Paradigm Shift

A paradigm [par-uh-dahym] shift (or revolutionary science) is, according to American physicist Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962), a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science.

It is in contrast to his idea of ‘normal science’ (everyday problem solving within an existing paradigm). According to Kuhn, ‘A paradigm is what members of a scientific community, and they alone, share.’ Unlike a normal scientist, Kuhn held, ‘a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself.’

Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, reject the germ theory of disease to posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or reject modern physics and optics to posit that ether carries light. In contrast, a critic in the humanities can choose to adopt an array of stances (e.g., Marxist criticism, Freudian criticism, Deconstruction, 19th-century-style literary criticism), which may be more or less fashionable during any given period but which are all regarded as legitimate. Since the 1960s, the term has also been used in numerous non-scientific contexts to describe a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events, even though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the hard sciences.

Kuhn used the duck-rabbit optical illusion to demonstrate the way in which a paradigm shift could cause one to see the same information in an entirely different way. An epistemological paradigm shift was called a ‘scientific revolution’ by Kuhn in his book. A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.

There are anomalies for all paradigms, Kuhn maintained, that are brushed away as acceptable levels of error, or simply ignored and not dealt with (a principal argument Kuhn uses to reject Karl Popper’s model of falsifiability as the key force involved in scientific change). Rather, according to Kuhn, anomalies have various levels of significance to the practitioners of science at the time. To put it in the context of early 20th century physics, some scientists found the problems with calculating Mercury’s perihelion more troubling than the Michelson-Morley experiment results, and some the other way around. Kuhn’s model of scientific change differs here, and in many places, from that of the logical positivists in that it puts an enhanced emphasis on the individual humans involved as scientists, rather than abstracting science into a purely logical or philosophical venture.

When enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis, according to Kuhn. During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual ‘battle’ takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm. Again, for early 20th century physics, the transition between the Maxwellian electromagnetic worldview and the Einsteinian Relativistic worldview was neither instantaneous nor calm, and instead involved a protracted set of ‘attacks,’ both with empirical data as well as rhetorical or philosophical arguments, by both sides, with the Einsteinian theory winning out in the long-run.

Again, the weighing of evidence and importance of new data was fit through the human sieve: some scientists found the simplicity of Einstein’s equations to be most compelling, while some found them more complicated than the notion of Maxwell’s aether which they banished. Some found Eddington’s photographs of light bending around the sun to be compelling, some questioned their accuracy and meaning. Sometimes the convincing force is just time itself and the human toll it takes, Kuhn said, using a quote from Max Planck: ‘a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ After a given discipline has changed from one paradigm to another, this is called, in Kuhn’s terminology, a scientific revolution or a paradigm shift. It is often this final conclusion, the result of the long process, that is meant when the term paradigm shift is used colloquially: simply the (often radical) change of worldview, without reference to the specificities of Kuhn’s historical argument.

A common misinterpretation of paradigms is the belief that the discovery of paradigm shifts and the dynamic nature of science (with its many opportunities for subjective judgments by scientists) are a case for relativism: the view that all kinds of belief systems are equal. Kuhn vehemently denies this interpretation and states that when a scientific paradigm is replaced by a new one, albeit through a complex social process, the new one is always better, not just different. These claims of relativism are, however, tied to another claim that Kuhn does at least somewhat endorse: that the language and theories of different paradigms cannot be translated into one another or rationally evaluated against one another — that they are ‘incommensurable.’ This gave rise to much talk of different peoples and cultures having radically different worldviews or conceptual schemes — so different that whether or not one was better, they could not be understood by one another.

However, the philosopher Donald Davidson published a highly regarded essay in 1974, ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,’ arguing that the notion that any languages or theories could be incommensurable with one another was itself incoherent. If this is correct, Kuhn’s claims must be taken in a weaker sense than they often are. Furthermore, the hold of the Kuhnian analysis on social science has long been tenuous with the wide application of multi-paradigmatic approaches in order to understand complex human behavior.

Paradigm shifts tend to be most dramatic in sciences that appear to be stable and mature, as in physics at the end of the 19th century. At that time, physics seemed to be a discipline filling in the last few details of a largely worked-out system. In 1900, Lord Kelvin famously stated, ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’ Five years later, Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, which challenged the very simple set of rules laid down by Newtonian mechanics, which had been used to describe force and motion for over two hundred years.

Kuhn’s idea was itself revolutionary in its time, as it caused a major change in the way that academics talk about science. Thus, it could be argued that it caused or was itself part of a ‘paradigm shift’ in the history and sociology of science. However, Kuhn would not recognize such a paradigm shift. Being in the social sciences, people can still use earlier ideas to discuss the history of science. Philosophers and historians of science, including Kuhn himself, ultimately accepted a modified version of Kuhn’s model, which synthesizes his original view with the gradualist model that preceded it. Kuhn’s original model is now generally seen as too limited.

In Kuhn’s view, the existence of a single reigning paradigm is characteristic of the sciences, while philosophy and much of social science were characterized by a ‘tradition of claims, counterclaims, and debates over fundamentals.’ Others have applied Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift to the social sciences.

In the later part of the 1990s, ‘paradigm shift’ emerged as a buzzword, popularized as marketing speak and appearing more frequently in print and publication. In his book ‘Mind The Gaffe,’ author Larry Trask advises readers to refrain from using it, and to use caution when reading anything that contains the phrase. It is referred to in several articles and books as abused and overused to the point of becoming meaningless.

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