POPs and climate change as ‘anomalies’


in M.Phil thesis, Politics, Science, The environment

Now nearly finished with Kuhn‘s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I am pondering how to apply it to my thesis case studies. Basically, what Kuhn has done is sketch out a theory about how scientists interact with the world and each other, generating new scientific ways of understanding the world. You start with one paradigm (say, Newtonian physics). Then, scientists begin to notice anomalies – places where the theory cannot explain what they perceive to be going on. If such anomalies are of the right sort and sufficiently numerous, they may provoke a crisis within the paradigm. At that point, the scope of science broadens a bit, to examine bigger questions and alternative possibilities. In Kuhn’s terminology, the practice of ‘normal science‘ is interrupted. The crisis is resolved either through the modification of the previous paradigm or through the emergence of a new one, such as relativistic physics.

From the perspective of my thesis, the relevant discoveries are the rising global mean temperature and rising concentrations of POPs in the Arctic. Both were novel developments in our awareness and understanding of what is going on in the world, and both are the unintended products of modern economic activity. In the first case, the emission of greenhouse gases seems to be the primary cause of the change; in the second, pesticide use, industrial chemicals, and garbage burning seem to be the culprits. While scientists knew that these things were going on before the first research on POPs and climate change was done, these specific consequences were not anticipated. Their precise magnitude remains contested and uncertain.

While neither discovery induced a crisis in science (both are largely explicable using science that has existed for a long time), they did progress into general acceptance by following a pattern that is in some ways similar to that of paradigmatic development in the sciences. The researchers who first looked at POP concentrations in human blood and breast milk from the Arctic thought that the samples must have been contaminated, because they could imagine no reason for which people living in such an isolated environment would be so saturated with toxic chemicals. The establishment and operation of the Northern Contaminants Program thus involves both ‘normal science’ and the kind of thinking through which new paradigms are established. Because of such similarities, I am hoping that some of Kuhn’s insights into the ways scientists think, and especially the ways in which they make up their own minds and try to make up those of their colleagues, can be applied to the understanding of scientific perspectives on these particular environmental problems.

The biggest difference is probably how wider policy implications tend to arise from environmental discoveries in a way not parallel to the consequences of other sorts of discovery. Quantum mechanics may allow us to do new things, but it doesn’t really compel us to behave very differently. Learning about global warming, by contrast, interacts with our pre-existing notions about appropriate action by human beings in the world to suggest potentially radical changes in behaviour. While I am not saying that there is a direct or linear connection between scientific discoveries about the environment and specific policy choices, it seems valid to say that our understanding of the environment, informed by science, profoundly affects the ways in which we feel we can and should act in relation to the physical world.

On a related note, I would strongly suggest that any physicist working on string theory give Kuhn’s SoSR a careful read. The crisis in physics generated by apparent contradictions between relativity and quantum mechanics seems very much like those he describes, with similar implications in terms of how scientists are thinking and what they are doing.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing January 30, 2007 at 7:39 pm


I get the strong sense from this entry that you don’t understand what “anomoly” means for Kuhn, or how scientific revolutions relate to them.

Observational anomolies, in Kuhn’s research, never provoke crises. Case in point, the wobbling of Mercury’s orbit had been known for 150 years before the theory of special relativity was tabled as a “solution”. The only thing that provokes a crisis (which is the possibility of questioning a paradigm as such) is contradictions between two accepted frameworks, such as Newton’s physics and Maxwell’s electro magnatism.

Calling the establishment of new protocals the “creation of new paradigms” involves the standard misunderstanding of the meaning of paradigm as ‘theory’. If paradigm simply meant the scientific theory under which you operate, then Kuhn woudn’t have had to invent a new word to talk about it. A paradigm is not a theory but a paradigmatic way of solving a problem. It comes from the greek “paradigmaton” which is part of the “epagoge” way of argument: by way of example. You give a paradigmatic example (a paradigmaton) which elucidates your point clearly, which you can then transfer by analogy to the current topic of arguementation. By invoking beliefs the listener already has, you are able to convince them of something without having to convince them of any new idea.

The difference between argument from Paradigmaton and argument from Theory is that the relation between the center (the paradigm) and the work is one of analogy and not correspondance. It’s not neccesary for all work in physics to use Newton’s laws (not that they don’t apply so much, as outside physics they don’t give all the required awnsers, otherwise there would be no need for any science outside physics), but rather for all work in physics under the Newtonian paradigm to take the Newtonian solution to gravity as a paradigmatic example of how to solve a problem. Thus, since it is not a theory but a paradigm, it woudn’t make sense to question the paradigm simply because some data isn’t explained by a theory. It’s perfectly acceptable to modify Newton’s theory so long as it’s done within the methods set out in newton’s theory as a solution to the problems which it is a solution to.

Milan January 30, 2007 at 10:43 pm


What I said, and what I think Kuhn says, is that the accumulation of a sufficient number of anomalies of the correct sort is necessary for paradigmatic change. It does not take a crisis to generate new theories. It takes a crisis for people to start taking alternative theories seriously.

I am not terribly interested in Kuhn for his own sake, right now. I am interested in Kuhn insofar as he can advance the thesis project, if only by providing a jumping off point for thinking not identical to his own.

Milan January 30, 2007 at 11:19 pm


I will think about this more when I am less harried by immediate deadlines and have actually finished Kuhn.

Anonymous January 30, 2007 at 11:34 pm

One important difference here may that be theories about how humanity impacts the Earth are lot less ambitious than physics or chemistry. They don’t seek to predict or understand everything, just deal with issues as they arise.

Tristan Laing January 31, 2007 at 12:32 am

I think it’s important to remember that Kuhn’s structure is for scientific revolutions, not world conscience, or political revolutions.

But again, I don’t think the global warming hypothesis is anything like a large scale paradigm (it might be like a small paradigm, like the invention of x-rays).
It also seems to me that the scientific consensus regarding it has already been formed.

Kuhn can only advance your thesis project inasmuch as you read him carefully, because one is prone to think he’s just saying what we already believe about science rather than something distinctly different. (It’s significant to know that there was a huge reaction against Kuhn when the book first came out, led by people like Popper writing papers like “The Dangers of Normal Science”, who wanted to keep pushing the notion of science as communal ostensive criticism which disproves and throws out theories on a regular basis with no overarching methodological themes other than the scientific method, which remains constant).

It is quite a good goal to take from thinkers a “jumping off point for thinking not identical to [their] own”. However, this is no excuse to freelance with philosophy, because if you misunderstand what you are thinking differently from, your thinking likely won’t be improved by it’s relation to the thinker. Also, since Kuhn is such a central figure, making a significant mistake regarding him would show up to many potential readers.

Milan January 31, 2007 at 12:38 am

However, this is no excuse to freelance with philosophy, because if you misunderstand what you are thinking differently from, your thinking likely won’t be improved by it’s relation to the thinker. Also, since Kuhn is such a central figure, making a significant mistake regarding him would show up to many potential readers.

Very true, and I do want to ‘get it right’ insofar as that is possible. Even as I was writing the first paragraph, I knew that bits of it were oversimplified. Specifically:

“Then, scientists begin to notice anomalies – places where the theory cannot explain what they perceive to be going on. If such anomalies are of the right sort and sufficiently numerous, they make [sic] provoke a crisis within the paradigm.”

It’s too chronological, to begin with. Secondly, the relationship between anomalies and crises is more complex than the simple causal link posited here.

Milan January 31, 2007 at 12:40 am

Also, climate change and POPs don’t need to be changes of the same magnitude as paradigm shifts for some of Kuhn’s thinking about how scientists think – alone and in groups – to apply.

Anon @ Wadh January 31, 2007 at 10:18 am

Maybe of interest to you:


European Studies Centre Seminar Room
St. Antony’s College


Beate Ceranski (Stuttgart):

“Scientists as heroes? Marie Curie, Albert Einstein,
and the popular historiography of science”

Milan February 28, 2007 at 7:59 pm

“[The discovery of the ozone hole] was totally unexpected. We scientists are professional skeptics. We looked at it in an almost perverse sense, filled with joy about something new, something we could learn about. If it was predicted, we wouldn’t have learned anything. (Interview with Richard Stolarski)” (97)

From this wiki page

. November 27, 2007 at 5:19 pm

On Kuhn, see also: The Resolution of Revolutions.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: