the structure of scientific revolutions at 50


Fifty years ago, Thomas Kuhn, then a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, released a thin volume entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn challenged the traditional view of science as an accumulation of objective facts toward an ever more truthful understanding of nature. Instead, he argued, what scientists discover depends to a large extent on the sorts of questions they ask, which in turn depend in part on scientists’ philosophical commitments. Sometimes, the dominant scientific way of looking at the world becomes obviously riddled with problems; this can provoke radical and irreversible scientific revolutions that Kuhn dubbed “paradigm shifts” — introducing a term that has been much used and abused. Paradigm shifts interrupt the linear progression of knowledge by changing how scientists view the world, the questions they ask of it, and the tools they use to understand it. Since scientists’ worldview after a paradigm shift is so radically different from the one that came before, the two cannot be compared according to a mutual conception of reality. Kuhn concluded that the path of science through these revolutions is not necessarily toward truth but merely away from previous error.

more from Matthew C. Rees at The New Atlantis here.