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Where does science come from? Food for thought ...

During the twentieth century, scholars raised questions concerning nature of scientific change. Two of them, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, came to different conclusions concerning the question of the source of scientific change. Popper argued that there is no absolute truth that science can detect. However, in the process of trying to detect truth, scientists accumulate knowledge and experience; and these changes lead to accumulation and progress in science. Kuhn, on the other hand, claims that scientists work within frameworks which are replaced from time to time. (For example, Einstein replaced Newton; Galileo's sun replaced the earth as the center of the universe.) The knowledge associated with the old framework becomes invalid; thus, change prevents the accumulation of knowledge.

Here we sketch Popper's theory of how science grows (accumulates); next we look at Kuhn's theory of framework shifts.

Popper tries to distinguish scientific from non-scientific theories. A theory is scientific "if, and only if it has the potential to be refuted by some possible observation," that is, it has to be falsifiable. (For example, for Popper 2+2 = 4 is not a scientific theory for it cannot be verified scientifically.) If a theory is too broad, it is not falsifiable and hence non-scientific. Consequently, a good scientific theory has to be unambigious or explicit. Consider Newton's view of the universe and the laws (pardigms) he claimed ruled the universe. At that time, the laws worked quite well for explaining the working of the universe as we knew it. Then a revolution occurred and we learned that on another scale, the universe did not follow Newton's laws. New laws were needed to explain the 'new' universe.

Additionally, Popper claims that a theory can never be confirmed, only falsified; therefore, scientists would ideally never stop attempting to refute a theory. However, Popper does not argue that there is no truth, only that it is impossible to prove that a theory is true, because there may always be unknown exceptions. Thus, scientists always have to maintain a "tentative attitude" towards their hypotheses.

Popper advances the idea that this constant refutation results in scientific change. He suggests a cycle of conjecture, the proposal of a new scientific theory, and attempted refutation (the process of trying to falsify this theory). If falsified, the cycle starts again and the original idea may be redefined and altered. In this cyclical manner, a new conjecture takes place which improves theories by making them less ambiguous or more explicit. Or provides a better answer to the question. (Consider the germ theory of disease versus the angry gods.) This is where the cumulative character of scientific change lies: Scientists improve and readjust their ideas; thus, knowledge is accumulated by the testing, refusal and redefining of conjectures. Science 'advances' through this two-step cycle; through the constant change, knowledge and experience are accumulated and science moves to better conjectures.

Popper's ideal scientist is creative enough to propose a theory and committed enough to test it constantly; good scientists are able to repeatedly question theories.

Kuhn objects to this view. He argues that scientists usually work within 'normal science': Scientists conduct orderly, regular attempts at solving puzzles. They try to find answers to a problem within a regulating framework without questioning framework. Kuhn calls these regulating frameworks paradigms (models, hypotheses). Paradigms represent scientific world views, including methods for gathering and analyzing data, and habits of scientific thought and action. In normal science, there is only one paradigm in one field at the same time, there is no mutuality.

If a problem appears to which a paradigm gives no answer, scientists within normal science will assume that they made mistakes. Eventually, when the unsolved problems and anomalies reach a critical mass, scientists will doubt a paradigm. A crisis occurs, and the 'fundamental' assumptions can be debated anew. If a new paradigm appears during a crisis, a scientific revolution takes place: Scientists are prepared to embrace a new framework; the old paradigm is eventually replaced, and a paradigm shift transpired.

This disruptive nature of a paradigm shift, the change which renders the old framework invalid, makes accumulation impossible. Kuhn suggests that there is both gain and loss in a scientific revolution, because questions that the old paradigm answered now lead to puzzling new questions, or they cease to be questions. For Kuhn, there is no accumulation because there is discontinuity: Different paradigms are impossible to measure both in language and standards because each paradigm works with slightly different methods, terms and aims. Consequently, knowledge is relative to a paradigm and hence neither comparable nor cumulative. To Kuhn, all the information gathered in answering a question or forming a paradigm, will be unusable in answering the new question or forming the new paradigm. The sciences undergo periodic "paradigm shifts" rather than solely progressing in a linear and continuous way. These paradigm shifts open up new approaches to understanding that scientists would never have considered valid before, and that the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community. Competing paradigms are frequently competing accounts of reality which cannot be reconciled. Thus, our comprehension of science can never rely on full "objectivity;" we must account for subjective perspectives as well.

In conclusion, Popper sees the questioning of conjectures as the very basis of good and daily scientific work. The constant attempts to refute theories creates the need to improve, thus change, scientific conjectures, wherein lies an accumulation of knowledge. Kuhn does not see a continuity as Popper does, but rather a disruptive cycle of paradigm shifts. The incommensurable nature and ideological differences of paradigms make knowledge relative, and thus n other on-cumulative. Whereas Popper sees a process in which change is the reason for accumulation, Kuhn identifies self-contained frameworks which replace each because of change.


Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kuhn, Thomas (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

K R Popper (1970), "Normal Science and its Dangers", in Lakatos & A Musgrave (eds.) (1970), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, the Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, vol 4. London, 1965.

* David Plaut, Plano, Texas, Consultant, AMT's Book Reviewer, and frequent speaker at AMT national conventions and regional meetings; Greta Schmulling, Bachelor Student of European Studies at Maastricht, Netherlands
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Author:Plaut, David; Schmulling, Greta
Publication:AMT Events
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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