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Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds So I want to talk about the evolution of not just conceptual frameworks but really just practice and methods. So in particular, let’s say we think there is a certain method, like the use of pre-analysis plans in prospective research – prospectively designed studies. If we think those are useful and we think there’s good conceptual reasons for us to be using pre-analysis plans,

Skip to 0 minutes and 22 seconds are they going to spread? If they’re objectively useful, does that mean they’re definitely going to spread? And what might encourage their spread? Like how is this going to look? How is this going to play out? Kuhn makes this distinction between two types of periods in research. There’s periods of normal science and there’s so-called episodes of scientific revolution. So periods of normal science are periods where most people kind of agree on the model, they agree on the methods and you’re doing research to advance that agenda. And the contrast is between those periods and periods where there is a sharp change in paradigm.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds Or you could think, you know, the analogy to this term is maybe a sharp change in the research methods used. And I would argue when you think about say the use of pre-analysis plans, at least in some narrow subfields, like development economics – if we think of that as a pretty fundamental change in the nature of the research, to pre-specify your hypotheses, I think it is a pretty big change. We’re much more in a rapid shift point say, around the use of that method in development economics, at least, in this very narrow field. During periods of normal science, novelties that might be useful are often suppressed.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds They challenge conceptual frameworks that everyone is using, that everyone else is basing their research on. There’s going to be a lot of insiders who have a stake in maintaining that model. Same thing with research methods. If a lot of people’s careers and their research that they have in the field right now are based on certain methods and you come along with a new method that really challenges the validity of their approach, which is certainly the case with some of the transparency approaches we’ve discussed this term, there’s inevitably going to be resistance. So I think, thinking about the history of science is very useful.

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds When we think of our own field and the fact that there’s a lot of resistance to new methods that seem so useful, this isn’t the first time. This is how it always goes. So why are approaches eventually adopted? Well he points to a couple of things. First they have to be useful. They have to solve a problem that’s sort of a recognized problem. If they don’t do that, they’re really not going to be… even if they are interesting or conceptually attractive, if they’re not solving a concrete problem, they’re not going to be adopted he says.

Skip to 2 minutes and 41 seconds The second critical point and I want to emphasize this, it’s pretty interesting. Really the key thing to the spread of new tools, intellectually, when you look at how new approaches have spread in academic fields and in the scientific field, has been through training the next generation. That’s actually how new ideas spread. When the next generation is adopting a tool, it’s going to become widespread. So the scholars who train lots of students effectively, have a lot of say in the direction of the field. They have a disproportionate say in the direction of the field. So you’re not just competing for the hearts and minds of your colleagues, you’re sort of competing for the hearts and minds of your students.

Skip to 3 minutes and 25 seconds The only way change happens and the only way you get a paradigm shift, you know this is Kuhn’s famous contribution – is coming up with that terminology– is through competition between segments of the intellectual community or the scholarly community. That’s just how it goes. A good idea, with predictive power, that’s useful isn’t going to be widely adopted without some sort of competition within the scholarly community.

The (r)evolution of scientific practice and methods

American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote about the history of science, and particularly about how scientific revolutions ome about. I very much believe that the social science community is experiencing a rapid paradigm shift in regards to research transparency. In this step, I discuss how new practices are adopted and how scientists can drive change.

If you’ve ever taken a science class, there’s a good chance you’ve read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. The book is a widely considered a modern classic about the history of science and how it has evolved over time. Though we don’t have time to read the whole book in this course, I’d highly recommend checking it out from your local library or reading it online in your spare time.

Perhaps the most significant contributions of the book deal with normal science and paradigm shifts.

Kuhn defines a paradigm as “ universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.” They are

“accepted examples of actual scientific practice—examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation together— provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research. These are the traditions which the historian describes under such rubrics as ‘Ptolemaic astronomy’ (or ‘Copernican’), ‘Aristotelian dynamics’ (or ‘Newtonian’), ‘corpuscular optics’ (or ‘wave optics’), and so on. The study of paradigms, including many that are far more specialized than those named illustratively above, is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.”

Scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts tend to be catalyzed by crises, causing what starts out as small groups of scientists to challenge norms and find innovative ways of moving forward. When these paradigms are challenged, there is often pushback from the rest of the community. And revolutions occur rapidly through competition between those participating in normal science (generally of older generations) and those pushing for change (generally the newly trained younger generations).

Kuhn discusses the revolutionary nature of scientific paradigm shifts:

“The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals.”

Many in the research transparency movement believe we are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift in the social sciences. Open science practices are becoming more widespread and demand for open science literacy is growing. But a successful shift does not happen on its own. Scientists have to work actively to make openness and transparency the norm.

What do you think? What aspects of what we’ve learned in the last three weeks fit Kuhn’s concept of paradigmatic change and scientific revolution? If this is a revolution, what does that mean for the future of the social sciences?

If you want to dive deeper into the material, you can read the entirety of the book by clicking on the link in the SEE ALSO section at the bottom of this page.


Kuhn, Thomas S. 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press.

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