The (r)evolution of scientific practice and methods

American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote about the history of science, and particularly about how scientific revolutions ome about. I very much believe that the social science community is experiencing a rapid paradigm shift in regards to research transparency. In this step, I discuss how new practices are adopted and how scientists can drive change.

If you’ve ever taken a science class, there’s a good chance you’ve read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. The book is a widely considered a modern classic about the history of science and how it has evolved over time. Though we don’t have time to read the whole book in this course, I’d highly recommend checking it out from your local library or reading it online in your spare time.

Perhaps the most significant contributions of the book deal with normal science and paradigm shifts.

Kuhn defines a paradigm as “ universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.” They are

“accepted examples of actual scientific practice—examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation together— provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research. These are the traditions which the historian describes under such rubrics as ‘Ptolemaic astronomy’ (or ‘Copernican’), ‘Aristotelian dynamics’ (or ‘Newtonian’), ‘corpuscular optics’ (or ‘wave optics’), and so on. The study of paradigms, including many that are far more specialized than those named illustratively above, is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.”

Scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts tend to be catalyzed by crises, causing what starts out as small groups of scientists to challenge norms and find innovative ways of moving forward. When these paradigms are challenged, there is often pushback from the rest of the community. And revolutions occur rapidly through competition between those participating in normal science (generally of older generations) and those pushing for change (generally the newly trained younger generations).

Kuhn discusses the revolutionary nature of scientific paradigm shifts:

“The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals.”

Many in the research transparency movement believe we are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift in the social sciences. Open science practices are becoming more widespread and demand for open science literacy is growing. But a successful shift does not happen on its own. Scientists have to work actively to make openness and transparency the norm.

What do you think? What aspects of what we’ve learned in the last three weeks fit Kuhn’s concept of paradigmatic change and scientific revolution? If this is a revolution, what does that mean for the future of the social sciences?


Kuhn, Thomas S. 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press.