The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 12 : The Resolution of Revolutions | Summary

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Summary

Kuhn now returns to the process of the paradigm shift, focusing his attention on the "step" between the proposal of a new paradigm and its replacement of the existing one. This step, Kuhn explains, is actually a process. The process involves converting the relevant community to the new theory, and getting a group of people to abandon a strongly held belief.

Kuhn has already described part of the process of paradigm shifts in terms of anomalies that resist assimilation by the existing paradigm. Puzzles that cannot be solved give rise to a crisis, whereupon research is conducted, and new theories emerge to explain the solution to the puzzle. This is the period during which normal science is suspended, and work begins outside the existing paradigm. Kuhn likens the process to natural selection, in which the theory best fitted to explain the anomaly wins out over the alternatives.

Kuhn has also previously pointed out the process of replacement is not one of immediate and universal assent to the new theory. Adherents to the existing paradigm are resistant to change. Supporters of the new paradigm work to improve it in an effort to make it more viable, thereby demonstrating what the new community to be built up around the new paradigm will look like. As the number of supporters increases, more work is done on the candidate theory, thereby increasing the output of research in the form of instruments and experiments, and the dissemination of results in the form of articles and books.

Kuhn points out two consequences of the process of revolution. One is the holdouts of the old paradigm may quit working in the field of science. The scope of normal science no longer includes these individuals, and thus leaves them behind. Meanwhile, the second consequence is normal science resumes as the practitioners fully assimilate themselves into a new community.

Analysis

Of particular interest in this chapter are the characteristics of those scientists involved in paradigm changes. Kuhn notes they are often new to the field in which they make their contributions, and they are also typically young. As Kuhn points out, "Any new interpretation of nature ... emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals." On the other hand, those who resist paradigm changes tend to be entrenched in their worldview, one determined and guided by the existing paradigm.

The related combination of youth and newness to the field suggests these scientists are not bound to existing norms. But why is this the case? After all, they have been inculcated into the profession through the educational lens of the existing paradigm. It would seem to follow they would be unlikely to challenge the scientific status quo. According to Kuhn, the investigative standpoint of these individuals is one of "intensely concentrated" focus "upon the crisis-provoking problems." In other words they are not puzzle-solvers within the paradigm, but rather have already adopted the standpoint of paradigm-testing. Presumably, a sufficient number of anomalies have occurred, such that normal science is either ripe for disruption, or has begun to enter that stage.

Another interesting process Kuhn describes in this chapter is the method whereby a new paradigm is validated. A probabilistic model validates a theory, which is to say, it statistically accounts for the majority of findings. In addition, both supporting evidence and resistance to falsification serve to promote the new theory. Kuhn borrows the method of falsification from philosopher and contemporary, Karl Popper. This combination is more robust than merely verification or falsification alone.

A traditional approach to confirming a hypothesis is to conduct tests, each of which results in the same outcome. This repetition is thought to validate the hypothesis, but it is no guarantee. The number of confirmations does not preclude the possibility that one disconfirmation has simply not been uncovered. Popper's falsification theory takes a different approach to experimentation. Here the focus is on looking for disconfirmation—the evidence that contradicts the hypothesis. Lacking such, the hypothesis is confirmed. It is just those anomalies that prompt the crisis in the first place that show the value of the method. As Kuhn points out, "Popper's anomalous experience is important to science because it evokes competitors for an existing paradigm." It also serves to support the establishment of a new one. For Kuhn, then, the "joint verification-falsification process" provides the context for the probabilistic method to do its work.

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