Revolutions in Science: No Guillotines, But No Mercy Either

Revolution is a recurring scenario in human history. It typically begins with a systematic buildup of tension that suddenly explodes, causing radical change and heralding the dawn of a new world. This mechanism, which we use to depict the dynamics of social events, not only describes changes in political regimes and orders but also captures the process of scientific knowledge production. Long live the scientific revolution!

Thomas Kuhn is one of the most important 20th-century philosophers of science. He was a central figure in the historical-sociological-psychological approach to understanding the formation of scientific beliefs. His work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (first published in 1962), marked a turning point in how we view the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Conceptual categories proposed by Kuhn – such as “paradigm” – have become permanent fixtures in the lexicon of philosophical reflection on science, as well as in other scientific and non-scientific discourses. Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolution sparked significant debate upon its announcement, igniting the minds of philosophers and philosophically inclined scientists, including the critical Steven Weinberg, an American theoretical physicist, Nobel laureate, and ardent defender of the rationality of science.

Kuhn was among the first philosophers to argue that the development of scientific knowledge is influenced not only by cognitive factors such as new theories or experimental results but also by other variables: economics, politics, and the psychologically conditioned decisions of scientists.

This view was both original and controversial, primarily because admitting that scientists are not always motivated by the pursuit of absolute truths was seen by many thinkers as undermining the rational foundation of science.

Despite these doubts, Kuhn demonstrated that the creation and acceptance of scientific knowledge must be described and understood within a specific historical and cultural context. From this, one can infer that there is no single unassailable model for practicing science, but rather various strategies that change over time. This belief defines the essence of Kuhn’s concept.

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Normal Science, Paradigm, and Revolution

According to Kuhn, scientific development occurs in a discontinuous manner, with periods of “normal science” interrupted by “scientific revolutions” that result in changes in “paradigms.” The standard state in which science flourishes is the period of “normal science.” During this time, scientists work according to well-established conceptual frameworks and solve research problems based on theoretical foundations widely accepted by the scientific community. However, over time, as experimental results emerge that cannot be understood within the existing framework, there grows a conviction that the current ways of thinking need to be changed, a concept Kuhn termed the paradigm.

Simply put, a paradigm is a method of solving a given problem that is accepted by the scientific community. It is the basis on which scientists communicate and evaluate the results of research. This consensus begins to wane when a significant portion of scientists believe that the prevailing style of thinking cannot comprehend new facts. Consequently, the old paradigm is rejected, leading to a revolutionary revaluation in the theoretical foundations of scientific activity and the establishment of a new cooperative framework, marking the transition to a new period of “normal science.”

How Do We Know a Revolution Has Occurred?

In science, a revolutionary change in paradigm largely occurs unnoticed, without the fanfare of events like the storming of the Bastille or the firing of the Aurora. This process is more akin to a crawling infant than a sprinter on the track. Nonetheless, there are symptoms indicating that a scientific revolution has taken place. Firstly, it is interdisciplinary, meaning it changes the working style of scientists not just in one discipline. Secondly, new research institutions and standards of conducting research emerge as a result of the paradigm shift. Thirdly, the structure of science undergoes radical transformation, both organizationally and cognitively. New scientific disciplines arise, while others disappear. Fourthly, and from the broadest perspective most importantly, there is a fundamental revaluation in the worldview, changing how humans perceive, think about, and understand the world.

It is important to emphasize that not all scientific revolutions are equal; some are local while others are global. Local revolutions occur within a single discipline, altering its landscape. However, these can potentially become the first domino in a chain reaction, triggering a general evolution in science and possibly leading to a global transformation in the paradigm of scientific practice.

Phot. Chokniti Khongchum / Pexels

Changes, Changes, Changes…

Contemporary science emerged from the great scientific revolution of the 17th century. This event, known as the advent of the modern scientific paradigm, comprises numerous scientific achievements from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Each of these accomplishments fundamentally altered humanity’s perspective on the world and accelerated scientific and technological progress. One must begin with the Copernican revolution, which not only removed Earth but also humanity from the center of the Universe.

Three hundred years later, this revolution was completed and a new one was initiated by Charles Darwin with his 1859 publication of “On the Origin of Species.” This established that the evolution of our species did not occur in any privileged manner and that we are the result of the same mechanisms that govern all life.

However, the most spectacular revolutions in the history of science have occurred in physics, starting with the Newtonian upheaval and the establishment of classical mechanics. This was followed by the two great revolutions of the early 20th century: the advent of quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s presentation of the theory of relativity. The hallmarks of the scientific revolution are also evident in the 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick.

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A Time of Great Change

The major breakthroughs that have transformed the practice of science have occurred not only in the theoretical realm but also in the development of scientific research tools. Exemplary instances include Galileo’s and Newton’s telescopes, Hooke’s microscope, Boyle’s pump, and the instrumental revolution in chemistry.

We are witnessing a monumental breakthrough today with the widespread application of digital and information technologies in scientific research. There is no doubt that computers have revolutionized our lives because they first revolutionized the world of science. This transformation extends beyond the ability to process data and design experimental setups faster, more easily, and more accurately. The introduction of informatics tools into laboratories has enabled scientific research to explore domains that were previously cognitively inaccessible to humans for various reasons.

Undoubtedly, scientific progress has always been and will continue to be inextricably linked to revolutionary breakthroughs driven by the application of new technologies in research. One of the most current examples is the use of artificial intelligence as a tool to support experimental work.

Without Revolution, There is No Scientific Progress

One of the hallmarks of science is the rejection of dogmatism and the readiness to propose bold hypotheses. Many scientists acknowledge that it is extremely challenging, both psychologically and institutionally, to counter established and accepted methodologies within the scientific community. Therefore, a revolution in science must result from collective effort. No matter how perfect an idea is, it will not change the world unless it is accepted by the majority. In this respect, just like in history, a revolution is not determined by a single dictator but by the people. Long live the revolution in science!

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Radosław Kazibut


Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at Adam Mickiewicz University, philosopher of nature and science. Engaged in research on the influence of cultural factors on the processes of recognizing knowledge as cognitively valuable. He is a fan of the works of Umberto Eco, Italian wine, food and culture, ravens, mazes and Polish gray dumplings.

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