Paradigms Lost and Regained
March 28, 2013 § 3 Comments
Most books we read have no long-term effect on us. Many don’t even have a short-term effect – we struggle to remember what they were about, the week after we put them down. It isn’t often that we read a book that changes the way we think, or view the world; in whose pages we read things that we are convinced were our own unarticulated thoughts. This is unlikely to happen to us more than a handful of times in our lives; it follows that such books are rare and precious. In my library, Thomas Kuhn’s 1960s classic belongs to that elite club.
I’ve known of Kuhn’s book for a while, largely in conjunction with the coinage of the late 20th century buzz-phrase ‘paradigm shift’. As with all consultese (I’ve written about ‘core competence’ in these pages), it is a much abused phrase, and its pretentious users have only vaguely been aware of its meaning. As a consequence of its loose usage, it has lost its meaning and gone entirely out of favour and fashion. Thus, when I started reading Kuhn, I thought I was resurrecting a historical and esoteric relic, with no relevance to our 21st century world. I was wrong.
Kuhn defines a paradigm as “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques …shared by the members of a given community,” and also, as the set of models or examples that replace explicit rules as a basis for guiding one’s thinking about a subject. A paradigm supplies the scientist with an acceptable problem space for research, and with the methodological tools and assumptions required to solve those problems. These scientists then design experiments and look for data to corroborate known theory, and they usually find only what they look for. When they stumble upon an anomaly, it is usually blamed on equipment or human error – unless it recurs annoyingly, and eventually some maverick scientist comes up with a wild new theory to explain the anomaly. He and his early adherents are usually ostracized, and proponents of the older paradigm devise increasingly complex extensions of their theories to help it fit the facts better, until they are no longer sustainable, and the weight of public sentiment has shifted irrevocably to the simpler, more elegant paradigm. Gradually, more and more scientists get convinced by the new theory, and its rivals die one by one. A sort of scientific Twelve Angry Men. This broad pattern of events, Kuhn says, has happened over and over again. He offers several examples from the history of physics and chemistry. He also explains, persuasively and in great detail, the process by which paradigms change. Although he doesn’t mention any examples from the history of mathematics, I recognize identical processes at play, for instance in the cases of non-Euclidean geometry and number theory.
But Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm is deeper than just that, and this is where I think the business consultants who murder the term miss the point completely. The new paradigm is not merely an improvement over the previous one. Competing paradigms do not usually concern themselves with the same problems. Scientists belonging to two competing paradigms – Lavoisier and Priestley, for instance – seek and find completely different sets of data to justify their theories: they exist in different worlds between which communication is a struggle. There is no logical way to compare paradigms, as each paradigm has its own system of values, according to which it is superior to the others, and there is no objective, meta-reality in which to conclusively determine which paradigm is ‘better’.
I know this has been debated intensely, not least by Kuhn himself, but I think he is a relativist at heart – and I don’t mean this in a bad way at all. The biggest question he raises is about the idea of scientific progress. The idea that science marches monotonically forward with never a faltering step is so sacrosanct and ingrained in us that to question it is the 21st century equivalent of telling the Spanish Inquisition that you had a couple of nagging doubts about this God person. And yet the idea of scientific progress is exactly what Kuhn questions. There are senses, he says, in which the Copernican model of the solar system is less accurate or practically useful than the earth-centric one. There are things that the phlogistic theory of combustion explains better than Oxygen does. “Normal science” is incremental and accretive, while “paradigm shifts” are lateral and possibly even retrogressive.
Kuhn restricted himself – and his paradigms – to scientific revolutions. He mentions at the end of the book that many people have raised the applicability of his paradigm theory in other fields. Acknowledging these possibilities, he says he doesn’t find it interesting or surprising that the exact sequence of paradigms replacing one another repeats in other spheres of life, whereas it is startling to find them in the field of science.
I beg to differ. I think the fact that the paradigm theory has universal applicability is not well understood enough. I also believe the relativism is easier to justify in other fields than in science – it is possibly only in science that one paradigm comprehensively overthrows its predecessor eventually, where paradigms rarely coexist except in transitory ‘crisis’ phases. Perhaps the other disciplines are still in their initial crisis, where one paradigm has not yet achieved dominance over the rest, and it is only a matter of time before that happens. Or perhaps there are disciplines in which that will never happen, and competing paradigms will coexist forever.
How often have I had arguments with others who seem to be stubbornly unable to see the same facts as I, to accept what for me appears patently obvious; others who don’t even agree with me on the nature of the most important problems at hand? How frustrating it is to quote unimpeachable sources but to have them discredited or shrugged away, and to have other sources quoted back at me. Liberals and Conservatives, Socialists and Capitalists, atheists and evangelists, 99-percenters and Wall Street bankers, Tiger moms and lenient ones, Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Pro-lifers and Pro-choicers, environmentalists and climate change sceptics, fans of Justin Bieber and the rest of the world…the list is endless. Nassim Taleb makes a very similar point in The Black Swan (reviewed here) although he doesn’t credit Kuhn:
“Most conflicts have at their root the following mental bias: when Arabs and Israelis watch news reports they see different stories in the same succession of events. Likewise Democrats and Republicans look at different parts of the same data and never converge to the same opinions. Once your mind is inhabited with a certain view of the world, you will tend to consider instances proving you to be right. Paradoxically the more information you have, the more justified you will feel in your views”
I strongly believe that apart from a small bunch of cases, for instance when an Adolf Hitler authorizes the murder of six million innocent people, most arguments are not easily resolved into right and wrong, but are simply a case of the debaters inhabiting different paradigms, seeing different worlds, focusing on different problems, seeking to optimize different parameters, and being influenced by the words and actions of a different set of people. As long as we inhabit a paradigm, we are governed by its value system, and we are unable to accept any other as equally meritorious. This is equally true for the other guy – and not merely because he is a horrible person, or an idiot. If more of us recognized this more often, the world would be a happier place.
Mind you, I do take sides on each of the arguments above – I’d have to be a moral vacuum not to – but thanks to Kuhn, I hope I can be more dispassionate, more able to separate my opponent’s character from his argumentative position.
In a sense, paradigms are very satisfactorily self-referential. Just like the Richard Dawkins introduced word, ‘meme’, is itself a meme, Kuhn’s theory of paradigms offers us a different way of seeing the world, of interpreting it, and of relating to it. For me, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a Copernican revolution of sorts.