Magazine article American Scientist

From the President

Magazine article American Scientist

From the President

Article excerpt

Defending the Scientific Process

Will key theories of modern science, including Darwinian evolution in biology and Einsteinian relativity in physics, survive future discoveries? Some people think such survival is impossible, because they believe that new scientific theories always overthrow the previous theories. This misunderstanding has been fostered in part by a famous book first published in 1962-Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which argued that scientific research proceeds for long periods of time within a certain manner of thinking (a "paradigm"), until too many pieces of evidence have turned up that are unexplainable or even paradoxical. Then suddenly there is a great leap (a "paradigm shift"): The old theory is abandoned for a new theory that explains much more, and the old paradoxes disappear. The concepts of the new theory are so different from the concepts of the old one that they are "incommensurable," because the implicit assumptions have changed. For example, after the Copemican Revolution, when scientists abandoned the idea that the Earth was the immovable center of the universe, the Earth became a planet and the status of the Sun and Moon changed. The old theory was overthrown and never again taught as science.

Kuhn, whose first book was on the Copemican Revolution, appears to have assumed that all scientific revolutions are like that one. His argument implies that no scientific theory can ever be considered true, because it will eventually be overthrown by a bigger and better theory. …

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