Paradigm shift

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Really — in order to be a scientist — one should not only be comfortable, but willing to go against the grain. And I think this is true, to a certain degree. But when it's taken too far you get into this area of obscurantism. You know, you are pushing so hard against the grain that you are encouraged to essentially create nonsense because you need to carve out this "extra" space that doesn't already exist, and I think this happens a lot in the social sciences.
—Mike Rugnetta, PBS Idea Channel[1]

A paradigm shift is a phenomenon described by philosopher Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn posited a process to explain the persistence of incorrect ideas, and the seemingly rapid and sudden abandonment of these ideas when they finally are rejected.

People tend to believe in what they know, and science is basically conservative. A current "paradigm" or theory is difficult to dislodge. It takes either a large volume of evidence, or a particularly powerful single piece of evidence to overturn major scientific theories (scientific revolution). When this occurs, it is called a "paradigm shift".


Newton's Dark Legacy of 'Science as the Seeker of Truth' and the misunderstanding of Mach and Miner[edit]

Newton developed the first post-Renaissance view on how the Universe worked, but it also created a serious problem regarding how science was and is viewed by the public. Newton's concept of the Universe was essentially clockwork and created the view in the public's mind (and in many scientists) that "fact" and "truth" were the same thing. Moreover, Newton states that everything was knowable and there were things like Absolute Time and Space, that Science's goal was to expand our knowledge and uncover this Truth, and that scientists anywhere would see the exact same thing and be able to discern this Truth through Facts.

The problem was (and is) is that in terms of philosophy, "fact" and "truth" are are actually totally different things.[2] "A fact is a reality that cannot be logically disputed or rejected." whereas, "Truths are those things that are not simply acknowledged, but must be discovered, or created" — or to over-simplify, a fact is what can be demonstrated to be true through observation and-or testing. Truth, on the other hand, is subjective.

At one time, stating that the Sun revolved around the Earth was the truth; that didn't change the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Newton's theory of gravity assumes that the force of gravity acts instantaneously, but this does not change the fact that it propagates at the speed of light, a prediction by Einstein's general theory of relativity that has been verified by observation of gravitational waves. In some denominations of Buddhism, the truth is that the deities, the heavens, the hells, and the world itself are all an illusion that prevents one from achieving enlightenment. In some other religions, the truth is the exact opposite.

The problem with this view of science as the seeker of truth is that it created a totally inaccurate view of science. This erroneous view continues to this day. Just watch the totally inaccurate way science is portrayed in The Flight of DragonsWikipedia cartoon for an example of just how bad it can get.

So when Newton's model of the universe got replaced with Einstein's and later with quantum mechanics (which Einstein didn't like, as it stated that you could not know everything and there were no certainties, only probabilities; hence his famous "God does not play dice" comment), the public concept of "Science as the Seeker of Truth", born of Newton, got kicked in the head and there really wasn't anything certain and concrete to replace it with.

Moreover, Ernst Mach demonstrated that what was viewed as "fact" was dependent on your senses and frame of reference which echoed ideas of Immanuel Kant — science creates structures to explain and predict how the world works, and that model could affect what is viewed as acceptable data (i.e., Fact).

One such example of how bad that could get was in France regarding stories that peasants would tell the aristocrat scientists, "these here rocks that fell from the sky", which partly due to the class system were dismissed. Come the revolution where said peasants were running things and presto-chango, all those dismissed stories suddenly became "vital astronomical data", and within a few years, there was a book on meteorites by one of the new peasant scientists.

With his deeply sarcastic 1956 Body Ritual among the Nacirema article, Horace Miner hammered into his fellow anthropologists another example of the model driving the data rather than the data driving the model[3] and James Burke's 1985 The Day the Universe Changed (especially the last episode "Worlds Without End: Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality") brought this view to the masses, but Burke also makes the unfortunate comment that religious systems "explain the world just as well as science does", reinforcing the idea among many that science was no different from religion.

In the decades that followed the Newtonian revolution, technology took off and the public got another misconception into its collective consciousness: that science was technology. In fact, science studies how the world works while technology takes advantage of that knowledge for practical applications. However, it is true that science and technology develop together; deeper scientific knowledge generally allows for higher technology, which, in turn, aids further scientific developments. Moreover, religion was quite able to produce technology, as demonstrated by the clock and gunpowder as well as warfare (screwdriver, town planning, and better map-making). Unfortunately, this misconception held sway during one of the biggest social upheavals of the Western World, World War I. It is no surprise, therefore, that the anti-science movement gathered steam especially in the years following World War II.

Paradigm shifts and the demarcation problem[edit]

The concept of paradigm shifts offers one means of resolving the demarcation problem. Kuhn drew a division between sciences in a pre-paradigm state and those in a post-paradigm state, i.e. having a unifying theory or school of thought. Before a consensus is built around a single paradigm, the field is not a "true science" but a protoscience at best or a pseudoscience at worst.

Misuses and criticisms[edit]


Creationists, New Agers, and other pseudoscientists often reference Kuhn when citing the supposed "fragility" of scientific theories. They anticipate a paradigm that shift "is coming soon" where evolution, naturalism, etc will be rejected by the scientific community, only for the consensus to return to old discredited models such as special creation, Lamarckism, and vitalism. The main problem with this approach is that once a paradigm has been shifted, the old position has been thoroughly discredited,[note 1] and the paradigm isn't likely to return to its original position. Suggesting it does amounts to nothing more than trying to move the goalposts or special pleading,[note 2] claiming that some area (God, the soul, whatever) is off-limits to scientific inquiry.


During the period of the so-called Science Wars, some advocates of "science studies" abused the term paradigm shift to justify their conclusions as a kind of scientific knowledge. ("Science studies" was a program of postmodernist pseudointellectual hogwash treating scientific knowledge as a socially constructed cultural-literary text, to be creatively critically deconstructed so as to satisfy the deconstructors' sociopolitical agenda to reveal its underpinnings as an instrument of oppression. No, really, you can't make this stuff up; Poe's law applies to loony-left whackadoodles, too.)

History of science[edit]

Some scientists and historians of science have criticized the concept on various grounds, a common one being that paradigm shifts don't occur in the revolutionary sense as often as Kuhn claimed, but happened more gradually.[4][5] The second point is that as scientific understanding progresses, scientists address smaller and smaller problems of less and less overall significance, and paradigm shifts in the understanding of details do not affect the overall big picture because they are related only to details.

External links[edit]


  1. There are very rare exceptions to this; for instance, Newtonian physics models are still more useful for relativistic models for objects at the human scale (speeds of less than 2,000 mph, sizes large enough to be seen with the naked eye, etc.). Relativity comes into play with sub-atomic particles and near-light-speed.
  2. Or, even less charitably, a desire to cling to the previous paradigm out of nostalgia, hatred of change, or the new paradigm being "bad for business".