The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

What You Will Learn from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Gleaned from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, this week’s episode discusses the need for occasional revolutions in the world of science.

When it was first published in 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions marked a significant milestone in the history and philosophy of science. In this book, Kuhn argues that major scientific breakthroughs don’t come from everyday experimentation and data gathering. He believes that transformative ideas occur outside of normal science and arises from revolutions that challenge accepted ways of thinking.

Fifty years later, lessons from this book are still applicable to our current world. The ultimate transformative moment occurs when our paradigm shifts. This means that sometimes, it’s necessary to disassemble a familiar structure and put it back together in a completely different way. This week, Ashto and Jonesy learn that science isn’t a linear, cumulative process; science changes by means of revolutions.


Transition: Noticing Something That’s Not Quite Right

Where is the revolution lurking?

Normal science is focused on explaining and confirming what is already known and expected. It isn’t concerned with discovering new things. However, true discovery occurs when something unexpected or contrary to what was anticipated is observed. These anomalies, which are often significant, must be explained and are not simply dismissed as minor discrepancies. The process of recognising and addressing these anomalies is a complex historical event and not a simple matter of rejecting existing theories.

Discovery begins when we notice something unexpected that goes against what we thought we knew about the world. We then explore this anomaly until we can fit it into our existing understanding of things. However, sometimes this requires a significant shift in our thinking and understanding until we are able to see the world in a new way that includes this new information. Until this happens, the new information is not yet fully part of our scientific understanding.

Discoveries share certain characteristics such as:

  • Prior awareness of an anomaly;
  • Gradual recognition through observation and concepts;
  • Leading to a shift in paradigms and procedures, which can be met with resistance.

These characteristics may be inherent in the way we perceive the world as well.


The Metaphor of Playing Cards

The red spade experiment shows that people tend to use their existing knowledge and context to understand new information. In the experiment, participants were asked to memorise a set of playing cards; one of them being a red six of spades. Many participants incorrectly identified the card as a six of hearts, which demonstrated that people tend to rely on what they already know to make sense of new things.

In the card experiment, most cards were identified correctly, but sometimes an anomalous card (like a black four of hearts) was included and missed without hesitation. However, when shown a red six of spades, many people would say it was the six of spades but there was something wrong with it: “The black has a red border”. With more exposure, they became increasingly confused, but eventually, most people were able to correctly identify it without hesitation.

In the experiment, some anomalous cards were not identified correctly by the subjects. These subjects experienced personal distress and confusion, with one subject even questioning their ability to identify a spade or a heart. Science behaves in the same way. The experiment provides a simple scheme for scientific discovery. Novelty is hard to come by in science, and it is met with resistance due to our preconceived expectations.

A pattern in science is that those who invent new paradigms are often young or new to the field. They are not bound by traditional rules of normal science and can see that these rules no longer work. That’s how they come up with new rules to replace the old ones.


Science: Revolutionary Green Shoots

Discovering growth after the crisis

William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus is an example of how sometimes even the most eminent observers can miss important discoveries. Prior to Herschel’s discovery in 1781, at least 17 astronomers had observed a star in the same position that Uranus occupied, but none had noticed its motion or identified it as a new planet.

Herschel used his self-made improved telescope to observe an object previously seen by other astronomers. He noticed a disk-like feature that was unusual for stars and decided to investigate it further. He observed motion among the stars and postponed identification until he could scrutinise it further. He later announced that he had seen a new comet.

Herschel tried to fit the observed motion of the object into a cometary orbit but failed. After several months, he suggested that it was probably a planet. This object had been observed for almost a century but was seen differently after 1781, as it didn’t fit the previous categories of stars or comets.

The discovery of Uranus led to a major shift in astronomers’ perception – not only of the previously observed object but also of the entire field of astronomy. Herschel’s discovery paved the way for the subsequent discovery of numerous minor planets or asteroids, which were not as easily observable as Uranus. Now that astronomers were prepared to look for additional planets, they were able to identify 20 of them in the first 50 years of the 19th century using standard instruments.


Conclusion of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn observed that scientific progress isn’t always steady and incremental, with researchers adding to existing knowledge calmly. Sometimes, science undergoes revolutions where scientists experience a sudden shift in their way of seeing things. This is like the optical illusion of a candlestick that can suddenly appear as a pair of human faces. Such a paradigm shift can be a time of crisis as it involves dismantling an established framework and building something entirely new. This is different from the process of “normal science”.

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