The Perihelion Effect

Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The next chapters of Kuhn’s book go on to explain the preeminence of the idea of historical paradigm over the more traditional views of scientific advance. Paradigm, as Kuhn defines it, are those works or theories which “serve for a time to define and legitimate problems and methods of a research field for succeeding generations of practitioners.” These few works, Aristotle’s Physica or Ptolemy’s Almagest for example, are sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents from other, often times contrary, positions or beliefs. The paradigm sets out solutions while at the same time leaves other details and problems open within its context for members of the group to solve. This problem solving activity, Kuhn says, is most of what science is. This activity is what Kuhn calls “Normal Science”. The fact that members of a scientific community practice such “Normal Science” functions as polishing off rusty edges of the theory and refining that rough gem, signals the maturity of a paradigm. In the absence of a central paradigm, all of the observations made within a particular dicipline remain a random set of facts which have no essential connection. The paradigm, thus determines how these facts will be filed and regarded by the general scientific community. Pre-paradigm facts may be just as true as post-paradigm ones but they are not arranged in any essential manner. Thus some of these facts seem so disperate that they remain too complex to be integrated into any single theory at all. Thus, Kuhn places the paradigm as the central force in science and scientific advance and not the phenomena or fact gathering activity itself. Kuhn has hit upon something very interesting in his distinction between the practices of normal science, and of paradigm establishing science.

Most persons engaged in science are engaged, more precisely, in normal science. There are, by definition, very few who have the ability to galvanize all of the normal scientific facts and hanging problems into a general paradigm. Does this mean that most scientists are really not that smart, or that they are only good technicians at best? Kuhn claims that this paradigm based theory does not demote the level of genius of the normal scientist. Some of these persons are in fact quite superior. They have a knack for the “puzzle solving” activity which normal science requires. Like a puzzle, there is no promise that the solution to any problem of normal science be important or even interesting. Rather it is the solution of puzzle itself which proves the brilliance of the scientist. In fact we might have even greater admiration for the conquests of a scientist who has solved a particularly boring but complex problem of the paradigm. Rather than demoting the scientist, Kuhn’s analysis should provide us with new insight to the psyche and character of such normal science persons. How than is the paradigm established if not by the normal science activity of simple (or not so simple) fact gathering? Kuhn’s explanation is that science only advances in radical leaps due to a crisis of the existing paradigm. The Kuhninan position may be summarized as normal science proceeding in a peaceful adherence to the paradigm, until it produces a fact or discovers a phenomena which does not fit within the parameters of the existing structure of belief. Such “anomalies” of science violate the expectations of the normal scientist.