The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

by

Thomas S. Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kuhn turns his attention to the fact that the various scientific revolutions discussed in his book are rarely seen as such; instead, they are made “nearly invisible” to both laymen and scientists. This is in part because textbooks, popular science, and philosophy of science all focus on presenting the coherent laws and truths acknowledged by the “normal-scientific tradition” of the time.
Kuhn opened his argument with a critique of the simplified history in textbooks, and he now turns his attention to why (and how) this simplified history has developed. In particular, he is interested in how normal science bolsters its present activities by revising the story of science’s past.
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In particular, Kuhn notes that textbooks collapse after each scientific revolution and must be completely rewritten to reflect the new paradigm. Crucially, however, these new textbooks make no mention of this erasure. Instead, science textbooks “begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history.” Worse still, they replace this history with scattered references to old heroes that make students feel like they are taking in the history of their field—when they are actually learning about only the work that is most relevant to the current paradigm.
Throughout The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn has explained that scientists—more than experts in other fields—understand their purpose and practice through textbooks. One of the most powerful things textbooks can do, then, is to make young scientists feel like they are inheriting and improving an age-old set of scientific beliefs. In other words, science textbooks “truncate” the history of science in its full complexity and thus falsely assure scientists that their methods and questions are correct and inevitable.
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Though Kuhn acknowledges that all histories are to some extent revisionist, he believes this is especially true for science. On the one hand, science appears to be removed from historical context, and on the other hand, science is normally so authoritative on its own that it does not feel the need to justify itself with history. These textbook authors, Kuhn writes, wonder why they should “dignify” clashing beliefs—“what science’s best and most persistent efforts have made it possible to discard.”
While art and literature are usually viewed as products of a particular worldview or perspective, science claims universal authority, especially because many scientists’ work has concrete impacts (like pain medicine or computer technology). But because science can solve problems, to acknowledge that science is subjective (and there might be another equally important set of problems) is to undermine the seeming clarity of scientific results.
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As a result, textbooks often make science look linear. And in justifying their own paradigms, even some scientists themselves participate in this historical erasure. For example, Newton credits Galileo with discovering gravity in a Newtonian way, when in fact Galileo belonged to a different time and thought according to a totally different paradigm.  
Kuhn’s mention of Newton and Galileo demonstrates how important scientific certainty is even to the most radical thinkers. Rather than claiming credit for his new discoveries, Newton wanted to assure himself that he was merely continuing Galileo’s legacy—and thus that his paradigm was inevitable instead of something he created.
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In addition to erasing past scientific revolutions, this kind of history suggests that since the beginning of time, scientists have been trying to solve the same questions—the questions of whatever today’s paradigm is. Many textbooks praise Robert Boyle as the first modern chemist because he defined the term “element” much as today’s chemists do. But Boyle actually used this definition to argue that no such thing existed. Textbooks thus actively manipulate and distort the much more complicated, less linear, history of science.
Kuhn once again draws readers’ attention to the importance of reading in context: a word that meant one thing in the 17th century might mean a totally different thing in the 19th. In other words, if textbooks work to read the past through the lens of the present, Kuhn insists that the history of science must be understood on its own terms.
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