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Does All of Science Really Move In 'Paradigm Shifts'? 265

ATKeiper writes "Thomas Kuhn's landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions just turned fifty years old. In that book, Kuhn coined the expression 'paradigm shift' to describe revolutionary changes in scientific fields — such as the replacement of the geocentric understanding of the universe with the heliocentric model of the solar system. The book was hotly debated for claiming that different scientific paradigms were 'incommensurable,' which implied (for example) that Newton was no more right about gravity than Aristotle. A new essay in The New Atlantis revisits the controversy and asks whether the fact that Kuhn based his argument almost exclusively on physics means that it does not apply as well to major developments in biology or, for that matter, to the social sciences."
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Does All of Science Really Move In 'Paradigm Shifts'?

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  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:4, Informative)

    by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:03PM (#42523131)

    I don't know -- general relativity was a big paradigm shift, and I would say that occurred well after the formative years of science (which I would put in the 16th or 17th century).

    Perhaps the reason it looks like paradigm shifts don't happen any more is that they only come along every hundred years or so.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) * on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:15PM (#42523297)

    The shifts - if they truly exist - have tended to become smaller asymptotically as science progresses.

    This was explained very well by Isaac Asimov in his essay The Relativity of Wrong []. Aristotle and Newton were both wrong about gravity. But, relatively, Aristotle was much more wrong.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:26PM (#42523465)

    "Incommensurable" does not mean that one theory is no more correct than the other. It means that paradigms have different sets of terminologies and that scientists working under different paradigms may use the exact same word to mean two different things. That makes it difficult for them to communicate. That's what "incommensurable" means.

  • Re:I see the problem (Score:5, Informative)

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:36PM (#42523605) Homepage Journal

    That's exactly right. In fact the article complains at great length that the social sciences are a mistake: they're really veiled branches of philosophy, trying to fit a complicated universe to a set of paradigms stolen from other fields (including physics and biology) simply because those fields and models are in vogue. When Kuhn described the process of paradigm change, the social scientists interpreted it as a validation of their methodology, which ran directly against his wishes.

    The summary is hence very dishonest about the book and article; Kuhn explicitly considered his theories inappropriate for the social sciences, and the article never casts any doubt on the applicability of his model to biology; it merely points out that it was an oversight. (And as a biologist, I feel pretty strongly that paradigm shifting applies equally to physics and biology.)

  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:4, Informative)

    by lee1 ( 219161 ) <(lee) (at) (> on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:37PM (#42523611) Homepage
    You're convolving science with engineering. GR is a radical and fundamental conceptual breakthrough of a kind that only occurs every few hundred years at most. Easily on a par with Newton's system of the world. This would be true even if it had no engineering consequences whatsoever; but, in fact, the GPS depends upon it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @03:52PM (#42523817)

    Dyson obviously hadn't read Structures in a while. Kuhn is very clear that changes of instrumentation are paradigm changes. I have been teaching Kuhn in a sociology of science class over the last 15 years. It has long been seen as problematic: too based on physics (no examples from biology), too dependent on the written record (it turns out oral knowledge is very important as is human action, which is not well reflected in the written record), inconsistently selective as to what counts as a paradigm change or challenge (he tries somewhat desperately to counter the charge 70 or so different uses of paradigm in his postscript in the 2nd edition. It's also too Eurocentric ( so much of science developed in the context of warfare, colonialism and global expansion). That said it is a brilliant work, and sets up what has become modern visions of science such as Actor-Network-Theory, even though Kuhn is usually a footnote in modern sociology of science texts.

  • Re:Stupid buzz words (Score:5, Informative)

    by 0111 1110 ( 518466 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:15PM (#42524113)

    By 'paradigm shift' Kuhn is talking about a change in how scientists look at the things. The point is not about whether science is more about moving forward in little baby steps or huge leaps or even whether it moves 'forward' at all, but about what happens when everyone starts looking at things differently. It's' a change in perspective more than some objective 'breakthrough', although a major breakthrough may be the stimulus for a paradigm shift.

    Since I don't have a copy of the book in front of me here's a blurb from wikipedia that seems to understand where Kuhn is coming from.

    A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn's view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.

    There are anomalies for all paradigms, Kuhn maintained, that are brushed away as acceptable levels of error, or simply ignored and not dealt with (a principal argument Kuhn uses to reject Karl Popper's model of falsifiability as the key force involved in scientific change). Rather, according to Kuhn, anomalies have various levels of significance to the practitioners of science at the time. To put it in the context of early 20th century physics, some scientists found the problems with calculating Mercury's perihelion more troubling than the Michelson-Morley experiment results, and some the other way around.


    When enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis, according to Kuhn. During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual "battle" takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm. Again, for early 20th century physics, the transition between the Maxwellian electromagnetic worldview and the Einsteinian Relativistic worldview was neither instantaneous nor calm, and instead involved a protracted set of "attacks," both with empirical data as well as rhetorical or philosophical arguments, by both sides, with the Einsteinian theory winning out in the long-run. Again, the weighing of evidence and importance of new data was fit through the human sieve: some scientists found the simplicity of Einstein's equations to be most compelling, while some found them more complicated than the notion of Maxwell's aether which they banished. Some found Eddington's photographs of light bending around the sun to be compelling, some questioned their accuracy and meaning. Sometimes the convincing force is just time itself and the human toll it takes, Kuhn said, using a quote from Max Planck: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

    After a given discipline has changed from one paradigm to another, this is called, in Kuhn's terminology, a scientific revolution or a paradigm shift. It is often this final conclusion, the result of the long process, that is meant when the term paradigm shift is used colloquially: simply the (often radical) change of worldview, without reference to the specificities of Kuhn's historical argument. []

    By paradigm shift Kuhn is not just talking about a big change in science. The data might be nearly the same, but the conceptual model has changed and the data begins to prove another theory entirely. Don't forget that when Copernicus' theory was first released Ptolemy's model fit

  • Re:Kuhn Paradigms (Score:4, Informative)

    by Sique ( 173459 ) on Tuesday January 08, 2013 @04:17PM (#42524141) Homepage
    Yes and no. According to Thomas S. Kuhn, Einstein's death marks the time when QM was finally accepted by most physicists, while Albert Einstein until his death was fully opposed to QM - famously quoted (and often misunderstood) as "God doesn't play dice". QM had to have been developped before as a paradigm, but only when all classical physicists did no longer work in Physics (which was more drastically described by Th.S.Kuhn as "had died out"), it became an accepted practice in Physics to view the world through QM's glasses. The first generally accepted QM theory was Quantumelectrodynamics, and when this one gave convincing results, physicists tried to take this as a template for other QM theories (so called Gauge Theories), and we got QCD, an extension of QED to the electroweak interaction (SWT), and finally the Standard Model of Particle Physics (which just recently triumphed with correctly predicting the Higgs boson).

"Be there. Aloha." -- Steve McGarret, _Hawaii Five-Oh_