If you want a paradigm shift, don’t go looking for it

“In science… novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.” – Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Organizations that fund scientific research love to call for paradigm-shifting proposals. And scientists love to think that their latest work is smashing down staid, old paradigms. But this focus on paradigm shifting gets Thomas Kuhn exactly backwards. If you want a paradigm shift, don’t go looking for it.

That’s Kuhn’s major point in this week’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions reading. Last week, we had a broad discussion of Kuhn’s ideas about pre-paradigm science, what a paradigm is, and why normal science is like solving puzzles. This week we’re going to be a little more focused: we’re going to talk about four pages – p. 62-65 – instead of four chapters.

Read these four pages, and you’ll understand more about Kuhn’s view of science than just about anyone who talks about paradigm-shifting.

Kuhn’s big point is this: the best way to produce a paradigm shift or a scientific revolution is to do normal science, at full throttle. Normal science, working within an established paradigm, allows you to pose very specific questions, to perform very detailed, probing experiments, and to evaluate your results within a definite framework. Only by practicing rigorous, normal science, and only within the context of a paradigm, can you know when you’re seeing something unusual.

Here it is in Kuhn’s own words:

“In the development of any science, the first received paradigm is usually felt to account quite successfully for most of the observations and experiments easily accessible to that science’s practitioners. Further development, therefore, ordinarily calls for the construction of elaborate equipment, the development of an esoteric vocabulary and skills, and a refinement of concepts that increasingly lessen their resemblance to their usual common-sense prototypes. That professionalization leads, on the one hand, to an immense restriction of the scientist’s vision and to a considerable resistance to paradigm change. The science has become increasingly rigid. On the other hand, within those areas to which the paradigm directs the attention of the group, normal science leads to a detail of information and to a precision of the observation-theory match that could be achieved in no other way. Furthermore, that detail and precision-of-match have a value that transcends their not always very high intrinsic interest. Without the special apparatus that is constructed mainly for anticipated functions, the results that lead ultimately to novelty could not occur. And even when the apparatus exists, novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong.” (p. 64-65)

Would we construct the Large Hadron Collider and search for the Higgs Boson without a paradigm? Would we embark on the 1000 Genomes Project if we didn’t have a framework to suggest the results will be worth our resources? No way.

To me, this is one of the most important reasons behind the success of science. This is how science can be rigid enough to get things done, yet flexible enough to accept new ideas.

Scientific Crisis

Kuhn goes on in Chapter VIII to talk about how normal science produces anomalous observations. These provoke scientific crises, which is the prelude to revolution. But in this discussion, something that’s been bothering me about the book comes out front and center. Just what exactly is a paradigm? From Kuhn’s descriptions, we have big paradigms for whole disciplines and little paradigms for sub-specialties, and paradigm shifts can be large and small. What exactly counts as a paradigm? When is a little paradigm just a solved puzzle of a larger paradigm?

If we stick with the paradigm view, it seems like scientists exist within a partially hierarchical network of paradigms. Take developmental geneticists, for example, who study how genes control development. They work within a paradigm that was established by 20th century embryologists without any reference to genes, but they also work within molecular biology’s main paradigm, the central dogma. What may count as an unsurprising puzzle-solving problem to a molecular geneticist may seem like an anomaly within the paradigm of embryology.

And speaking of anomalies, what counts as an anomaly? Kuhn’s description of crisis science seems to cover just about anything. Crises can develop over decades or months. An alternate paradigm can already exist in embryonic form, or the crisis can drag out before a new candidate paradigm emerges. Crises can be widely and quickly recognized, or they can be seen only by an individual scientist who perhaps has the temperament to do what is not supposed to be done in normal science: question the fundamentals. One person’s puzzle may be another person’s anomaly.

When we look at big scientific revolutions, particularly in physics, it seems easy to apply Kuhn’s model. But on a finer scale, the distinction between normal science and crisis science seems to be hazy, even though Kuhn insists that paradigms are just as relevant on the fine scale of the sub-specialty. Almost any science you point to, on a fine scale, will exhibit many of the traits that Kuhn assigns to crisis science.

And so I go back to my earlier question: what counts as a paradigm?

Join me next week, as we finish up The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and talk about Kuhn’s flashier, but more controversial discussion of scientific revolutions.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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