Research Proposal: Thomas Kuhn's Theory of Scientific Revolutions

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Thomas Kuhn's Theory Of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of scientific revolutions has become a natural part of today's scientific jargon. Although many are familiar with its basic tenets, many do not realize that they are part of the formal theory proposed by Thomas Kuhn. Unlike theorists before him, he did not believe that scientific progress occurred in a linear fashion, but that it undergoes period "revolutions" where changes in thought occur. This research will support the thesis that Kuhn's theory is valid and that it explains recent developments in the fields of genetics and bioengineering.

Basic Tenets of the Theory

The central focus of the field of science is on solving the problems that surround us. In some cases, it is to explain why something occurs. In others, it is to help solve a particular problem for humanity, such as how to cure a disease. Scientific invention also exists to help humans live better lives. Science exists as a tool to help humans solve the many problems that confront them.

For hundreds of years prior to the theories of Kuhn, it was thought that scientific invention progressed logically, as a result of the accumulation of knowledge from past scientific discoveries. However, this theory did not account for times in history where two competing theories emerged to explain the same phenomenon. The example of this phenomenon that led to the "discovery" of Kuhn's revolutionary theory is the explanations of physics by Aristotle and those of Isaac Newton (Horgan, pp. 40-49). Kuhn realized that rather then one being "wrong" and the other being "right," they were both simply different ways of viewing the same problem.

Kuhn views the development of science as cyclic in nature. It goes through period of "paradigm shift" where an explosion of new ideas takes place. Then it enters into a phase that is referred to as "normal science" where the theories tested and refined. According to Kuhn, the next "explosion" of thought processes occurs at the end of the "normal science" phase when results are obtained that do not fit the existing theories (Weinberg).

According to Kuhn, one cannot view the theory in its entirety until it has matured and become a part of scientific knowledge (Weinberg). One cannot judge the paradigm shift until long after it has occurred. Weinberg compares this to judgment of a historical event. One cannot see the effects of an event until long after the event itself has passed. For instance, as we witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001, we could not imagine how our lives would change. New laws and protocols were put in place as a result of the event, but we could not foresee that as the event was happening. This is similar to what Kuhn says about paradigm shifts.

Kuhn further points out that a paradigm shift means abandonment of the ideas associated with the old paradigm. This leaves no standard by which to judge any knowledge gained after the shift has occurred (Weinberg). There is no common ground between the two paradigms. Theories can only be spoken of within their own paradigm. Changing paradigms does not allow for new theories to be examined until the shift has occurred. Kuhn argues that we cannot see the paradigm shift when it is happening, but that we see the changes as a continuous progression.

Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions is an interesting topic in a world where technology changes quickly and new developments take place everyday. However, Kuhn does have his critics who disagree entirely, or in part with his theory of scientific revolutions. One of the key criticisms of the theory is that it ignores the psychology of creativity and of those that create the paradigm shift (Mitra). The argument is presented and then blatantly ignored.

Criticisms of Kuhn's work centered on two areas. The first is the nature and implications of normal science as Kuhn presents it. The second key criticism is his argument about the incommensurability of rival paradigms. Kuhn states,

"First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem solving activity that has accrued to science through its predecessors." (Kuhn, Scientific

Revolutions, p. 168).

If the new candidates resolve some of the problems with the old paradigm, then it is not incommensurable, but rather is an extension of the old paradigm. Secondly, if the new paradigm must promise to preserve a large part of the concrete problem solving and the work that has taken place to this point, then portions of the paradigm still remain. This is contradictory to the notion that the old paradigm is completely replaced by the new one. These types of inconsistencies have been the greatest source of criticism over Kuhn's work.

The Process of Change

Kuhn felt that scientific revolutions occurred in a distinctively regular and ordered fashion. According to Kuhn, this process occurs every time a new field of science is developed. The first phase is called the "prescience" phase. This phase lacks a central paradigm. New ideas are just beginning to develop and the element of creativity is present in the process.

Prescience is followed by "normal science." This is where scientists try to expand on the central paradigm through solving problems. At this stage, the failure of a discovery to conform to the paradigm is not seen as a discredit to the paradigm, but will be likely to be regarded as a mistake by the researcher. The idea of nonconformity in results is not considered a possibility. Eventually, the number of non-conformities continues to build until it reaches a crisis. At this point, a new paradigm subordinates the old. The new paradigm contains all of the anomalous results and becomes accepted as the new norm. Then a new phase of normal science soon follows.

Kuhn and the field of genetics and bioengineering

Kuhn's process is believed to repeat itself every time a new area of scientific discovery is pursued. Kuhn argues that one cannot see the stages taking place until after the new paradigm is established. However, it one takes a look at a rapidly changing field of modern science, one can see these phases in action. The following will explore Kuhn's process of change as it relates to the field of genetics and bioengineering.

Bioengineering is the process of changing an organism's DNA so that it has desirable traits. It is also conducted to attempt to eliminate undesirable characteristics. The field of bioengineering is actually an old idea. However, recent developments have changed the way people think about the field. Let us examination this evolution of this scientific revolution.

Bioengineering has been practiced since ancient times. The first bioengineers accomplished their goals through the selective breeding of livestock and plants. When a genetic mutation occurred, they could decide to propagate the mutation or to allow it to extinguish through failing to propagate it. This process mimics nature, only humans have a hand in making an active decision about whether the new mutation survives or are allowed to become extinct. The goal of selective breeding is to improve the species to make it more suitable to human needs.

The process of selective breeding has been around so long, that many do not consider it to be associated with the modern high-tech world that we seen today. When one thinks of the modern bioengineer, they do not think of ancient shepherds selectively breeding their flocks to produce longer wool, or a certain color of wool. They now picture bioengineering in a sterile environment with lab coats, microscopes and other high tech equipment.

Our concept about bioengineering has changed considerably from the ancient times. This is what Kuhn would call a paradigm shift. The old way of using bioengineering through selective breeding has its limitations. Sometimes the traits are not transferred to the offspring as planned. Sometimes breeding for one trait produces an undesirable trait, such as a congenital heart defect. The process of selective breeding is slow and it can take hundreds of years to produce consistency in the results. The old way of bioengineering has many drawbacks, but it is the foundation that led to the modern field of bioengineering.

Modern genetic engineering takes a more direct route by techniques that directly manipulate the DNA on a molecular level through recombinant and splicing techniques. Cloning, stem cell research and gene therapy are all modern techniques that represent the new paradigm and definition of bioengineering. The process of selective breeding is so dissimilar to the modern idea of bioengineering that one seldom even considers them to be related field. Few stop to think about how the origins of modern bioengineering began with the practice of selective breeding that dates back thousands of years. Now, let us examine how this paradigm shift progressed from ancient selective breeding practices to gene splicing.

For many thousands… [END OF PREVIEW]

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