Paradigms in Science

What is the nature of the context we as scientists function in?

  • External
  • Internal

Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science at MIT, in 1962 wrote Structure of Scientific Revolutions and developed the theory of paradigms in science.


  • is a pattern (dictionary)
  • is normal science (Kuhn)
  • is based on a series of assumptions
  • defines a discipline as a science
  • is a framework that defines our work and gives us rules to function under

Examples of texts that defined paradigms in science:

  • Aristotle’s Physica
  • Ptolemy’s Almagest
  • Newton’s Principia and Optics – especially defined the paradigm for modern science
  • Franklin’s Electricity
  • Lavoisier’s Chemistry
  • Darwin’s Origin of the Species

Foundations for our way of approaching science:

  • Newton (1642-1727) & Descartes (1596-1650)
  • The world can be known – there are no mysteries that won’t yield to the probing of science.
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626) – philosopher with great influence on scientific thought
  • Knowledge is derived from experience — inductive scientific method (inductive = process of drawing a conclusion from observations)

These are the paradigms we follow as modern scientists!

Basic concepts can then be assumed (taken for granted) as common knowledge within the paradigm, and new research can build on the common knowledge of how the world functions.

***The concept of context is important in science – when you do research, you need to see how your work fits into the context of your discipline! (This idea will be important later in the term when we look at written communication.)***

In other words,

Does your research confirm or challenge the paradigm?

Scientists can agree on the identification of a paradigm without agreeing on the full interpretation of it.

When scientists begin to question the interpretation of the paradigm, and when they find anomalies that don’t fit the paradigm, the stage is set for scientific revolution!

Paradigm change doesn’t happen easily or quickly!

Example: Theory of Spontaneous Generation:

There was about 100 years of debate between Spallanzani’s (~1750s) first refutation and Pasteur’s curved-neck flask that finally disproved spontaneous generation once & for all

Classic examples of paradigm change:

Watson & Crick’s double helix —— A whole new way to think about molecular structure.


Marshall & Warren’s Helicobacter pylori as the cause of ulcers —– Caused a stir in the scientific community because it shattered a previous paradigm (that ulcers are caused by stress).

Online Resources

A brief description of Thomas Kuhn and the ideas he expressed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Galileo Galilei’s (1564-1642) letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) on induction (from the First Book of Aphorisms)

Excerpts from William Harvey’s (1578-1657) On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals

A short article on Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Principia.

Excerpts from Newton’s Optics (atomic theory and induction)

A translation of Antoine Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) preface to Chemistry

Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) The Origin of the Species