03 May 2012

Paradigm Shift

For my classes last semester I had to read four different books about various aspects of science, and I've finally finished all of them, so the next four entries I'm going to spend detailing those books...

Trade paperback, 212 pages
Published 1996 (originally 1962)
Acquired September 2011

Read November 2011
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
by Thomas S. Kuhn

I first heard the term "paradigm shift" and was detailed on the concept of the scientific revolution my freshman year of high school in "World Cultures" class.  The idea has since lurked in my mind-- much as it has in culture, I think.  But it took twelve years and a philosophy of science seminar to get around to reading it.

Kuhn's work is immediately incredible.  Though it's probably not always right, it's not always right in the way that most big ideas are, because it's so big that there can't not be tons of little exceptions to what he says and how he says it. His model of science, as a series of paradigms that shift but don't necessarily become more truthful, just more useful, is immediately persuasive.  I especially liked what he said about the action of "normal science," the science that happens between paradigms.  Despite the fact that scientists know that major theories are overturned throughout history and will be overturned again, they all proceed as though science has been settled and do these small tiny experiments. 

I also liked his concept of "paradigm vision" (I don't think he calls it this exactly, but I do), that scientists see the world through the lens of their paradigms, and indeed, often find it impossible to bridge the gap between paradigms because it affects the language they uses.  I thought of the Pluto-is-a-planet thing when reading this section; some people cannot believe that Pluto is not a planet because they see the world in such a way that the word "planet" means something that includes Pluto.  How could they possibly accept that it is not a planet?

Of course, Kuhn's ideas are more applicable to physics than other sciences, and rejecting the sciences they don't fit as "immature" is probably not the right solution, but that doesn't stop it from being interesting.  I am kinda disgruntled that Kuhn added an afterword in 1969 to deal with criticisms that had been lobbed at it, instead of actually integrating the criticisms into the main text.  But on the other hand, I'm glad that his response to that criticism can be safely contained in one chapter because the criticisms are all such nitpicky philosophy of science bullshit.

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