The Normal versus the Revolutionary
In his highly influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn contributed an idea that changed how we see the history of science.6 Kuhn makes a distinction between normal and revolutionary science. In normal science, investigators work within current paradigms and apply accumulated knowledge to clearly defined problems. Guided by conventional wisdom, they tackle problems within the boundaries of the established framework of beliefs and approaches. They attempt to fit things into a pattern. This approach occupies virtually all working researchers. Such efforts, according to Nobel laureate Howard Florey, add small points to what will eventually become a splendid picture much in the same way that the Pointillistes built up their extremely beautiful canvasses.
Kuhn portrays such scientists as intolerant of dissenters and preoccupied with what he dismissively refers to as puzzle-solving. Nonetheless, a period of normal science is an essential phase of scientific progress. However, it is revolutionary science that brings creative leaps. Minds break with the conventional to see the world anew. How is this accomplished? The surprising answer may be blindly! Systematic research and happenstance are not mutually exclusive; rather they complement each other. Each leads nowhere without the other.
According to this view, chance is to scientific discovery as blind genetic mutation and natural selection are to biological evolution. The appearance of a variation is due not to some insight or foresight but rather to happenstance. In groping blindly for the truth, scientists sometimes accidentally stumble upon an understanding that is ultimately selected to survive in preference to an older, poorer one.
As explained by Israeli philosophers of science Aharon Kantorovich and Yuval Neeman, Blind discovery is a necessary condition for the scientific revolution; since the scientist is in general imprisoned within the prevailing paradigm or world picture, he would not intentionally try to go beyond the boundaries of what is considered true or plausible. And even if he is aware of the limitations of the scientific world picture and desires to transcend it, he does not have a clue how to do it.
Excerpted from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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