The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 6 : Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discoveries | Summary



The insularity of a scientific community would seem to preclude the sort of change that results in a new paradigm. The fact science does not aim at "novel" or new theories would be further evidence new paradigms should not emerge from scientific work. However, Kuhn has already asserted anomalies occur in the course of doing science. He has also asserted they are often either not seen, ignored, or dismissed. Not only this, but scientists regularly uncover new facts, and propose radically new theories. Consequently, paradigm changes are possible. Kuhn claims there are two ways this can happen. First, paradigms can change through discovery. Second, paradigms can change through new facts or new theories. The former is the focus of the present chapter, the latter the focus of Chapter 7.

Awareness of an anomaly begins the process of discovery "with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science." An anomaly is a puzzle that resists a solution in normal practice under the current paradigm—an occurrence contrary to expectation. Discovery itself is not a one-off event, but instead an "extended episode[s] with a regularly recurrent structure."

Kuhn provides three examples of a novel anomaly: the discovery of oxygen, the Leyden jar, and X-rays. Oxygen, for example, is now understood to bond with carbon, releasing the energy to create combustion. However, prior to the discovery of oxygen scientists believed combustion was a process whereby burning objects release phlogiston.

These anomalies were novel in they violated the expectations generated by the current paradigm. Upon further examination and exploration, the anomalies forced the paradigm change and became expected.

The adjustment process involves a shift in the researcher's perspective. Kuhn points out it is not only the case the theory is adjusted when a new fact is assimilated, but also this assimilation isn't complete unless the scientist "learn[s] to see nature in a different way." Kuhn discusses the second way paradigms shift in the following chapter.


The difference between a puzzle and an anomaly may be illustrated by a problem that cropped up after Copernicus introduced his hypothesis. The expectation—given the earth traverses around the sun—is during the earth's orbit, the farthest stars should appear to change position in relation to the nearer ones. This is similar to how one should expect moving around a room would involve a change in the appearance of objects in the room relative to one's position. In one's original position, a table at the far side of the room was to the left of the door. As one moves around the room the table now appears to the right of the same door. This was not observed, however, in the case of the stars. The puzzle was explained—for centuries, no less—by the distance of the stars. More specifically, they were too far away for the relevant changes to be detectable. Once more powerful telescopes were produced, however, they were detected. The failure to observe what was expected was an anomaly, but it did not upend the current paradigm.

However, when an anomaly leads to the disruption of a paradigm the observable facts and the theory that interprets them coalesce in a way not possible under the existing paradigm. The broad agreement among scientists about the way the world is and the consensus about what counts as good scientific research no longer holds. Observations violate the current theory, thereby prompting a revision that incorporates what works from the old theory into the new one.

Indeed, much is invested in maintaining the current paradigm. Equipment is built for research, and technical terminology is developed to increasingly refine concepts used to talk about the science. As previously mentioned, a culture is built up around it, so there is resistance to paradigm shifts. Moreover, because paradigms win out over competing theories, they are known to be resilient. At the same time, the increase and intensity of precision with which the paradigm is understood—made possible by the development of instruments and vocabulary—also allow researchers to recognize when an anomaly cannot be overlooked.

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