Does Kuhn’s story of the exemplar mechanism apply as well to engineering as it applies to pure science? Interestingly, in an article entitled ‘The Essential Tension’ in a book of the same title, Kuhn himself suggested not. In so doing, Kuhn inverted common stereotypes of scientists and engineers. The common stereotype of the pure scientist is a kind of Einstein figure, wildly intelligent and unconventional, full of new ideas that come from nowhere. The common stereotype of the engineer is rather different, of someone earnest and hard-working, but much more intellectually conservative. Kuhn proposed that the truth has in a way to be the opposite of this, because it is the pure scientist who can very often afford to be intellectually conservative and it is the engineer who must sometimes be unconventional. The reason the scientist can afford to be conservative is because she gets to choose her own problems. So she can use the exemplar mechanism as a mechanism of problem selection. She can choose new problems which seem to her to be similar to the problem that she has already solved, so she can afford to be conservative in the techniques that she applies to solve those new problems. Engineers, by contrast, have their problems imposed from without, as argued earlier. So they have no reason to suppose that the problems they have to solve will be all that similar to the problems they have already solved. It is therefore the engineer who may have to be more adventurous, and more of an intellectual opportunist. The exemplar mechanism will have less force and power for the engineer, therefore, than for the pure scientist. And we might expect that the dramatic contrast that Kuhn finds between normal and revolutionary science is considerably attenuated in the case of engineering, in part because, if Kuhn’s suggestion is along the right lines then ‘normal’ engineering is more revolutionary and ‘revolutionary’ engineering more normal than those periods are in pure science.
— Peter Lipton, Engineering and Truth