The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Although many a nerd will tell you Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most important books in the world, to be honest this isn’t a book that everyone needs to read. I first read it maybe a decade ago, in an undergraduate class on the history of science, and it’s just as dense and boring an academic text as I remember it being. But—but!—as dense and boring as the prose is, the content of this book changed the way I think about the world in a way that makes me feel really empowered and able to understand humans and societies.
There aren’t that many books that I can point to with 100% certainty and say, “this changed my life.” So maybe you do want to read it.
There are a lot of resources out there explaining Kuhn; he changed the way historians think about the history of science, too, and also the history of other kinds of knowledge. If you did university coursework that got into the history of science or philosophy, you’ve probably at least heard of him. Here’s a diagram that I stole from an online course at UC Irvine that displays the core idea of Kuhn's book, the process by which a group of people moves from an old paradigm to a new one:
In my own words, here’s the main idea of TSoSR: science does not progress gradually through the accumulation of knowledge, the way you were probably taught in high school. Instead, if you look at the actual events of history you see that science progresses in a cycle that looks like one way of thinking (a paradigm) coming into a crisis and then being overtaken by an entirely different way of thinking.
Here’s how this process works:
1. Stage one: the initial way of thinking is chugging happily along. Scientists are operating under its assumptions, and are examining questions presented by this way of thinking. Classic example: geocentrism. Astronomers worked under the assumption that the stars moved around the Earth, and worked to figure out specifics of their orbits and their implications.
2. Stage two: crisis! The investigations carried out under the initial way of thinking produce results that are inexplicable under that paradigm. Scientists see enough results like this to begin to doubt and question and hypothesize. E.g. Astronomers observed the movements of the planets, which did not cleanly traverse the sky in a single orbit but rather seemed to move backward and forward. Weird!
3. Stage three: someone proposes a new way of thinking, aka a new paradigm. This shift to the new paradigm happens in their head as they formulate a new way of explaining evidence. This new paradigm should explain the available data more completely (although it doesn’t have to explain every single thing perfectly). E.g. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe is written, and then published after his death.
4. Stage four: anarchy! Perhaps more than one possible new paradigm is proposed, or possibly the old guard are attached to the previous paradigm and resist changing it. Or both—either way, there is public debate and dispute over what framework is most correct. Two things tend to predict which paradigm wins: how it aligns with current evidence, and how it predicts new, testable experiments. E.g. Tycho Brahe et al dispute Copernicus’ heliocentric theory for a generation, but the theory predicted Jupiter’s moons and the phases of Venus, and Kepler’s elliptical orbits fixed a lot of the math.
5. Stage five: solidification. Consensus arrives on a new way of thinking about the world (possibly because the old guard straight up dies off) and scientists begin to use these new assumptions as the underlying basis for their experiments. E.g. NASA calculates the heliocentric solar system to send cute robots everywhere.
It’s pretty obvious why this framework (yes, the concept of paradigms is itself a paradigm—it's turtles all the way down) is important for historians of science, and for scientists who are working on the cutting edge of their fields where they may run into evidence that contradicts their current paradigm and throws their field into crisis. But it might be less obvious why I, a non-scientist who has never worked in science or even gotten closer to it than a couple of undergrad classes in astronomy and geology, felt so profoundly improved by understanding this.
The reason I get so excited about Thomas Kuhn is that you can understand the whole world this way. It’s not just science that cycles from paradigm to paradigm—everything that involves a lot of humans talking with each other does too.
Within a religion, for example, there will be doctrines that are accepted by (nearly) everyone. Then, experiences that aren’t compatible with that doctrine will crop up. Under conditions where those experiences are too frequent to ignore, the doctrine will be thrown into crisis. Alternate interpretations will be proposed, and the debate will get heated. But eventually the debate settles on a new interpretation that is widely accepted—or else the religion fails.
An example that I’m closely familiar with is the (American Protestant) doctrine of Hell. A couple hundred years ago, nearly every Protestant church’s official stance on Hell was that it was a literal, physical place where the souls of those who didn’t follow Christ burned for eternity. This was a belief that people could sustain fairly easy as long as they lived in communities where every person they met was a Protestant Christian—only people they didn’t know burned in Hell, or maybe just a few people who were genuinely awful.
However, once society modernized, and transportation options multiplied, Protestants were suddenly living lives where they traveled and met people who were, according to the doctrine, going to burn in Hell forever. And those people were funny and cute and obviously didn’t deserve eternal torture.
Too much contradictory experience threw the doctrine (and the church body) into chaos. People were excommunicated! Pastors changed their beliefs and took their entire churches with them off into new denominations! Families split over it and stopped talking to each other!
This chaos is still happening in some places, but these days, a new consensus is forming: Hell is a metaphor for separation from God. Hell is a poetic elaboration. The doctrine of physical, eternal fire was a misunderstanding of the scripture.
If you don’t understand paradigm shifts, this kind of change is inexplicable, both frustrating and ridiculous. If the old doctrine was a simple error in interpretation, we have to believe that the church consensus, for centuries, was just—totally wrong, on accident. But if you view this as a paradigm shift, a change in ways of thinking caused by confrontations with new experiences, a lot of stupid human behavior suddenly makes a lot more sense.
So why did I decide to revisit this book, a decade after I first read it? I’m not a Protestant any longer, and once you accept the paradigm-shift paradigm, applying it to situations you see is simple. It comforts me to see the way our broad moral paradigm is, right in this moment, changing from a rot/contamination paradigm (“homosexuality/premarital sex/smoking pot is a stain on our society and corrupts innocents and is foul and diseased, so it’s wrong”) to a harm-centric paradigm (“homosexuality/etc doesn’t hurt anyone, so it’s not wrong”). It makes me feel like I have secret knowledge about the world when I trace aesthetic paradigms (“omniscient third person is sophisticated and should be used in many if not most books”) through time (“omniscient third person is awkward and gets in the way of the story and you should almost never use it”).
But the really fascinating paradigm shift that I’ve got my eye on is the one happening right now within concepts of gender in collective/popular Western culture. For so long Western society (Societies? The trickiest part of this whole essay is defining who it is who is adopting these paradigms. For this example, think basically every person who lives in an English-speaking ‘developed’ nation and a lot of people who don't but who are adjacent to that experience because of colonization.) has had a paradigm of simple and biological binary genders. Those with vaginas are women and those with penises are men and any people who don’t fit those two categories are errors to be corrected biologically (preferably surgically).
That paradigm has run into a surfeit of evidence not explainable under that paradigm. From intersex folks, to trans folks of all stripes, to communication with people from other cultures who raise an eyebrow at the limits of this paradigm, there is just too much evidence that the Western paradigm is insufficient.
So we’re in crisis. Many alternate paradigms have been proposed and are being debated furiously on the public stage. Conferences are adding pronouns to name badges! Trans folks are being denied full citizenship and removed from the US military! Athletic leagues are making rules for trans athletes! More and more people are publicly declaring their own gender to be not-binary and/or not-Western and/or not-biological! Trans and genderqueer folks are getting bashed on American city streets by freelance paradigm enforcers!
The chaos is glorious (and deadly—we’re not all surviving this shift any more than we all survived the previous paradigm). Someday it’s going to settle into a new paradigm, and we’re all going to basically agree on it and know how to talk about it, and our explorations will be ‘in the realm of normal science.’ Which is to say, constructive instead of destructive, more about understanding specific cases than about changing our definitions entirely. We'll be able to have public conversations that are generally understood without stopping to define half a dozen terms first.
My faith in the predictability of human nature gives me confidence that that will happen, someday. And I’m really curious how it’s going to turn out: will we have six genders? Will we consider gender not to be the kind of thing you divide into units and count, but instead the kind of thing you measure the magnitude of? Will we settle on the easiest option, the one that requires the least change, and have three genders: men, women and in-between? I don’t know, although I’m hoping for more than the simple addition of a not-man-or-woman gender (not that that would be all that simple). I don’t even know if the paradigm we’ll eventually settle on has been proposed yet. I’m just watching and waiting.
And so but anyway, that’s 1800 words answering a question no one actually asked: I don’t have a label for my gender and don’t like to say much about it because the paradigm is in crisis and hasn’t solidified, so I don’t know what my gender is yet. When we live in a culture with a new gender paradigm, I’ll let you know where I fit (assuming the next paradigm sucks less than the old one, anyway). Until then, don’t worry about it. I don't. I've read Thomas Kuhn.