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September 16, 2009
by Keay Davidson
black and white photograph of birds on power lines

In an era of technological triumph, a physicist-turned-philosopher dared to argue that science routinely rewards conformists and rejects real innovators. The intellectual revolution he sparked is still being fought today.

Thomas S. Kuhn transformed the way we think about science, revealing it as a messier, less logical, and occasionally more sordid process than your high school science teacher might have admitted. One of the terms Kuhn used to describe scientific history, “paradigm shift,” has become so integrated into the popular vernacular that, a while back, singer Rosanne Cash announced she’d experienced a “paradigm shift” in her singing. But Kuhn’s ideas are often misunderstood, even on university campuses. This is unfortunate, and for very practical reasons.

In our era, science is widely viewed by corporations, governments, and the public as the solution to a panoply of problems, including global crises such as climate change. If society is betting planetary survival on the ingenuity of Ph.D.s and their grad students, we can’t afford to bet recklessly. We need to be aware not only of scientists’ strengths but also of their limitations. Kuhn’s precautions about the limits of the scientific enterprise—including the self-deceptions of scientific reasoning and the transience of seemingly eternal scientific belief systems—are timely. It’s a good time to dust off our old copies of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a screaming-pink paperback perhaps long ago relegated to a cardboard box in the basement alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, and other mildewed standard bearers of 1960s rebellion.

Since before the days of Benjamin Franklin, Americans have revered science and invention. By the dawn of the space age, which coincided with Kuhn’s early academic career, that reverence had turned to worship. Stirred by press hype over the Mercury astronauts, many Americans envisioned science as the celestial path to utopian futures on Earth and in the heavens. But in 1962, the year John Glenn soared starward, Kuhn, a physicist turned Berkeley professor of science history and philosophy, wrote Structure, which cooly and unsentimentally called such dreams into question.

Kuhn didn’t treat scientists (as journalists usually did) as saints, sinners, or seers whose “scientific method” magically enabled extraordinary feats. Rather, he treated them as people whose professional thinking and practice are as imperfect and hidebound as anyone’s. He dissected historical episodes of scientific revolutions (what he dubbed “paradigm shifts”) just as a sociologist might examine the restructuring of power relations within an urban street gang, or as an anthropologist might study changes in the faunal classificatory schemes of central Asian nomads. In an era when writers typically depicted science as a grand adventure brimming with potential for both good and evil, Kuhn dared to make everyday “normal science” (his term) seem narrow-minded and mundane, albeit essential.

Kuhn’s “normal” scientists are what in corporations would be called “company men.” They’re loyal to the reigning scientific paradigm. He defined paradigm a bit vaguely as the unwritten intellectual manifesto of a scientific specialty such as astrophysics, chemistry, or biology. A paradigm is a collage of both tangibles and intangibles—what the relevant specialists agree are appropriate research techniques and instruments (say, electron microscopes); symbolic generalizations (E=mc²); exemplary practices (famous scientific achievements that inspire and guide future research); epistemic values (how to distinguish between credible theories and dubious ones); and certain metaphysical assumptions about nature (the large-scale homogeneity of the universe). Normal scientists are problem solvers and paper shufflers, not revolutionaries. They don’t challenge the paradigm as Galileo and Darwin challenged traditional astronomy and biology. Kuhn’s normal scientists rarely consider alternative paradigms, even when the orthodox paradigm seems mortally stricken. And because they work so hard to avoid a scientific revolution, the revolution when it finally arrives comes suddenly and catastrophically. It’s like a dam that holds back the slowly rising waters of a lake: When the dam breaks, everything below is flooded.

Many scientists praised Structure. Long before Hiroshima, they had become accustomed to being compared to Faust, Prometheus, and Dr. Frankenstein. Kuhn depicted the intellectual struggles of scientists as they actually lived them, not as Hollywood romanticized or demonized them—and they liked that. Four decades later, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould vividly recalled the day in the early 1960s when a colleague ran up to him and exclaimed, “You just have to read this book right away.”

Other scientists were upset. That same year, 1962, brought both Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, which ignited the environmentalist crusade, and the Cuban nuclear missile crisis, which almost wiped out civilization. Both developments indicated science had become an out-of-control juggernaut that threatened human survival. In some respects, Structure cut even deeper. Kuhn made most scientists’ daily intellectual toil sound dull, like that of accountants or filing clerks. That hurt.

Structure has been called irrationalist, nihilistic, and antiscientific. It is none of these things. In fact, Kuhn griped that his book inspired many people to dabble in the study of science history—among them general historians, literary theorists, postmodern philosophers, and others who lacked what he regarded as the necessary technical training in science. Still, Structure made intellectual history by challenging science’s boldest claim: that it is the surest route to “progress” and “truth.” By this, Kuhn didn’t mean that there are necessarily better routes, such as religion (he was an atheist). He meant that science is a far bumpier road than is popularly assumed and that its most hyped gifts, of progress and truth, are often more tawdry than they appear, like a Tinsel Town façade of the Taj Mahal. Kuhn’s attitude toward science echoed Churchill’s famously sardonic remark about democracy being the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. Reading Kuhn, one gets the impression that science is the worst epistemology in the world, except for all the others.

Thomas Kuhn was born in 1922 in Cincinnati to a well-educated, well-heeled, and secular Jewish family. He was raised in New York City and educated at left-leaning progressive schools. During the Great Depression, he was an adolescent radical and pacifist. A newspaper reported one of his speeches, which he concluded with the plea, “Let the Philippines go.” Later he became a Harvard student with broad cultural tastes. Before his freshman year, he considered becoming a mathematician; its grand abstractions appealed to his philosophical side. But on the advice of his father, a failed corporate executive who wanted to ensure his son was employable, Kuhn halfheartedly majored in physics.

The headlines of the 1930s and 1940s were full of exciting news about physics, especially Einstein and Bohr’s quasi-philosophical clashes over the nature of quantum reality. But Kuhn’s physics education from 1940 to 1943 (he graduated early) concentrated heavily on electronics, because radar experts were desperately needed on the World War II battlefront. He entered the war as a civilian advisor on radar countermeasures, to U.S. forces in England, Germany, and France, and was present at the liberation of Paris in August 1944. When the war in Europe ended, Kuhn returned to Harvard and earned his doctorate in a rather uninteresting backwater of solid-state physics. Then he quit physics forever. In later years he looked back on his Harvard education with some resentment; he felt a little cheated.

Kuhn instead became a teacher of science history in Harvard’s fledgling General Education program, where, over the next decade, he quietly began rethinking traditional conceptions of science and how it works. In 1957, the same year the Soviets launched Sputnik and the space age, he wrote his first book, The Copernican Revolution. In it he reassessed an earlier “space” revolution: the proposal of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 that the Sun, not Earth, is central in our planetary system. According to Kuhn, Copernicus’s scientific revolution was inspired partly by his nonscientific concerns, specifically his metaphysical, aesthetic, and religious values. Kuhn’s book won praise, most warmly from Scientific American. Ironically, the book’s subtly demystifying view of science appeared in the same year that the Soviet Union and United States were billing their “space race” as a peaceful competition for scientific knowledge, when in fact it was largely propelled by the ideological and geopolitical tussles of the Cold War.

To scientists, Kuhn’s depiction of them was hardly news. They knew their own human frailties all too well. But Kuhn’s insight came as a startling revelation to the general public, especially the baby boomers who were beginning to jam college classrooms. Their generation had been hypnotized by the parade of scientific wonders shimmering on the phosphorescent TV screens in their family living rooms, ranging from gushing press coverage of the astronauts to Walt Disney “documentaries” such as Our Friend the Atom. To childish eyes of the 1950s (mine among them), such marvels symbolized science in all its glory and promise. Long before those marvels curdled—before commercial nuclear reactors began to melt down, before we turned the Moon into a junkyard and then abandoned it—Kuhn’s readers were invited to wonder: Were the marvels a mirage?

In 1956, Kuhn left Harvard for California after being vigorously championed by the chair of Berkeley’s philosophy department at the time, Stephen Pepper. A distinguished philosopher of aesthetics, Pepper hired Kuhn out of fear that American philosophy departments—among them, Berkeley’s—were being invaded by the “logical positivist” movement. He believed Kuhn would counterbalance the trend. Logical positivism’s cardinal traits included its desire to make philosophy more “scientific” and to dissolve philosophical debates over metaphysics, which positivists viewed as empty squabbles caused by the misuse of words. Pepper apparently figured he could counter positivist influence within the department by hiring a historian of science who had strong scientific credentials and yet was skeptical about key aspects of the positivistic agenda.

Kuhn’s time at Berkeley was a mixed blessing. He and his family loved the community and made many friends, thanks considerably to his wife Kathryn’s skill at throwing dinner parties. He enjoyed a new sense of prestige (likely owing much to the publication of the highly praised The Copernican Revolution and to Pepper’s personal enthusiasm for him) that no doubt encouraged him in writing Structure. On the other hand, there were emotional tensions between Kuhn and his allies, as well as his critics, in the history and philosophy departments. In both departments, there were certain scholars who didn’t find what Kuhn was doing to be particularly interesting.

By the time he published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, Kuhn had become bolder in his critique. Unlike the Copernicus book, Structure made no pretense to celebrate scientific accomplishments of yesteryear. It was as unsentimental as a coroner’s report. Surveying the history of science, it depicted most scientists, even some of the greatest ones, as intellectual dogmatists. Normal scientists, he argued, cling to pet scientific concepts as loyally as religious fanatics cling to a crucifix, and they experience conversions akin to Paul’s epiphany en route to Damascus. Yet their day-to-day work is unromantic. Theirs is a “mopping up” job; that is, they spend much of their time trying to explain away the residual observational anomalies that afflict even the most successful paradigm.

“Mopping up” is a janitorial analogy, and Kuhn used it deliberately. At Harvard, he had narrowly avoided becoming one such epistemic janitor himself, along with the hundreds of other physicists who flooded the nation’s shiny new labs after the war. Most of them weren’t destined to become Einsteins or Bohrs who would shatter paradigms. Their daily task was to clean up the daily messes, the anomalous observations and technical disagreements. They typically approached observational anomalies as if they were “puzzles”—mysteries that cannot immediately be explained in terms of the paradigm but that (normal scientists are sure) can assuredly be explained in terms of the paradigm, at least if they tried hard enough. That’s why Kuhn compared normal science “puzzle solving” to crossword puzzles, which are also assumed to have potentially knowable solutions. The trick is to figure out what those solutions are, without tinkering with the core assumptions of the paradigm. If a normal scientist succeeds at his Sisyphean tasks, then he’ll enjoy an honorable career and perhaps attain a certain minor fame, capped by a festschrift and a two-column obit in The New York Times. No Nobel Prize, but no dishonor, either. If he fails to explain away the anomalies—or, worse, if he suggests they threaten the orthodox paradigm—then his career will be in jeopardy. His failure, Kuhn emphasized, will be blamed on him and on his presumed ineptitude, not on the paradigm itself.

Structure inspired a revolution in the scholarly study of science. That revolution involved a remarkably diverse and disunited army of researchers, including ex-scientists, historians, philosophers, sociologists of knowledge, cultural anthropologists, linguistic theorists, neuroscientists, feminist theorists, literary and rhetorical analysts, and many other scholars. Their reassessment of science’s nature, dynamics, and social contexts is still ongoing; it constitutes an incomplete paradigm shift in academia. (In the 1980s and 1990s, their work upset certain physicists, who accused the post-Kuhnian scholars of being anti-science. The result was the “Science Wars” brouhaha that climaxed in 1996 with physicist Alan Sokal’s notorious hoaxing of a postmodernist journal.) Structure even attracted a pop following. Kuhn became (to quote Randall Collins) “the darling of student Marxists and deconstructionists.” He also inspired, to his regret, countless would-be rebels, from LSD promoters to New Age cultists to UFO investigators.

Ironically, on the eve of Structure‘s publication, Berkeley’s senior philosophers denied Kuhn’s bid for full professorial status in the most overt way—by voting to eject him from the department altogether. (Pepper had retired in 1958.) Kuhn had always yearned to be accepted as a philosopher; decades later, he recalled the vote as the worst event of his life. Still, he stayed on the Berkeley history faculty for three more years before he, Kay, and their three children left for Princeton in mid-1964.

By the time his marriage to Kay fell apart in 1978, Kuhn had retreated inward. To some, he was crotchety and abrasive. Many of his fans, including students and colleagues, were surprised and hurt by his testy reaction to their admiration. Initially he welcomed their enthusiasm, but as the years passed and his enemies grew harsher, he started blaming his problems on his acolytes. He began to drive them away, sometimes brutally. Kuhn often unfairly accused people of misinterpreting his work, treating them instead as interlopers on his turf.

As a teacher Kuhn could be immensely inspiring, but also ruthless. Some ex-students recall him fondly, others bitterly. His work helped to inspire major academic innovations, but as he grew older, he generally viewed these with indifference or incomprehension. When the end came in 1996—he died of cancer a few years after retiring—his passing was widely covered in the media, even in unlikely places such as The New Yorker and The Economist. Yet in a very real sense, he died alone, a reluctant guru with countless admirers and zero apostles.

Today, over 40 years after the publication of Structure, Kuhn’s insights remain relevant. His work offers no formula for resolving poisonous scientific controversies, but it does suggest useful new methods for thinking about them. Among Structure‘s lessons are these:

  • Scientists (like all people) tend to see what they expect to see. Thus they might mistake an anomalous observation for a familiar phenomenon, when in fact it’s the omen of a paradigm shift.
  • Scientists (again, like all people) consciously or unconsciously “forget” or distort their past paradigmatic faiths in order to get on with the business of building a new one. Thus, in experiencing a paradigm shift, they “lose” knowledge as well as gain it because they abandon as irrelevant some questions that, in fact, remain urgent.
  • Scientists (ditto) often ridicule and ruin anyone who challenges the reigning paradigm. Their “normal science” faith blinds them to alternative ways of understanding reality. And paradigm shifts, which begin as intellectual liberations, end as smug dogmatisms and barriers to intellectual innovation.

Laypeople tend to think a “paradigm” is a purely conceptual, abstract thing—an especially grandiose scientific theory, or a mental nebulosity akin to Kant’s “categories” or Freud’s “id” or Foucault’s epistème. In fact, a paradigm is much more concrete than these legendary vapors. One reason Kuhn’s thesis inspired sociologists and anthropologists is that a paradigm has many tangible, quantifiable, down-to-earth features. You can see them in a way that you can’t “see” a theory. A paradigm involves flesh-and-blood scientific specialists who work at certain institutions, use certain instrumental tools, swear by specific forms of lab practice and methodology, recognize fellow specialists, communicate their findings via approved means—such as doctoral dissertations, tenure committees, and peer-reviewed journals—and receive funding from specific (often self-interested) sources. In other words, a paradigm is more than a Really Big Idea; it is also often physically embodied in a Really Big Institution. And the paradigm’s intellectual fate may well be decided less by what is “scientific” than by what serves the needs of the institution.

Kuhn depicted normal sciences as prone to become dogmatisms, even monomaniacal juggernauts. (Some would suggest “string theory” is a modern-day example of such a juggernaut. It has taken over many physics departments, though there’s not a shred of experimental evidence in its favor after several decades of research.) History, as well as sociopsychological experiments, suggest that such intellectual rigidification—”groupthink,” to borrow a non-Kuhnian term—is especially likely to occur within large, well-funded, and powerful institutions. True, normal scientists need not work for giant institutions to be vulnerable to groupthink. But it seems an especially likely danger in an institution with immensely more at stake than scientific truth—including money, careers, expensive gadgets, and institutional pride. Consider, for example, the international effort to develop commercial thermonuclear fusion, an endeavor that has consumed many billions of dollars over the last half-century. Commercially, it has led nowhere. Can we honestly say it owes its survival purely to its allure, and not a whit to the political and fund-raising agility of fusion’s legions of normal scientists?

Although his ideas inspired an intellectual revolution, Kuhn, isolated in his smoke-filled office, was a reluctant revolutionary. Dismayed by accusations that he was an “irrationalist” and a “nihilist,” Kuhn reassured colleagues that he didn’t really want to overturn the scientific applecart. Although initially poignant, his persistent hand-wringing over his legacy became seriocomic. One of his cruelest detractors compared him to Peter Sellers’s character Chance the Gardener, the dim-witted protagonist of Being There, who gains fame because others mistake his inane remarks for profundities.

Kuhn’s most detailed historical studies concentrate on three men who were themselves reluctant revolutionaries. Two were Max Planck and Albert Einstein, who helped initiate the quantum physics revolution in 1900–1910 but opposed some of its weirder theoretical implications. The third scientist was Copernicus. In 1543, Copernicus reassured those discomfited by De revolutionibus orbium coelestium that it was nothing to lose sleep over. By moving Earth from the center of the universe to an orbit about 90 million miles from the Sun, he wasn’t undermining humanity’s importance in the Christian cosmology, because the distance from Earth to the Sun was still “nothing in particular when compared to [the distance] to the fixed stars.” As we now know, of course, he was at best a lousy prophet and at worst disingenuous. The effect of Copernicus’s revolution was to be far more devastating, not only scientifically, but culturally. Displacement of Earth from its central position made nonsense of contemporary theories of motion. This in turn helped to inspire the more sweeping intellectual revolution of Galileo, which would weaken the scientific authority of the Church (as well as its moral stature, thanks to the Inquisition’s prosecution of the astronomer). Next stop: modernity and its secular, satellite-filled, godless skies.

With time, Kuhn’s Structure might come to be viewed in the same way: as the little spark that lit the inferno. His sardonic manifesto triggered an intellectual revolution far bigger than anything he expected or wanted. It was the first shot fired in a scholarly war still raging today to demythologize that marvelous but much-mythologized subject, science.

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