Sunday, September 21, 2008

Paradigm Shifts

I'm reading Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" for my class in philosophy of the social sciences. Kuhn's thesis is that scientific revolutions do not come from the gradual adding on of new ideas to old ideas, but by "paradigm shifts" where one paradigm (or scientific research framework) is discarded by the scientific community for the sake of a new paradigm. His major examples are Copernican astrology which replaced Ptolemaic astrology, and Einstein's physics which replaced Newtons physics. These are not just expansions of previous paradigms, but completely new ideas which came about by observing anomalies in the previous paradigms which could not be explained through the previous research framework. Kuhn believes the vast majority of normal science is "mopping up" to fit the observed world into the current paradigms, until a crisis comes about where some observation cannot fit within a given paradigm and a new one must be created.

This thesis culminates in his last chapter on progress through revolutions (notes here) where he makes the claim that just as art or Darwinian evolution go through periods of change without progress, the paradigm shifts of scientific revolutions are not progress themselves, only changes in perspective and the types of questions asked by science.

Not being very well read in the history of science myself, I was wondering if other contributors could think of anomalies which caused paradigm shifts in other scientific fields, or at least weight in on Kuhn's concept of scientific progress.


Zachary Piso said...

I will list as many as I can off the top of my head. A lot of these changes were in physics, for the obvious reason that new technology has provided a plethora of previously unimagined observations.

Most obvious: Darwin's theory of evolution

This, along with the Copernican, are the most often cited paradigm shifts. True paradigm shifts extend beyond the field they are in, and due to this I feel the Darwinian Revolution was the greatest paradigm shift as the model of evolution has since been applied to almost every mode of thought.

Maxwell's theory of energy waves was huge, and it preceded much of the relevant observations that confirmed it.

Theories in genetics were huge, along with chemistry theories of the elements (this way I can cite Mendel and Mendelev, but I forget who belongs with which science).

Was it David Ricardo who dispelled Malthus on the inevitability of world starvation? As far as social science paradigm shifts I believe this was huge, as the dismal science was replaced by a general optimism regarding economic growth.

Kant's theory of a priori knowledge was a conceptual shift in philosophy, because there was an unresolvable lock between rationalists and empiricists. Most people believe this lock began with Descartes, but really little progress had been made since the earliest Greeks at resolving justifiability and experience.

Medical science had undergone similar transitions, as vaccination and antibiotics were used as treatments before they were really understood, and the model that was likewise developed spurred research that would later explain their processes.

There are others but I'm drawing blanks.

Alvaro Augusto de Almeida said...

Copernican astrology? I suppose you mean "astronomy", don't you?