Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is 50 years old this year. It’s one of the most famous books on philosophy of science ever published, and one of the only ones to become well-known (albeit usually in a second-hand way) among scientists themselves. Kuhn focused on how scientific ideas get established, and later discarded or replaced, and his coinage of the term ‘paradigm shift’ proved especially resonant. See here for some ecological discussion of ‘paradigm shifts’. Kuhn was one of the first philosophers of science to pay serious attention to how science is actually practiced, and to take his philosophical inspiration from detailed consideration of the actual history of science. That’s surely a big reason why his ideas found an audience with practicing scientists.
David Kaiser has a very good overview essay at Nature, in particular noting some aspects of Kuhn’s book which are well-known among philosophers but much less well-known among scientists. Kuhn’s usage of ‘paradigm shift’ was infamously (although perhaps productively) ambiguous. And his view of alternative paradigms as ‘incommensurate’, meaning that they literally can’t be compared, is not a view to which many scientists would subscribe. Scientists tend to think of new ‘paradigms’ as improvements over the old ones, so that science exhibits cumulative progress of a sort that Kuhn denied. Kuhn himself wasn’t anti-science, but his ideas were one source of inspiration for postmodernist critiques of the objectivity of science.
I actually think ecologists would benefit from more familiarity with philosophers of science besides Kuhn (and Karl Popper, the other philosopher of science to become well-known among scientists). But I also think they’d benefit from more first-hand familiarity with Kuhn and Popper, since the second-hand ‘pop’ versions of Kuhn and Popper familiar to most practicing scientists aren’t actually all that helpful. And as Kaiser notes, Structure is actually short, clear, and very readable, and the most controversial claims are put forward in a suggestive rather than insistent style. The University of Chicago Press has just published a new edition of Structure with an introductory essay by Ian Hacking, whose own philosophical works I’ve found very accessible and helpful. So if you’re looking to get some first-hand familiarity with philosophy of science, the 50th anniversary of Structure is as good an excuse as any to take the plunge.