Paradigm

In 1962, a book was published for the International Encyclopaedia of Unified Science, a series designed to showcase the latest in critical thinking about the scientific method and its success.

But this book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, changed all that, and has forever changed our view of science and what scientists do.

 

For Kuhn, scientists did not simply collect facts, like the logical empiricists believed. Nor did they suggest wild theories only to prove them wrong, as Karl Popper had suggested.

 

Instead, for Kuhn scientists solve puzzles. They use theories and hypotheses to order and test their observations of the world, use all sorts of equipment and protocols to guide their actions, and have certain standards of success to measure their work by. They use textbooks to teach the next generation which great minds and experiments to emulate.

Together, these form what Kuhn called a ‘paradigm.’ Normally, it was not the scientist’s job to confirm or challenge its big ideas – whether the earth travels around the sun, that fire burns oxygen, that matter can be both a wave and a particle, and so on – but to fill in the gaps in the paradigm.

It doesn’t really matter if one experiment fails, or one observation is out of place, because there are many reasons why they could have gone wrong: maybe the sample was old or the equipment was broken, perhaps some hypothesis or calculation had gone awry. Eventually a solution will be found, only adding to the power of the paradigm.

 

But what happened if the gaps could not be filled? If the anomalies start to add up? If science stops being normal?

 

Because paradigms have their own standards of evidence, they cannot be broken from the inside. A rival paradigm must emerge, with different theories and practices, to challenge it. And because they have their own standards of success, there is no rational way to decide between them.

 

For Kuhn, competing paradigms were like two completely different ways of looking at the world, and changing from one to the other nothing less than a religious conversion. A paradigm only disappeared when all its adherents converted or died.

 

Kuhn’s vision of science has been enormously influential, propelling historians and sociologists of science to examine how and why scientific controversies – and even scientific experiments – end. Some have criticised his view for being too relativistic: if paradigms are the measure of their own success, then what of truth? What of scientific progress?

Others have taken Kuhn’s ideas and tried to expand them, make them more nuanced, or simply to reject them. Theories abound to explain the nature of science and scientific progress, including ‘ways of knowing,’ ‘styles of reasoning,’ ‘styles of thinking & doing,’ ‘looping effects,’ and ‘questions and answers.’

Independently of Kuhn, the French philosopher Michel Foucault developed the idea of ‘epistemes,’ ways of thinking that encompass not only science, but how we understand politics, economics, society, rationality, the body and the self.

 

The challenge remains: if we caught within our own paradigms or epistemes, then how do we realise when it no longer suits our needs? And how to we get out?

 

Perhaps more importantly, how do we convince those who come from such different scientific or social backgrounds? How do we even begin?