Paradigm Watch

I’ve long had a hobby of collecting misuses of the “paradigm shift,” Thomas Kuhn’s notion of how science moves forward by throwing out old paradigms in favor of new ones. This is, I recognize, a cheap hobby, because it’s almost never used properly. (As an aside, I’ll note that my father, who taught art history, for many years collected bad reproductions of The Last Supper. That also was cheap, as there are really no good reproductions of The Last Supper.)

Today’s paradigm crime comes from none less than David Brooks:

Thomas Kuhn famously argued that science advances not gradually but in jolts, through a series of raw and jagged paradigm shifts. Somebody sees a problem differently, and suddenly everybody’s vantage point changes.

No, David, that’s not quite what Kuhn was on about. One of the central points Kuhn makes in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is that it takes a long time for a new paradigm to supercede the old, frequently requiring old scientists to simply die off:

How, then, are scientists brought to make this transposition? Part of the answer is that they are very often not. Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus’ death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the Principia appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on. The difficulties of conversion have often been noted by scientists themselves. Darwin, in a particularly perceptive passage at the end of his Origin of Species, wrote: “Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a pont of view directly opposite to mine…. [B]ut I look with confidence to the future – to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”

Kuhn is clearly not saying “suddenly everybody’s vantage point changes.”