50 Years Later, the Original Paradigm Shift Continues to Influence Views on Science

Dec 24, 2012

Physicist, philosopher and historian Dr. Thomas Kuhn, 1922-1996.
Credit Public domain image

Could Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about the scientific process be behind the divided public opinions we see today on issues like climate change and evolution? The physicist-turned-philosopher would probably turn over in his grave to think so. And, to be fair, no single idea can be held entirely responsible for the current situation. But, 50 years ago, Thomas Kuhn radically changed the way both scientists and the public view science.

In his most influential work, entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argued that, while science usually proceeds by incremental advances contributing to a an overarching theory or framework, there are occasional discoveries that completely overhaul our understanding of a given field or phenomenon. The idea that science can be revolutionary is now the prevailing wisdom. But, in 1962, the idea itself was revolutionary – the paradigm shift that coined the phrase.

Physics historian Dr. Jed Buchwald and Dr. Paul Hoyningen-Huene, a theoretical physicist and philosopher, both worked or studied with Thomas Kuhn and say he often felt that he and his ideas were widely misunderstood. Could the theory of revolutionary science have contributed to widespread belief in the fallibility of science? Possibly. But that wasn’t how Thomas Kuhn saw things and it certainly wasn’t his intent.

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