astronomy was not rejected when improved optics showed unpredicted phenomena; rather, it became increasingly complex as it attempted to logically and mathematically explain planetary movements from a geocentric perspective. The Copernican model was only given a chance to survive during what Kuhn calls a crisis, in which “proliferating versions of the paradigm … loosens the rules of normal puzzle-solving in ways that ultimately permit a new paradigm to emerge” (80).

One explanation for my teacher’s reluctance to accept that we had stumbled on a groundbreaking new discovery was that we were experimenting not during a crisis, but squarely within the realm of what Kuhn calls normal science: a period in which “research [is] firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice (10). Within a particular period of normal science, which Kuhn calls a paradigm, scientists “are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice” (11). Yet how did my teacher know that my team had not stumbled upon a crisis-inducing discovery on par with Roentgen’s glowing screen, given that both anomalies were initially rejected as bad experimentation by authorities? The answer is that Roentgen’s anomalies were explained with a new theoretical concept, the X-ray, while my team’s anomalies were not accompanied by a new theory. As Kuhn claims, “once it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place” (77).

Because of this, Kuhn argues that the way in which science progresses is a steady refinement and articulation of a paradigm, which is occasionally rejected during a crisis and an accompanying paradigm shift. However, the reason such a theoretical conception of science has not already emerged is, Kuhn argues, due to the very way in which science is taught. Textbooks, which he calls “pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science,” in particular make paradigms invisible by “refer[ing] only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be views as contributions to the statement and solution of the texts’ paradigm problems” (138). Textbooks “have to be rewritten in the aftermath of each scientific revolution” (137); he exclaims that, “no wonder … as they are rewritten, science once again comes to seem largely cumulative” (138).

The problem I have with Kuhn’s indictment of scientific pedagogy is that it fails to follow one of his own paradigms: that in order to be accepted, a theory has to replace another instead of merely discrediting it. I do not see any viable alternative to the traditional model of science education, in which we are indoctrinated into the methods of normal science and only later and under certain conditions are allowed to propose new theories which shift the scientific paradigm. Under a Kuhnian framework, was my team right or wrong to manipulate the data in order to fit the theory predicted by normal science? This leads to a deeper issue: under the same framework, was my teacher right or wrong to tell us that Physics would break us far more often than we would ever break Physics, which had the immediate effect of us anxiously adjusting our experiments in order to produce normal science?

In asking this question, I should note that I am making a distinction between the methods of scientists and the way in which new scientists are educated. Obviously, Kuhn argues that “If authority alone … were the arbitrator of paradigm debates, the outcome of those debates might still be revolution, but it would not be scientific revolution” (167). The issue is how one introduces a student to science, as well as how the distinction between a scientist and a student of science is approached. If an introductory Physics class begins with kinematic equations, for example, do we preface those equations with the caveat that they are only the beliefs of the current instantiation of normal science and are therefore challengeable under certain circumstances? Or, as I was taught, do we preach these theories as universal truths that they should never, ever question, which leads to a rather problematic situation when the graduate student of normal science stumbles upon a crisis-in-waiting.

In a related tangent, the controversy with Kuhn’s argument seems to stem from his explicit comparison between scientific revolutions and political revolutions:

Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life … As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice – there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community (94).

The issue is therefore the same issue any political science department focused on training civil servants would have: does an instructor teach students how the current government or political system operates in a very positivistic fashion, or ought they teach how political systems are transient and open to radical change and critique? The former choice grooms the students to be perfect civil servants who are unprepared for any disruption in the status quo, while the latter leads students to be idealistic and entirely unsuitable for a civil servant position in the first place. The same issue exists in parallel with scientific education, ostensibly for the purpose of training new scientists. Unfortunately, Kuhn’s framework does not seem to provide an answer.