A Modern Recipe for Scientific Revolutions: Inspired by Thomas Kuhn, Condensed by BSR

Thomas Kuhn, world-renowned philosopher and historian of science, published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions while teaching at U.C. Berkeley in 1962. Kuhn took on the challenge of describing the historical and sociological setting of academic scientists, in the manner one would describe, “What is water?” to deep-sea fishes.

Over five decades later, avant-garde researchers still venture down the library rows to borrow this particular book (as shown by its many annotations!).

Over five decades later, avant-garde researchers still venture down the library rows to borrow this particular book (as shown by its many annotations!).
Image is the author’s own.

At the time of publication, it was not the easiest medicine to digest for extreme orthodox practitioners of science. Surprisingly, his lessons are extremely relevant in present-day discussions of scientific discourse. (One example is academic publishing, which will be discussed by an evolving manifesto at the 4S conference this October.)

“Anomaly appears only against the background,” writes Kuhn. What is our background? Would an anomaly stand out, or blend in to maintain the predominating paradigm in a given scientific group or community? Is experimental error to be redone or overlooked, or is it a result to which we should pay attention and incentivize with further investigation and healthy skepticism?

This is neither a simple nor incremental change to scientific thinking. Exponential progress is made and new fields clump in the stirring pot of revolution, according to Kuhn. “That is why a new theory, however special its range of applications, is seldom or never just an increment to what is already known.”

Despite the loops in logic and probability that entrap the naïve investigator, Kuhn presents clear ingredients to a scientific revolution, coined by the more mainstream term, “a paradigm-shift.” I have broken this down into a protocol, or cookbook recipe if you prefer, for quicker consumption.

Ingredients for a Revolution (How to make a Paradigm-Shift)

No. of Servings: 1 Scientific Community

Ingredients:

  • 1 Time-Honored Scientific Theory
  • Dash of Scientific Imagination
  • Dollop of Controversy 

Directions:

Take 1 Time-Honored Scientific Theory and reject it in favor of a theory no longer compatible with it. Ensure that new theory is capable of further scrutiny via experimental investigations with legitimate solutions. Dash of Scientific Imagination should be used with caution, though not too conservatively. Increased visibility of anomalies in the Time-Honored Scientific Theory should be noted. Dollop of Controversy is enticing, even for skeptical onlookers to consider trying a taste.

Over years, or decades, of simmering on a low flame, a new paradigm (accepted model or pattern) will emerge. This relies on disappearance of the Time-Honored Scientific Theory. As the posterity adapts the modified paradigm, it will develop a newer and more rigid definition of the field.

Clean-Up:

“Normal science,” as coined by Kuhn (i.e., the researchers) will have to clean the defining boundaries of the paradigm. The new theory resulting from the paradigm shift will need evidence to substantiate its existence.

While laboring to better understand the world by scrutinizing minute details (the closer the scrutiny, the less precedence), you may find boiling disorder. Turn down the flame (i.e., refine your research techniques) or make a new dish (i.e. articulate a new theory).

The new theory will eventually become a Time-Honored Scientific Theory, which may be used as an ingredient for subsequent scientific revolutions. Context will inevitably change, and our paradigms will need to respectably shift.

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