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Sociology of Scientific Knowledge – Normal Science

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Written by William Walter Kay BA JD

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions began life as a monograph entry in the 1962 edition of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science.

Later that year the University of Chicago issued Structure in book form. In 1962 Structure sold 919 copies. In 1963 it sold 774. Some 90,000 hardcover and paperback copies had been sold by 1971; by then the 1969 edition (with a 30-page supplement) had taken over sales. By 1987 over 650,000 units had been sold as Structure had become required reading for many Sociology, Philosophy and History students. (1)

The current (2012) edition is introduced by philosopher of science Ian Hacking. Millions have read Structure. Kuhn hoped Structure would: “produce a decisive transformation in the image of science.” Mission accomplished, according to Hacking.

Although it would soon be overthrown by bio-tech and computer-tech, in 1962 Physics ruled the sciences. Forever the physicist, Kuhn took Physics as his model. While chronicling worldview-transforming scientific theories, Structure spares but half a page to Darwin.

Math papers are like eggs – if they’re part bad, they’re all bad. (2) Humanities papers can be erroneous yet redeemable. Structure is a case in point. The book: a) is overwhelmingly about Physics which Kuhn presumes is indicative of all science; b) uncritically relays internal narratives about early 20th century “revolutions” in Physics; c) does not discuss the impact on science of social forces external to science; d) neglects changes to higher education over the past 400 years; and e) defends the scientific status quo.

Nevertheless, what Structure says about “normal science” is more germane now than in 1962.

Kuhn describes normal science as: “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by a professional education.” (3)

And:

Mopping up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am calling normal science… No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomenon; indeed those that will not fit in the box are not seen at all. (4)

And:

Normal science… suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments. (5)

Aristotle used “paradeigma” as a synonym of “exemplar.” Paradigms were fitting scenarios; teaching aids. The Romans translated paradeigma into “exemplum.” Structure is saturated with the term. One scholar tabulated 22 nuances of paradigm in Structure.

A paradigm is a set of analogies, equations, applications, experiments and observations related to a specific hypothesis. Paradigms form the foundations of scientific traditions. They are the standard models facilitating professional communication and assessment. They are the working hypotheses unifying schools. They are the foci of scientific consensuses.

Paradigms are conceptually inseparable from “scientific communities” i.e., those thought-collectives that can number fewer than 100 scientists but are usually magnitudes larger. Scientific communities revolve around paradigms.

Successful paradigms spawn puzzles. Science education, which Kuhn calls “indoctrination,” consists of making students solve the puzzles listed at the end of textbook chapters. These questions require students to demonstrate an ability to manipulate a paradigm’s core algebraic equations (e.g., F=MA or E=MC2). Students learn to spot paradigms inside a range of phenomena.

Paradigms are the Alpha to Omega of normal science:

Without commitment to a paradigm there could be no normal science.” (6)

Normal science: “aims to refine, extend and articulate a paradigm that is already in existence.” (7)

Normal research discovers what it is expected to discover. Normal scientists (“hacks”) grind away on selected puzzles:

…in normal science, the research worker is a solver of puzzles, not a tester of paradigms. (8)

Normal science journals contain: a) re-determinations of significant facts, b) matchings of new facts to the paradigm, and c) further articulations of the paradigm, usually in algebraic treatises. (9) Normal scientists pile stone upon stone in tribute to the almighty paradigm.

“Scientific revolutions” debuted in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1787). Kant espied two scientific revolutions – one occurring when Greeks transformed Babylonian mathematics into proofs from postulates; and the other being Galileo’s debut of the experimental method and the laboratory. Moderns identify the Scientific Revolution as a 1543-1687 drama starring Bacon, Galileo and Newton.

Kuhn penned The Copernican Revolution in 1957. Soon after he toyed with an entirely separate revolution situated in the early 19th century when the study of heat, light, electricity and magnetism became mathematized. This episode is better described as an advance in measurement and instrumentation. Mathematization (algebraization) of these fields awaited Maxwell’s 1860s doodlings.

While normal science cannot change paradigms it can, according to Kuhn, generate anomalies that lead to crises which in turn cause paradigm shifts (scientific revolutions). This sequence emphatically never happened before the Einsteinian or Quantum “revolutions” in early 20th century Physics. Kuhn’s ulterior motive for writing Structure was to elevate these “revolutions” to the status of the Copernican-Heliocentric, and the Oxygen-Combustion, revolutions. The exemplar of Kuhn’s own paradigm is a Big Lie.

Pre-revolutionary periods (“crisis science”) witness proliferations of dueling articulations. Scientists talk past one another. Words take on new meanings. Limits to what proponents of opposing theories can communicate to one another are reached. “Incommensurability” reigns. A scientist’s rejection of one paradigm is simultaneously the embrace of its rival. Transfers of allegiance are “conversions,” not rational choices.

Post-1962 “paradigm” appeared ubiquitously in academic literature. Kuhn sought to clarify paradigm’s meaning in a 1974 paper but eventually lost control of the word and abandoned it.

Kuhn became the darling of science studies scholars despite disdaining Sociology. Various sociologies of science blossomed after Structure, nourished in part by the book’s success. Kuhn pooh-poohed this.

Footnotes

  1. Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; University of Chicago, 2012. Data on book sales etc. are from Ian Hacking’s 30 page introduction to this volume.
  2. Collins, Harry & Pinch, Trevor. The Golem: what you should know about science; University of Cambridge Press, Second Edition, 1998, page 154.
  3. Kuhn, page 5.
  4. Ibid, page 24.
  5. Ibid, page 5.
  6. Ibid, page 100.
  7. Ibid, page 122.
  8. Ibid, page 144.
  9. Ibid, page 24. See also Hacking’s introduction in same volume.

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