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Ben Dupré

PARADIGM SHIFTS
 "If I have seen a little further it is by
standing on the shoulders of Giants." Isaac
Newton's famous comment to fellow
scientist Robert Hooke neatly captures a
popular view of the advance of science.
Scientific progress is a cumulative
process, it is supposed, in which each
generation of scientists builds on the
discoveries of its predecessors: a
collaborative march - gradual, methodical,
unstoppable -towards a greater
understanding of the natural laws that
govern the universe.
 [The preceding statement is] A popular and
attractive picture, perhaps, but seriously
misleading according to the American
philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn.
 In his highly influential 1962 book The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn
gives a much bumpier, jumpier account of
scientific development: a history of fitful and
intermittent progress punctuated by
revolutionary crises known as ‘paradigm
shifts’.
Normal and Revolutionary Science

 In a period of so-called ‘normal science’,


according to Kuhn, a community of like-
minded scientific workers operate within
a conceptual framework or world-view
called a ‘paradigm’.
 A paradigm is an extensive
and flexibly defined
assemblage of shared ideas
and assumptions: common
methods and practices,
implicit guidelines on suitable
topics for research and
experimentation, proven
techniques and agreed
standards of evidence, largely
unquestioned interpretations
passed from generation to
generation, and more.
 Scientists working within a paradigm are
not concerned to venture outside it or to
blaze new trails; instead, they are mainly
engaged in resolving puzzles thrown up
by the conceptual scheme, ironing out
anomalies as they arise, and gradually
extending and securing the boundaries
of the domain.
 A period of normal science may continue
for many generations, perhaps for
several centuries, but eventually the
efforts of those within the community
create a mass of problems and
anomalies that begin to undermine and
challenge the existing paradigm.
 This finally sparks a crisis that
encourages some to look beyond the
established framework and to begin
devising a new paradigm, whereupon
there is a shift or migration of workers—
which may take years or decades – from
the old paradigm to the new.
 Kuhn’s favored example
was the traumatic transition
from the Ptolemaic Earth-
centered world-view to the
heliocentric system of
Copernicus. Another
seismic paradigm shift was
the supplanting of
Newtonian mechanics in
the early decades of the
20th century.
 The exaggerated discontinuities and
dislocations supposed by Kuhn’s account
have meant that it has remained
contentious as a historical thesis, but it
has nevertheless proved highly influential
among philosophers of science.
 Of particular interest has been the claim
that different paradigms are
‘incommensurable’ – that basic
differences in their underlying logic
mean that the results achieved in one
paradigm are effectively incompatible
with, or untestable within, another
paradigm.
 For example, while we might expect that
the ‘atoms’ of the Greek philosopher
Democritus cannot be compared with
those split by Ernest Rutherford,
incommensurability suggests
Rutherford’s atoms are different again
from ones described by modern
quantum mechanics.
 This logical discontinuity within the grand
architecture of science ran directly counter to
the view that had prevailed before Kuhn’s time.
Previously, it had been accepted that the
edifice of scientific knowledge was built
steadily and rationally on foundations laid by
early workers. At a stroke, Kuhn had swept
away the idea of concerted progress towards a
single scientific truth and put in its place a
landscape of diverse, locally determined and
often scientific aims and methods.
Public Use and Abuse
 The term ‘paradigm shift’ is unusual
among technical or academic terms in
making so effortless a migration to the
public domain.
 The notion of radical change in the way
people think and look at things is so
suggestive and resonant that the term
has found its way into all sorts of other
contexts.
 Thus the invention of gunpowder marks
a paradigm shift in military technology;

 Penicillin in medical technology;


 Jet engines in aviation;

 Mobile phones in society; graphite rackets


in tennis; and so on.
 Less creditably, the phrase has even
become a stock phrase in the
marketeer’s handbook. Ironically, of
course, Kuhn’s own work represented a
paradigm shift in the way that
philosophers looked on science.
The Disunity of Science
 It has long been assumed that science is an
essentially unified endeavor. It has seemed
reasonable to talk of a ‘scientific method’ – a
single, well defined set of procedures and
practices that could in principle be applied to
many different scientific disciplines; and to
speculate on the prospect of some kind of
grand unification of the sciences, in which all
laws and principles would somehow collapse
into an overarching, exhaustive and internally
consistent structure.
 The key to such a coming-together is
supposedly a fully reductive account of the
sciences, the usual suggestion being that
everything will ultimately be subsumed
under physics.
 Recent work, however, has brought a fuller
appreciation of the cultural and social
embeddedness of the sciences and a
greater emphasis on the essential disunity
of science. And with it has come a
realization that he search for a single
scientific method is probably chimerical.