Laura's Reviews > The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
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's review
Jan 14, 2012

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bookshelves: being-human, canon, history, psychology, seminal-texts
Recommended to Laura by: Lists of books I'm supposed to have read
Read in January, 2012 , read count: 1

I’ve seen citations to this book for decades, and it’s been on my shelf, unread-by-me, nearly as long. Finally read it. Kuhn contends that the then-accepted description of scientific process as a largely smooth increase in human knowledge isn’t accurate. Instead, it’s Hegelian-esque: an accepted model less and less satisfactory as more and more things are observed that do not fit; new models emerge and are resisted for reasons rational and not; and one fine day, the paradigm shifts. For reasons rational and not, a new model becomes accepted. Repeat, with variations.

Reading it now, it’s a little unsatisfying. Yes, paradigms shift. Seen it happen. Some critical number of those in the relevant field of inquiry accept a paradigm, and there’s a new paradigm. Science, law, economics, whatever. I found myself in the odd position of explaining the gold standard, and what it means to have abandoned it, to a chum last Saturday. A paradigm shifted. In that, by a matter of decree, but still, only after some critical number of those in the relevant field accepted that a currency could be backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, and not just gold.

Kuhn suggests that paradigms don’t just shift because the new one is better; society doesn’t operate that way. Social enthusiasm for an idea matters a lot. Apparently that pissed a lot of people off at the time, which again from 2012 seems a little silly. We’re not just rational actors. I know I’m not. I loved Kuhn’s illustration of that with Lord Kelvin denouncing X-rays as a hoax. He had a commitment to a certain understanding of how tests worked, and the fact that there could be X-rays messing up the procedures was unsettling. I’m sure he came around.

I suspect I found the book somewhat unsatisfying because it’s central thesis – that we aren’t just rational; that progress is not slow and steady, and that the paradigm matters – is so well accepted that it’s hard to get excited about. Which is pleasingly meta, now that I come to think about it.
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