Beyond Kuhnian Paradigms: Normal Science and Theory Dependence in Ecology

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Craig A. Layman, Andrew L. Rypel


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn has influenced scientists for decades. It focuses on a progression of science involving periodic, fundamental shifts—revolutions—from one existing paradigm to another. Embedded in this theory is the concept of normal science, i.e., scientists focus on intricacies within the context of established theory, without challenging the underlying assumptions of that theory, a process often compared to a type of puzzle solving. This Kuhnian aspect of scientific research has received little attention (relative to the much-scrutinized concepts of revolutions and paradigms). We use Kuhn’s normal science framework to reflect on the way ecologists practice science. This involves a discussion of how theory dependence influences each step of the scientific method, specifically, how past experiences and existing research frameworks guide the way ecologists acquire knowledge. We illustrate these concepts with ecological examples, including perspectives on food web structure and the biodiversity crisis, emphasizing that the way one views the world influences how that person engages in scientific research. We conclude with a discussion of how Kuhnian ideas can inform ecological research at practical levels, such as influences on grant funding allocation, and we make a renewed call for the thorough inclusion of philosophical foundations into ecological pedagogy. By studying the processes and traditions of how science is carried out, ecologists can better direct scientific insight to address the world’s most pressing environmental problems.



Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Life Sciences


biodiversity crisis, food webs, Paradigm, philosophy of science, scientific method, scientific revolutions


Published: 2022-09-02 00:10

Last Updated: 2022-09-08 17:18

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