ABOUT THIS EPISODE

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a classic in the history of science, and one of the most cited books of the twentieth century. Thomas Kuhn insightfully challenged our assumptions about how science works, but his opaque style ignited a cultural movement energized around the misinterpretations that objective truth was an illusion and that scientific progress was just a conceit of western civilization. These ideas became pillars of postmodernism, and no one was more frustrated by the folly of their development than Thomas Kuhn himself. 

You can support Context on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/context, or through https://bradharris.com.

 

English
United States

TRANSCRIPT

00:00:13Welcome to context this is brad harris today we're discussing the iconic book by thomas kun the structure of scientific revolutions this episode is supported by you those of you who value my work enough to reciprocate through patri on or paypal i think there are some problems with how
00:00:33history is typically taught in academia and i'm trying to address some of that through this venture i go into more detail about this on my patriotic page so if you're interested you can learn more there in any case even in the best scenario most university professors can only
00:00:49reach small arbitrary numbers of privileged students and colleagues but through this podcast i can connect with you no matter who you are where you are so thank you to those of you who support me you are making this possible and if you haven't taken that step yet but
00:01:06you'd like to support this podcast or if you just hate hearing ads and prefer to access all episodes ad free go to brad harris dot com to get on board this episode is also supported by curiosity stream the best source of documentaries on the internet if you liked
00:01:24my how it began podcast episode wolves to dogs you'll love one of their latest beautifully produced films exploring our thirty thousand year old relationship with dogs titled man's first friend check it out at curiosity stream dot com forward slash context to dry out the service free for a
00:01:43month You can find me on twitter at brad cole harris or on facebook at context with brad harris and be sure to subscribe to the show on apple podcasts Or wherever else you listen And now for the structure of scientific revolutions By thomas kun The structure of scientific
00:02:07revolutions was first published in nineteen sixty two but it attracted so much attention and proved so disruptive that second third and fourth editions followed it rapidly achieved the status of a classic in the history of science and ultimately became one of the most frequently cited books of the
00:02:26twentieth century among young academics in particular referencing kun became a badge of intellectual enlightenment from the nineteen seventies onward a signal that you had transcended the vulgar historical interpretations of the masses and become a bona fide professional thinker who understood just how problematic terms like scientific progress and
00:02:50truth really were through the nineteen eighties it became fashionable among intellectuals to rally cooney in theory in denying not only the existence of truth but it's virtuous nissa sze well after the nineteen nineties by which time an entire generation of scholars and the humanities and social sciences had
00:03:11come of age percolating in kun's opaque stew of ideas graduate students studying under them who dared to interpret science as the pursuit of objective knowledge were rebuked for outdated thinking who was thomas kun and how could his book have caused such an intellectual upheaval First it's important to
00:03:34acknowledge that the structure of scientific revolutions actually waas a very insightful book which greatly enhanced our understanding of the history of science It deserved plenty of attention and praise and thomas kun waas a creative multi disciplinary thinker the man was a physicist turned philosopher of science who obtained
00:03:56a phd in physics from harvard in nineteen forty nine he died in nineteen ninety six at the age of seventy three now on the way toward getting his phd kun helped teach an undergraduate course on the physical sciences designed for non science majors and in the process he
00:04:15was exposed to the field of the history of science for the first time in his life in his own words quote that exposure to out of date scientific theory and practice radically undermined some of my basic conceptions about the nature of science the result was a drastic shift
00:04:33in my career plans from physics to the history of science end quote they're after kun abandoned physics and dove deep into social science focusing on psychology linguistics and philosophy he was fascinated by how social scientists problema ties dh which is to say questioned interrogated and complicated the nature
00:04:58of scientific investigation what we're scientists really up to kun's new cohort pondered and excruciating detail from this academic for a kun grew convinced that there was something deeply wrong with people's assumptions about how science works traditionally according to kun we are taught that science simply represents a collection
00:05:23of facts concepts laws or theories that are accumulated like the bricks of a building in quote ahe piecemeal process to the ever growing stockpile that constitutes scientific technique and knowledge end quote in this sense kun's portrayal of the traditional history of science is one of linear progress ah
00:05:46smooth the creation of objective knowledge about how the world works ah heroic struggle against ignorance through which lone geniuses and lab technicians alike push humanity ever onward in a steady march of scientific progress yet kun became convinced that this image of science quote is no more likely to
00:06:08fit the enterprise than an image of national culture drawn from a tourist brochure end quote what was actually occurring through the history of science he intended to show was something quite different there are phases within the history of science kun admits when investigators may appear to make a
00:06:30linear progress accumulating insight on a particular question aboutthe world piece by piece refining their theory by testing ever more precise hypotheses this is what kun calls normal science and it functions within what he calls a paradigm however any particular paradigm of normal science is on ly a phase
00:06:55within a larger historical cycle a cycle who's structure is characterized not by continuity of progress but by disruption by revolution by paradigm shifts when most of us think of scientific revolution we think of the scientific revolution of the sixteen hundreds when the basic methods of modern science were
00:07:19established in the first place However for kun that was only the most dramatic example of sciences cycle of disruption of sciences paradigm shifts to use kun's language in kun's opinion the entire history of science was little more than an endless cycle of revolutions and he laid out the
00:07:39structure of that historical cycle as follows first you start with a phase of normal science operating within an established paradigm in which investigators share assumptions about how the world works they agree on what problems are appropriate to ask and what investigative tools are appropriate to use working within
00:08:04that paradigm scientists are not actually trying to make discoveries they're not pursuing novel in sight at all instead he argues there merely trying to confirm the paradigm itself everything they do is structure to confirm their assumptions about how the world works and whenever they actually do encounter something
00:08:26unexpected a strange piece of data say or a novel experimental result they tend to ignore it since it doesn't fit with the established paradigm coon equates this activity with puzzle solving in a very literal sense imagine yourself trying to solve a puzzle you have a bunch of pieces
00:08:46jumbled together but you also have the final image of the puzzle on the cover of the box those pieces came in so you know what you're trying to do you're trying to put those puzzle pieces together to match that image you're not trying to discover new images that
00:09:02you can create with the pieces you have that would be missing the whole point so when you encounter a puzzle piece that doesn't seem to fit the image you think you're supposed to reconstruct and you don't know what to do with it you simply put it aside right
00:09:17you ignore it at least for the time being puzzle solving is what scientists are up to most of the time according to coon and all of their assumptions about what they're supposed to be trying to do how they're supposed to put all the pieces of their assumptions of
00:09:34how the world works together define their scientific paradigm they're pieces of the puzzle of course are mathematical equations experimental data and investigative observations and their image on the front of the box is the paradigm itself the world view they share the expectations they hold about what their equations
00:09:56and experiments and observations should reveal puzzle solving usually occupies generations worth of scientific labour as kuhn writes that is normal science after all however the longer that scientific puzzle solving goes on the more pieces accumulate that scientists can't get to fit the paradigm he calls these anomalies and
00:10:21the more of them that pile up the more unstable the paradigm becomes eventually a crisis erupts within the scientific community what if the paradigm itself is wrong This would be akin to you working on a puzzle that eventually proved so unsolvable that you came to suspect that the
00:10:41puzzle manufacturer printed the wrong image on the front of the box at this point in the structure of the historical cycle of science the crisis of too many anomalies leads to a scientific revolution a paradigm shift occurs and scientists suddenly find themselves working out the puzzles of an
00:11:01entirely new worldview with an entirely new set of assumptions about what the right questions are and how to go about answering them a useful example of paradigm shift that coon highlighted comes not surprisingly from thie scientific revolution itself with the emergence of copernican astronomy in fifteen forty three
00:11:24up to that time western civilizations understanding of astronomy was based on the ptolemaic system featuring the earth at the center of the known universe which had been developed some fifteen hundred years earlier and for a while quote it had been admirably successful in predicting the changing positions of
00:11:46both stars and planets No other ancient system had performed so well and for the planet's ptolemy's predictions were as good as copernicus is but to be admirably successful is never for a scientific theory to be completely successful Predictions made with ptolemy's system never quite conformed with the best
00:12:07available observations end quote four centuries normal science and astronomy kun argued was focused on trying to solve the puzzles represented by the discrepancy between ptolemy's predictions and the actual positions of stars and planets at any given time quote given a particular discrepancy astronomers were invariably able to eliminate
00:12:34it by making some particular adjustment in ptolemy's system but as time went on a man looking at the net result of the normal research effort of many astronomers could observe that astronomy's complexity was increasing far more rapidly than its accuracy and that a discrepancy corrected in one place
00:12:53was likely to show up in another in the sixteenth century copernicus is co worker domenico da navarra held that no system so cumbersome and inaccurate as the ptolemaic had become could possibly be true of nature an increasing number of europe's best astronomers were recognizing that the astronomical paradigm
00:13:14was failing an application to its own traditional problems That recognition was a pre requisite to copernicus is rejection of the ptolemaic paradigm and his search for a new one end quote a key part of coons analysis comes several chapters later when he asserts that copernicus his alternative astronomical
00:13:36theory featuring the sun at the center of the known universe quote was neither simpler norm or accurate than ptolemy's system available observation all tests provided no basis for a choice between them under those circumstances one of the factors that led astronomers to copernicus was the recognized crisis that
00:13:57had been responsible for innovation in the first place ptolemaic astronomy had failed to solve its problems the time had come to give a competitor a chance end quote in other words coon argued that it wasn't the case that copernicus succeeded in persuading people that his theory was any
00:14:16truer rather it was that ptolemaic astronomers had grown so frustrated by all the unsolvable puzzles of their own world view that they decided they might as well give copernicus is puzzle a try an important thing to realize about coons notion of paradigms and paradigm shifts is that he
00:14:38went to great lengths trying to explain how the ideas and assumptions of one paradigm were in commensurate ble with those of another wants a scientific revolution occurs he argued scientists working within the new paradigm hold entirely different assumptions about how the world works about what problems are even
00:14:59riel and solvable and even about the very definition of what is and what is not scientific he provided a couple of examples quote those who scoffed and einstein's general theory of relativity because space could not be curved it was not that sort of thing we're not simply wrong
00:15:19or mistaken nor were the mathematicians physicists and philosophers who tried to develop a euclidean version of einstein's theory what had previously been meant by space was necessarily flat homogeneous ice a tropic and unaffected by the presence of matter if it had not been newtonian physics would not have
00:15:40worked to make the transition to einstein's universe the whole conceptual webb who's strands or space time matter force and so on had to be shifted and laid down again on nature hole consider for another example the men who called copernicus mad because he proclaimed that the earth moved
00:16:02they were not either just wrong or quite wrong part of what they meant by earth wass fixed position there earth at least could not be moved correspondingly Copernicus is innovation was not simply to move the earth rather it was a whole new way of regarding the problems of
00:16:21physics and astronomy one that necessarily changed the meaning of both earth and motion end quote kun's insistence here on the inn commensurate ability between paradigms seemed tohave radical implications As the historian of science ian hacking pointed out many people interpreted this to mean that new scientific theories were
00:16:45not developed to replace old ones because they were truer but merely because they reflected a change in scientists worldview that better fitted whatever puzzles they were trying to solve and that idea in turn led many of coons readers to conclude that scientific progress doesn't really exist at all
00:17:08kun himself toward the end of his book on lee added fuel to this nihilist fire by concluding quote we may have to relinquish the notion explicit or implicit that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learned from them closer and closer to the truth end quote so
00:17:29as far as kun was concerned what was science if not a process for making progress toward truth Well from his perspective science was better understood mohr as quote a process of evolution from primitive beginnings ah process whose successive stages air characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding
00:17:51of nature but not a process of evolution toward anything end quote this was a subtle distinction that many of coons readers missed He admitted repeatedly that the process of science does refine our understanding of nature just not in the way we traditionally supposed quote we're all deeply accustomed
00:18:14to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance but need there be any such goal Can we not account for both sciences existence and its success in terms of evolution from the community's state of knowledge at any given
00:18:33time end quote indeed evolution becomes the functional analogy toward the end of the book just like darwin's theory of natural selection explains how biological complexity evolves in the absence of any kind of purpose or end goal Coon leaves us with an image of science that evolves increasingly sophisticated
00:18:56concepts of the world in the absence of any real direction other than that which enables scientists to solve particular sets of puzzles As i said at the opening of this episode this interpretation certainly did offer a valuable new perspective on the history of science The problem wass the
00:19:15subtlety of coons argument combined with his vague and often impenetrable writing style unleashed a groundswell of misguided interpretations of his work igniting a cultural movement within academia energized around the confused conviction that objective truth was an illusion and that scientific progress was just a conceit of western civilization
00:19:40These ideas became pillars of post modernism and no one was more frustrated by the folly of their development than thomas kun himself To cite the historian of science in hacking again who wrote the introduction to the fifty year anniversary edition of the structure of scientific revolutions in two
00:20:02thousand twelve published by the university of chicago press kun's argument was unfortunately quote abused by the wave of skeptical intellectuals who called the very idea of truth into question kun had no such intention he was a fact lover and a truth seeker end quote as early as nineteen
00:20:25seventy thomas kun had started to lament publicly that he'd lost control of his narrative one of the most probable reasons why so many people may have misinterpreted his message derived from his opaque use of metaphor he constantly wrote phrases like quote after copernicus astronomers worked in a different
00:20:48world end quote and quote after discovering oxygen love wasa lived in a different world end quote careful readers could parse the intended meaning that scientists simply gain new perspective after discovery but after hundreds of pages of such writing many readers emerged with a peculiar sense that this state
00:21:11of the world itself is contingent upon however humanity happens to interpret it this converted scientific objectivity into scientific relativism the world is whatever we make of it fax are socially constructed as in hacking surmised quote kun made plain that he himself detested that development of his work end
00:21:37quote in the aftermath of the intellectual upheaval he triggered kun emphasized passages of his book in speeches and interviews that he hoped would counter act the truth deniers exclaiming quote after a scientific revolution many old measurements and manipulations become irrelevant and are replaced by others instead but changes
00:22:02of this sort are never total whatever he may then see the scientist after a revolution is still looking at the same world furthermore the changes in which these discoveries were implicated we're all destructive as well as constructive scientists are able to account for a wider range of natural
00:22:21phenomena or to account with greater precision for some of those previously known later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles and the often quite different environments to which they're applied that's not a relativists position and it displays the sense in which i am a convinced
00:22:42believer in scientific progress end quote perhaps kun should have just borrowed the economic concept from joseph schumpeter and simply stated that the principle of creative destruction is at work in the history of science too after all the fax the theories the concepts of modern science aren't really what's
00:23:05important it's the process the methods of modern science that matter and as messy as our accumulation of objective knowledge about the world maybe modern scientific methods ensure that we are capable of attacking ever closer to truth next time on context we're going to shift years away from the
00:23:27history of science to discover other historical forces in other places and cultures that have contributed significantly to humanity's progress We're going to refresh our historical gays and focus on one of the most important figures in history covered in jack weatherford's bestselling book genghis khan and the making of
00:23:49the modern world I'm brad harris So long way

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Brad Harris, Historian, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.

EDIT

Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.