An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 7 – A Discussion of the Anomaly and Beyond

Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ was a landmark publication which helped reassess and refine the understanding of the core principles of scientific endeavour. The essence of Kuhn’s work was that scientific activity occurs in two broad categories – normal science and revolutionary science.  At the time of revolutionary science, the core principles of the established scientific paradigm within a community are challenged by a competing paradigm. The resulting Hegelian Dialectical involves a replacement of the old paradigm by the new. The process of normal science occurs within a paradigm and describes the most common form of scientific activity where lines of inquiry reflect a tacit acceptance of the framework of assumptions of the guiding paradigm. In Chapter 6 (see Appendix) Kuhn writes about the anomaly in relation to emerging scientific discoveries. The essence of this chapter as I have interpreted it is that the revolutionary and normal scientific activities are inextricably linked. Kuhn suggests that anomalies arise during the course of normal science. A finding occurs which cannot be explained within the framework of the guiding paradigm. Further activity better characterises this anomaly and further lines of inquiry arise. Explanations for this anomaly give rise to a new paradigm – the revolutionary paradigm.

How can such an understanding be applied to a science which is eclectic, pragmatic and empirical in approach? One interpretation is that such a science cannot readily have the normal scientific activities unless these occur within the scientific community operating within the central paradigm. If this same science is eclectic in approach then it is disenfranchised from the above relationship between normal and revolutionary science as the normal science occurs within other scientific communities. The necessary anomalies result from the normal scientific activities of those communities and the anomalies are more readily recognised within those same communities. Additionally those same scientific communities may also be better equipped to investigate these anomalies and generate the foundations of the subsequent paradigms. However this period of revolutionary science is one of de novo generation. The iconic cultural events have yet to occur and eclectic scientific communities are well placed to participate in this movement although not to carry this through unless becoming part of this community. There are solutions which have been discussed in a previous post.

Interestingly individual branches of science may with time diversify to such an extent that rather than being homogenous they may instead come to form a heterogenous group of scientific communities. In this case any common identity necessitates the adoption of an eclectic understanding in contrast with superspecialisation if an identity is to be maintained. Indeed this tension between identity and specialisation may itself generate a misplaced expenditure of resources. This issue of superspecialisation however is distinct from that of Kuhn’s argument about anomalies but interacts as it must at the level of the culture of a scientific community. In his book, Kuhn gives the example of disciplines which are sufficiently refined with time as to become separate branches of science and indeed to generate their own sub-branches. This however was not central to Kuhn’s arguments. The textbook which Kuhn refers to elsewhere must also become an examplar of the eclectic approach to a branch of science being as it is aimed at the student. A distillation of the science for the initiate is necessarily bereft of the cultural nuances which make a scientific community as Kuhn’s work implies that one aspect of science is almost organic – ‘living’ within the scientific community with which it is synonymous. Indeed the distillation is only an approximation of the scientific language which is spoken by the community.

However one last point is that the anomaly is a key concept here as Kuhn is characterising the scientific community and not other communities.


Review of Chapter 6 (see link for rest of review)

The sixth chapter in Kuhn’s book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is titled ‘Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discoveries’. Kuhn gives the example of Thomas Priestley and his ‘discovery’ of Oxygen. The discovery of Oxygen is undoubtedly an important one. Kuhn playfully moves around the history of the discovery of Oxygen showing the futility of pinning it down to the discovery at a certain point in time by means of a simple act. Instead he argues that there must be another means of conceptualising this. The identification and characterisation of Oxygen occurred not in isolation but in the context of contemporary theory. It was through the change in theory that the significance of Oxygen came to be appreciated. In effect it was a network of scientists that collectively brought about the discovery of Oxygen combining both the experimental and conceptual elements necessary for this accomplishment. Kuhn gives other examples. Continuing with his division of science into normal science and revolutionary science, he argues that normal science restricts the focus of the scientist towards confirmation. However this very process highlights anomalies and it is these anomalies that form the basis for revolutionary science. Revolutionary and normal science can be considered to be activities at different levels of a theoretical hierarchy. The implication is that even when activities are geared towards one level of that hierarchy they lead necessarily to changes at other layers of the hierarchy (and perhaps in an unpredictable way). Kuhn gives the example of an experiment involving the presentation of playing cards to subjects. One of the playing cards would be distinct but unless they were looking for this, the subjects didn’t register it consciously. When they were challenged on this after the presentation a small minority of the subjects would become confused about what they had seen and Kuhn hints at what is to come later in the book. By looking at the material in this way, Kuhn offers us insights into the underlying mechanisms of science as well as offering the potential to look at alternative approaches.

Related Resources on the TAWOP Site

A Review of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 1

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 2

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 3

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions – Part 4

Index: There are indices for the TAWOP site here and here Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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