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The Not-So-Scientific Revolution

Initially, when prompted with assignment of defining the scientific revolution, I thought it to be an easy task. The scientific revolution has a practically universal definition: a period marked by discoveries and advancements within the scientific community that shifted the paradigm and laid the foundation for modern day science. However, after reading Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution and gaining insight into the history behind these discoveries, I began to question my own understanding of the topic. A question that persisted throughout my exploration: To what extent was the Scientific Revolution truly scientific?

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Contextualizing The Scientific Revolution

The commonly conceived notion of the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the tension between modern discoveries and methodologies against ancient traditions and practices. Many introductory science courses reflect on the contributions of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. Their roles in establishing the distinction between religion and antiquated modes of thought and the natural sciences are no doubt, substantial. Yet, these select narratives are limited in scope and do not reflect the broader political, religious, and cultural factors affecting scientific progress. In The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin presents a broader context by discussing commonly undisclosed factors that shape the Revolution.

One reason why the Scientific Revolution is misconceived is due to the brevity in which students learn about the history of science. Courses typically have one or two days to go over these concepts, which glosses over two centuries worth of history. It is only in advanced coursework or independent study focusing on the Scientific Revolution that students can engage in a deeper level of analysis and inquiry. As a result, students that do not inquire about the history of science do not get a broader and deeper understanding of the myriad of contributing factors.

In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon believed there was a necessary to create a “catalog…of all the effects that could be observed in nature” (85), which is similar to how modern scientific organizations and standards operate today. Shapin argues the purpose of these catalogs was to provide a “register of fact…to provide the secure foundations of natural philosophy” (90). The metric system can be considered a modern example of a catalog as it is an internationally adopted decimal system of measurement used in all facets of life. Using the metric prefix system for weights, shipments of goods can be measured in a standard unit, kilogram instead of constantly converting between units. Another example is the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology (IEEE), which has established standards for software and research development life-cycles. Many research facilities, universities, and companies adhere to the IEEE standards today. In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon understood the need for these catalogs, which have manifested in modern scientific organizations and standards.

Against most preconceived notions of the Scientific Revolution, modern science emerged under the influence of various intellectual and societal factors. As Shapin describes, the contributions of religion,  philosophy, and naturalism were additional factors affecting the development of scientific inquiry. Legacies of the Scientific Revolution are still apparent today in the form of internationally recognized scientific organizations and standards. Despite the importance of the Scientific Revolution, not every person will dig deeper into its complex history. Most people blindly accept and take for granted the science and technologies they depend on everyday.

Shapin, Steve. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Deeply Understanding Scientific Paradigms

In 1962,  Thomas Kuhn publishes his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions where he discusses the history of science. He introduces the concept of paradigms in science as 

“practices that define a scientific discipline at certain point in time” (14).1

In other words, paradigms are commonly accepted views or theories about a discipline and the conventions that dictate its research. There are paradigms in all disciplines, like physics with Newton’s Theory of Motion and Mechanics or biology with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. In order to learn what science or technology is, it is becoming increasingly vital to experiment in order to deeply understand how certain paradigms come into existence.

It is also possible that disciplines experience paradigm shifts, which Kuhn considers to be the basis of the scientific revolution. Across time and disciplines, there have been fundamental changes in the underlying assumptions or research approaches. When David Nye, the author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With explains tools in human history,  it is similar to the concept of a paradigm shift:

“[tools] are part of systems of mean-ing, and they express larger sequences of actions and ideas. Ultimately, the meaning of a tool is inseparable from the stories that surround it” (2-3). 2 

The “stories” and “larger sequence of actions and ideas” alludes to the evolution of meaning and usage of tools over time. Initially, tools were for capturing and domesticating animals, creating fires, and building shelters, but evolved to also become a means of murder and warfare. The history of tools can be thought of as a primitive example of a paradigm shift because there was a shift in how tools were used, from basic survive to warfare. 

In order to deeply understand the paradigms of science and technology, experimentation is key. Experimenting, however, takes various forms depending on the discipline. In physics, for example, it can involve highly specialized scientific instruments in order to derive Earth’s gravitational acceleration. In computer science, it can involve learning Swift, a computer programming language to develop a social networking mobile application. In these experiments, the experimenter does not take paradigms of science at face value, but rather more deeply understand how those concepts or technologies came to be. Gravitational acceleration is not simply 9.8m/s, its value fits within the framework of a universally applicable law known as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Any mobile application does not work via magic, there are complex layers of programming languages and unique software architectures that create an working mobile application. In other words, in order to learn about science and technology, there needs to be deep inquiry on the accepted paradigms of science, not just blind acceptance.

1 Lijing Jiang, “Understanding S, T & S” (presentation, ST112 Course, Waterville, ME, September 10, 2018).
2 David Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (The MIT Press, 2007), 1–16.

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