The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 7 : Crisis and the Emergence of Scientific Theories | Summary



A paradigm can absorb anomalies by way of minor modification. However, this is not possible when the paradigm repeatedly fails to account for large numbers of anomalies. For example, puzzles are not solved using the standard rules—there is a "persistent failure of the puzzles of normal science to come out as they should." In other cases theory is inconsistent with fact, or inconsistent with cultural changes. Given the enormous investment in resources that support work on the paradigm, the anomalies must be significant enough to generate a crisis. The crisis is a "period of pronounced professional insecurity," and is resolved only with the introduction and acceptance of a new paradigm.

Kuhn notes three examples of crises, each of which generated the need for a new paradigm. The geocentric view of the universe, versions of which were advanced by Ptolemy and Aristotle, was replaced by the heliocentric view advanced by Copernicus and Galileo. The phlogiston theory of heat was replaced by the oxidation theory, and the luminous ether theory of light was replaced by the Einsteinian theory. Each initial theory was a plausible paradigm but failed to solve its problems. As Kuhn observes regarding Ptolemy's geocentric view, "The time had come to give a competitor a chance."


Kuhn's focus on the behavior surrounding the construction of a paradigm reveals some fascinating insights into the culture of science. It is typically believed scientists seek truth in a way that makes them immune to various influences. Indeed, there is little doubt scientists are deeply committed to what the evidence tells them. However, Kuhn's point seems to be the evidence always occurs within the constructed aspect of the existing paradigm.

A nonscientific example may clarify the idea. One can assume God exists, that He created the universe and everything in it. This assumption is not needed to "do" science—there are plenty of atheists and theists alike engaged in scientific activity. The assumption God exists leads to a particular worldview, which includes a set of values. What happens when this worldview is challenged? The assumptions are often challenged, as well. For example, when he endorsed the heliocentric theory, Galileo was accused of blasphemy and labeled a heretic. The Catholic Church claimed he could not be both a Catholic and a scientist. The two systems of belief were incompatible.

Clearly, the emerging scientific community was not in a political position to challenge the Catholic Church's authority over all aspects of people's lives, and all people, from peasants to rulers. The pope summoned Galileo to Rome for a hearing. Under threat of torture, he falsely confessed he was wrong and his theory was a fabrication. This is one example of how scientists are not immune to the cultures in which they work.

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