Book Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

What is the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessor? Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently, and their ability to make the transition is facilitated by two circumstances that are not common to most other members of the profession. Invariably their attention has been intensely concentrated upon the crisis-provoking problems; usually, in addition, they are men so young or so new to the crisis-ridden field that practice has committed them less deeply than most of their contemporaries to the world view and rules determined by the old paradigm.

-Excerpt from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


I just finished reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn, which I’ve been interested in reading for a while since I saw this book in both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates’s book club. Straight off the bat, it is not an easy read as it reads more as a scientific research paper than a traditional book you may be accustomed to reading, but it’s definitely an intriguing read that explores how scientific revolutions occur throughout history.

Thomas S. Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) was an American physicist, historian, and philosopher of science and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was an influential publication that challenged the traditional model in which scientific progress was viewed. Kuhn showed that the history of science is not one of linear, rational progress moving toward ever more accurate and complete knowledge of an objective reality (“development-by-accumulation”). Rather, Kuhn argued for a dynamic/cyclical model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in “normal science” were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science in which the old paradigms were replaced by new ones.

Kuhn showed that the theories of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all self-contained and “incommensurable” with one another. There was no steady accumulation of truth in the form of objective knowledge about the physical universe. Instead each theory was a revolutionary break from the previous theory, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of one paradigm by another. Once the paradigm changed, the way science was done and applied was fundamentally different. Kuhn used the word “paradigm” to describe a constellation of facts, theories, methods, and assumptions about reality that allows researchers to isolate data, elaborate theories, and solve problems. Aristotle’s Physica, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Newton’s Principia and Lavoisier’s Chemistry are examples of scientific classics that gave rise to new paradigms. Each of these works triggered a revolution, rendering irrelevant much of what came before them. The chief characteristic of a paradigm, Kuhn argued, is that it has its own set of rules and illuminates its own set of facts. Because it is self-validating, it tends to be resistant to change.

Kuhn pointed out that as long as a paradigm is successful at explaining observed phenomena and solving problems, it remains dominant. But as new phenomena begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. And as anomalies multiply, it is thrown into crisis. At this stage, what is needed is the articulation of a radically new theory or insight, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, that can explain the apparent contradictions. In this way, long periods of “normal” science are followed by brief intellectual upheavals that reorder the basic theoretical assumptions of the field. But new paradigms are never immediately accepted by the scientific community.

Kuhn also stressed that a new paradigm is almost always the work of a young person or someone new to the field. After a number of years in a certain discipline, a scientist tends to be too emotionally and habitually invested in the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, the established leaders of the older tradition may never accept the new view of reality. As Kuhn wrote, “Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the Principia appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on.” Adherents to the old paradigm usually go to their graves with their faith unshaken, Kuhn wryly noted. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, they stubbornly stick with the wrong but familiar.


All in all, it was a difficult read that I didn’t enjoy.. But the principles and concepts in the book are definitely valuable information. I think his theory on scientific revolutions can be applied to other fields as well, such as business and technology. If we look at the disruptive “sharing economy” model that has recently perpetuated our lives in recent years with the emergence of companies such as Uber and AirBnb, we can see this paradigm shift in effect. These companies didn’t emerge and succeed because of a gradual increase in the technology during recent decades – it took the introduction of a completely new paradigm of how we can use these services to open our eyes to the scalability and power of these companies. It reminds me a lot of Peter Thiel’s concept of the 10X Rule, in which disruptive ideas have to be 10 degrees higher than their competitors in order to be truly disruptive, rather than being marginally better than other alternatives. So what paradigms are we living in at the moment, that may need to be challenged?