The Structure of Scientific Revolutions



Why did I read this book?

I find the idea that evolution today is mostly technological and not biological powerful. I am interested to learn more about the history of science: how did science develop to the contributor it is today? How are scientific breakthroughs realized? I was curious if Kuhn would offer interesting insights into the development of science as it is today; much like Kevin Kelly attempts in What Technology Wants.

Summary

“Perhaps science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions.” I interpret Kuhn’s main message as trying to explain that scientific progress is not a process of accretion. In other words: new scientific theories do not always adhere to previous scientific theory or build on previous “truths”. Kuhn makes this argument by separating “normal science” from “scientific revolutions”—the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science. The first part of the book explains this distinction. The second part of the book, in my view more interesting, answers three questions

“Why have scientific revolutions previously been so difficult to see?”

“What is the competition between the adherents of the old normal-scientific tradition and the new one?”

“How can development through scientific revolutions be compatible with the apparently unique character of scientific progress.

One reality Kuhn shares with the reader is the difficulty for humans to see the world differently once we have constructed a mental model. Chapter 10, Revolutions as Changes of World View, gives examples of paradigm changes in science through anecdotes. A well-known example is the shift from an earth-centric to solar-centric view of the world; Kuhn adds the stories of the discovery of Uranus (which was by at least 17 observers during its first 100 years classified as multiple stars, not one planet) and John Dalton’s chemical atomic theory, which suggests that atoms can only combine in a whole-number ratio in chemical reactions. 

Anecdotes or passages worth sharing:

In explaining how we fit reality to our menta models:

“When Dalton first searched the chemical literature for data to support his physical theory, he found some records of reactions that fitted, but he can scarcely have avoided finding others that did not. […] it is hard to make nature fit a paradigm. That is why the puzzles of normal science are so challenging and also why measurement undertaken without a paradigm so seldom lead to any conclusions at all. […] even after accepting the theory, [chemists] still had to beat nature into line. […] When it was done, even the percentage composition of well-known compounds was different. The data themselves had changed. That is the last of the senses in which we may want to say that after a revolution scientists work in a different world.”