The Original Paradigm Shift: How Thomas Kuhn Changed the Way We Look At Science

Kuhn_StructureIn an introductory essay to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, , Ian Hacking, a Canadian philosopher of science, writes, “Great books are rare. This is one. Read it and you will see.”

One way you know Hacking isn’t exaggerating is that you already know one of the key terms Kuhn exposed to popular culture – paradigm shift. We all know a paradigm shift refers to a fundamental and massive change, but did you know the term was coined in Kuhn’s Structure?

What’s really important about Kuhn’s classic isn’t, of course, the introduction of a term, but of an entirely new way of looking at scientific progress. People – including you – may still believe that science progresses in a nice, smooth, linear way as information is gathered and theories are created, tweaked, or discarded as necessary. After all, scientists are logical people, right? Why wouldn’t science progress like this?

Well, if you accept Kuhn’s answer, then you have to entirely reconceptulize how you see scientific progress, and perhaps science itself. And that, above all else, is what makes this such a great, and necessary, book.

The easiest way to explain Kuhn’s message is to use a familiar example (and one Kuhn himself thought proved is point) – the work of Albert Einstein. Everyone knows about relativity, but only by reading about its history is it possible to fully appreciate just how shocking it was for Einstein to challenge centuries of physics – really, challenge Newton himself. That’s not even getting into quantum physics, which was the second of the three major shifts in 20th century science.

The old guard resisted, which makes sense given their work was predicated on Newton being right. The work they did was what Kuhn calls, “normal science,” where scientists work out problems that are allowed or at least predicted by the accepted paradigm. It’s less about discovery and more fleshing out ideas, or filling in an already mostly full paint-by-numbers. But over time problems arise that the paradigm doesn’t seem to answer. Attempts are made to account for it, but eventually it’s clear these attempts are nothing but flimsy supports desperately trying to uphold a collapsing building.

But then, a new, revolutionary idea is introduced, a new way of looking at the world, one that accounts for all the problems scientists were dealing with before.  As I said, there is resistance, and the fighting can get pretty intense (that is, as intense as academic fights get). But if the new paradigm wins out, the result is a fundamentally new way of looking at the universe and our place in it.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this outlook – you might want to look into Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery for an alternative view. However, I personally find it to be a fascinating way of looking at science and one that history seems to validate.

Now, if you’re thinking, “But, wait, I don’t like popular science books or science in general,” my response would be that this isn’t so much a science book as a philosophical one which offers a more impressionistic, organic, and frankly human approach to science than you usually see. It also proves how our entire outlook on, well, everything, is often shaped by theories we barely understand.

Kuhn’s Structure is a great, important book that you should definitely familiarize yourself with but, preferably, read. Because Hacking’s right about what he says in his introduction, “Great books are rare.”

So go read it. Now.


Note – The third major breakthrough in the 20th century that I didn’t mention above is chaos math. I’m currently reading James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science where he makes that argument. I’ll try to write a post on it once I’m done.



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