So that’s why it’s annoyed me so much

I’m not the only person to be annoyed over the years by the egregious overuse of the term “paradigm shift”. I knew people were misusing the term, but not having actually read Kuhn’s seminal work wherein he coined the term, I never had the properly grounded basis to articulate why.

So. today I’m reading an entry in the Skeptic’s Dictionary about NeuroLinguistic Programming (following a tangential link from Stephen Fry’s latest blessay), and it describes how the creators/founders of NLP claim to have not only created a paradigm shift but to have deliberately set out to overthrow a paradigm, and one of them cites Thomas Kuhn to support their claim. SkepDic’s author, Robert Todd Carroll, takes issue with this, and he explains what is and is not a paradigm shift so brilliantly that everybody should read it:

Kuhn did not promote the notion that not being particularly qualified in a scientific field is a significant condition for contributing to the development of a new paradigm in science. Furthermore, Kuhn did not provide a model or blueprint for creating paradigm shifts! His is an historical work, describing what he believed to have occurred in the history of science. Nowhere does he indicate that a single person at any time did, or even could, create a paradigm shift in science. Individuals such as Newton or Einstein might provide theories which require paradigm shifts for their theories to be adequately understood, but they don’t create the paradigm shifts themselves. Kuhn’s work implies that such a notion is preposterous.

Grinder and Bandler should have read Kant before they set off on their quixotic pursuit. Kant’s “Copernican revolution” might be considered a paradigm shift by Bandler and Grinder, but it is not what Kuhn was talking about when he was describing the historical development of scientific theories. Kuhn restricted his concern to science. He made no claim that anything similar happens in philosophy and he certainly did not imply that anything NLP did, or is doing, constitutes a paradigm shift. Kuhn claimed that paradigm shifts occur over time when one theory breaks down and is replaced by another. Scientific theories break down, he claimed, when new data can’t be explained by the old theories or when they no longer explain things as well as some newer theory. What Bandler and Grinder did was not in response to any crisis in theory in any scientific field and so cannot even be considered as contributing to a paradigm shift much less being one itself.

What Grinder seems to think Kuhn meant by “paradigm shift” is something like a gestalt shift, a change in the way we look at things, a change in perspective. Kant might fit the bill for this notion. Kant rejected the old way of doing epistemology, which was to ask ‘how can we bring ourselves to understand the world?’ What we ought to ask, said Kant, is ‘how is it possible that the world comes to be understood by us?’ This was truly a revolutionary move in the history of philosophy, for it asserted that the world must conform to the conditions imposed on it by the one experiencing the world. The notion that one has the truth when one’s mind conforms with the world is rejected in favor of the notion that all knowledge is subjective because it is impossible without experience which is essentially subjective. Copernicus had said, in essence, let’s see how things look with the Sun at the center of the universe, instead of the Earth. Kant said, in essence, let’s examine how we know the world by assuming that the world must conform to the mind, rather than the mind conform to the world. Copernicus, however, could be considered as contributing to a paradigm shift in science. If he were right about the earth and other planets going around the sun rather than the sun and the other planets going around the earth–and he was–then astronomers could no longer do astronomy without profound changes in their fundamental concepts about the nature of the heavens. On the other hand, there is no way to know if Kant is right. We can accept or reject his theory. We can continue to do philosophy without being Kantians, but we cannot continue to do astronomy without accepting the heliocentric hypothesis and rejecting the geocentric one. What did Grinder and Bandler do that makes it impossible to continue doing psychology or therapy or semiotics or philosophy without accepting their ideas? Nothing.

The last few lines are such an elegantly clear construction: if productive work can continue being done in the field without accepting a new worldview, then there has been no paradigm shift, although there may have been a gestalt shift.

In light of Carroll’s construction here, I’m trying to determine whether anything which I’ve heard described as a paradigm shift in the last 10 years has actually been a paradigm shift. You know, I don’t think a single one has been. Every single one has referred to some changes in the accepted worldview in some particular philosophy or ideology, but none of them has involved the profound sorts of shifts that constitute a whole new way of undertaking that discipline.

Of course, one can quibble with Carroll as being too restrictive and prescriptive in his use of language, but prescriptive use of language is exactly what jargon is all about. Kuhn himself apparently had to revise his theory of the paradigm to acknowledge that it could be applied in a restricted way to certain other complex systems and organisations other than the science academy. The examples given by Wikipedia of paradigm shifts inside and outside science are very precise and definitionally limited, whereas the term as used today is often woolly and imprecise.

Examples of paradigm shifts in science

There are a number of “classical cases” given for examples of Kuhnian paradigm shifts in science a few of them including:

* The transition between the Maxwellian Electromagnetic worldview and the Einsteinian Relativistic worldview.
* The transition between the worldview of Newtonian physics and the Einsteinian Relativistic worldview.
* The acceptance of Plate tectonics as the explanation for large-scale geologic changes.

Examples of paradigm shifts in complex systems and organizations

* The English monarchy with the signing of Magna Carta.
* The “explosion of life” marking the end of the Pre-Cambrian Era.
* Society with the invention of any of several innovations (fire, the wheel, gunpowder, the microchip, etc.).
* Warfare with the development of the airplane.

It can be seen that all these non-science events generally accepted as paradigm shifts were so significant that those who could not or would not adapt to the new innovations in the system failed to thrive and often literally died out.

So what is presented as a “paradigm shift” when I look at Google News?

Education policies reform, a new drug regimen for Alzheimers, a new recording contract for Madonna, alternate ways of analysing economic wealth, some recommendations for global-warming countermeasures that won’t restrict “traditional American “character values” which are fundamentally positive — like growth, expansion, and striving”, more education policy reforms, a football coach telling his team to stop looking at themselves as losers and start thinking of themselves as winners, and finally what sort of integrated navigation and websurfing widgets we might get on our mobile phones shortly.

You can tell already without reading further that most of those simply don’t qualify, can’t you? Madonna’s recording contract? A football coach uttering platitudes that are trite enough make an NLP trainer blush? Save me.

The new drug regimen for Alzheimers, if it becomes such a standard treatment that nobody would dream of it not being the first drug prescribed to a newly diagnosed patient, might in time come to represent a paradigm shift in the understanding of the management of Alzheimer’s disease. But it reads just as easily as just yet another drug competing in a crowded market for the attention of prescribing physicians, which would mean that it’s not even a gestalt shift let alone a paradigm shift, it’s just an innovation that might, perhaps, be useful in some cases. Time will tell, but the claim that it represents a paradigm shift at this early stage seems grandiosely premature.

The article on economics is possibly using the term correctly: “No one seems to have noticed, let alone mentioned, a new global paradigm: the newfound importance of rivers of capital that have displaced the flow of goods for measuring national wealth.” Of course, it is the Washington Times rather than the Washington Post, so the article’s purpose could really just be more of the old paradigm of making people nervous about wealthy foreigners buying up national assets.

The technogadget article seems a stretch – if it comes to pass that no mobile phone seems complete without its inbuilt navigation unit, then there certainly will have been a rather large shift in usage and manufacturing practise in the handheld electronics industry. But does a change in technology bundling that will probably be superseded by a new gadget in a few years qualify as a paradigm shift? Another grandiose claim, surely.

As to the other articles on Google News, just because education and global warming policies are important, even crucial, doesn’t mean that changes to those policies amount to a paradigm shift. What would really be a paradigm shift is if education became student-directed rather than teacher-directed, or if global warming countermeasures were advocated by our business leaders in the name of sustainable large technological societies still existing in 50 years time.

Apart from providing me with solid fuel to power the raised eyebrow with which I shall archly enquire “but which existing paradigm is being overthrown here?” the next time the occasion arises, I’m not sure what value knowing the term has to one who’s not working in either the general or the social sciences. Still, I will be awaiting my chance to raise that eyebrow with more than a little pleasurable anticipation.

Categories: education, language, skepticism, Sociology

Tags: , ,

6 replies

  1. I think it’s just a funky term that people like to bandy around to make themselves sound intelligent.

  2. Yeah, the abuse of ‘paradigm shift’ is annoying, but not as annoying as the misuse of ‘quantum leap’!

  3. I blame that damn Scott Bakula for being too watchable, nicki! Otherwise that show would have sunk like a stone.

  4. Yeah, the abuse of “paradigm shift’ is annoying, but not as annoying as the misuse of “quantum leap’!

    heh, funny you should say that.

  5. That was enjoyable. If you’re looking for examples from science, I would thought that the theory of evolution was an obvious example. In economics there have been two definite paradigm shifts – the ascendancy of classical political economy in the first two decades of the 19th Century, and that of neoclassical or marginalist economics in the last two decades of the same century.

  6. James, if you draw grepping creationist loons down upon us you will owe me several stiff drinks.

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