#3 What kind of attitude should scientists take knowing that anomalies will eventually threaten their paradigm?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, pages vii-65

I’m really liking Kuhn’s book. I read parts of it before including secondary sources. I can see now why it became so famous. Up until page 65, Kuhn explains that scientific theorizing and conceptualizing eventually settle into a paradigm, that is, roughly speaking, a group of people using particular methods to think about particular things. Scientific paradigms exist in all fields, from chemistry to physics. Kuhn says that once the paradigm gels, members within a paradigm conduct normal science or puzzle-solving or tying up the lingering loose-end problems and that likely one of the chief figures of establishing the paradigm (e.g. Newton for physics) couldn’t manage to work out. As practitioners wrap up problems to solidify the paradigm, cracks in the framework, and thus the dominant mode of thinking about something, begin to show themselves. Certain “anomalies” cannot be explained using the current paradigm’s explanations of reality. I’ve read up until the end of the anomalies chapter, however, I know that “crises” are the next step. 

So, if members of a paradigm freak out, go into crisis mode, regarding anomalies they cannot explain, I don’t understand why said members deny the possibility of there being more to reality. Well, I have an idea after reading Kuhn. Members resist change. They build entire careers around some niche, obscure aspect within their paradigm. Things are good. Things are cozy. No need to rock the boat, especially if one is retiring or just about to get tenure. There are many reasons why someone would continue to plod along and ignore threatening anomalies. What confuses me is that Kuhn brought the structure or formula of scientific revolutions into the light. He made people see what previously lay hidden. The benefit of hindsight as a historian of science allowed Kuhn to tell people, hey, this is what your predecessors and what you and your colleagues are doing. It seems to me that if people knew that anomalies will eventually threaten everyone’s conceptualizations within a field, then people wouldn’t be too surprised about an anomaly occurring. (I suppose it depends how big the unexplainable anomaly is, i.e. the double slit experiment in physics is a head melter, and I imagine whoever cracks that nut will be extremely happy including the rest of us.) The prompt I want to explore today is: What kind of attitude should scientists take knowing that anomalies will eventually threaten their paradigm? 

Ok, anomalies, threats, panic, fear. I just don’t understand why the crisis step even occurs. I get it, something weird cannot be explained by the current theories and methods. But why freak out about it? I’m writing to the freak-out-prone scientist who is reading this now: you know change will come. You’re likely a smart person. You’re smart enough to know that your paradigm will change in your lifetime or soon thereafter. Instead of clinging onto to the old, embrace the new. It reminds me of many elderly people I’ve met during my life: they seem to cling onto and recount old memories rather than having new experiences today. There is so much news in the world, so much still to experience, so many things to discuss that are happening today. Yet I usually get roped into a 15-minute sermon about something that is actually not so interesting to me but apparently it is so important for this older person to recount this story. I’m not an ageist if that’s what you’re thinking; the above was a simple example to make my point, the point being: just because you’re old doesn’t mean you should wait to die and cherish the past over the present. Likewise, just because you based your entire academic career on solving and reinforcing particular problems doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address the anomalies that peek their heads at you. Attack! Put to good use the decades of tacit knowledge within the field, all those degrees, all those everything you have in your arsenal to make sense of the new, or to inspire the younger generations, to give them everything they need to tackle the puzzles that are beyond yours and your peers’ current thinking. 

I think another really fascinating thing to consider is that the discoveries brought on by anomalies are few and far between the periods of normal science, ask Kuhn calls it. Most of science is in solving every which way the new discovery operates, creating new instruments or mathematics in order to make further tests. “Progress” is a choppy endeavor. It seems very start-stop, start-stop, and depends on the discoveries made, many times by accident, when academics are doing normal science. We must have normal science, an air of normality, for some things to appear not to fit, that which catches our attention because of its out-of-placeness. 

I suppose what I want to know is: can or should one hunt down anomalies considering many happen by accident against the backdrop of daily puzzle solving? I think you’d be considered an eccentric, your peers wondering why anyone would try to prove or discover “this” or “that.” Good, finally, after hundreds of words put down this is what wanted to come out of my mind. Can anomalies be engineered? I think the circumstances can be engineered, meaning, you might be looking for something already improbable, already unlikely, but then you discover something else completely different, unknown, unthought-of, not considered before. So, discoveries can be made whether by accident or actively searching for something unlikely, but even in searching for the improbable some other inconceivable thing might be discovered. This sounds a bit like deductive reasoning, but what I am arguing is not that because in deduction the scientist predicts the outcome of the experiment, whereas in what I say above the scientist wouldn’t know what s/he looks for but probes the impossible/improbable anyway just to see what happens, and maybe something does present itself as a result. 

Kuhn, T. S. (1996/1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Scroll to Top