#4 How can members from competing paradigms better understand each other?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, pages 66-110

Ok, there’s a lot of good material in these three chapters. I was struck by the straightforward observation Kuhn makes at the beginning of chapter nine. That being political and scientific revolutions correspond. Isn’t it interesting that no one is in charge in the middle of a political revolution? Factions compete for power as to who rules. I’m reminded of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century and the mismanagement of crises by the French monarchy that led to the storming of the Bastille and the eventual beheading of the king. Then came the reign of terror with the ironic twist of the Guillotine’s inventor being beheaded himself. Robespierre and his associates even changed the calendar and the names of days, etc. What a mess this was. 

Now compare with scientific revolutions. I wish I were alive (and literate in physics) when Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity and later his general theory of relativity. His propositions as to the bending of light, space-time, etc., changed the way physicists saw reality. This reminds me of something I read by Kuhn, that many if not most anomalies are discovered by members of a paradigm who are either very young or new to the field. Einstein was both. He was able to see the problems of the day with fresh eyes, to conceive of different ways of tackling old problems that senior members of the paradigm could not see because they were too entrenched in their ways. Kuhn says there is a difference between “counterinstances” and puzzles. Puzzles are problems that fit and will likely be solved within the current paradigm and are considered to add to and belong to the domain of normal science. The counterinstance is the anomaly that cannot be explained with current theories, methods, and conceptualizations. It is in the class of unexplainable and perhaps unspeakable examples that lies outside current knowledge. 

The next thing I liked, and which I learned about in my master’s program, is the idea of “incommensurability.” This means that members of the old and new paradigm have different meanings for the same terms or concepts. Kuhn gives the example of … one sec while I find it … “Newtonian mass is conserved; Einsteinian is convertible with energy” (p. 102). In other words, those operating with classical Newtonian mathematics and concepts will have a very different understanding of “mass” than followers from the new Einsteinian physics. They will talk past each other Kuhn says. 

I suppose the question I want to know more about is: How can members from competing paradigms better understand each other? Off the top of my head, the first example I think of is how scientists explain their research and findings to laypersons. If your work is so complicated that it cannot be explained to normal people—people who do not share your education and experience in the field—then, you will have a hard time explaining it to supporters of the paradigm-under-threat. Not only explaining is important, but I suppose the mathematics to back up your claims must also be simple. Sayings like “keep it simple stupid” and Occam’s razor come to mind. The more complex a theory is the more susceptible it is to attack from those who disagree with you. What is it about simplicity that… I don’t know what I want to ask here. There is something sexy about being simple. Why are we drawn to it? What is it about a simple formula or idea that we want to be close to? As well, can this simplicity explain multiple things that the older paradigm could not do or not do as well? 

Ok, there’s something about this simplicity thing that wants to come out, but I can’t access it. Returning now to the prompt. It seems to me that members of the older paradigm do not want to know about the anomalies and their discoveries that created the crisis in the first place. There’s an air of denial here. These people are in denial of what could be. Therefore, these people must lack a sense of imagination, curiosity, a desire to speculate, to imagine. Or at least they do so within the confines of the paradigm they willingly were spoon fed. Ok, so at the beginning of their careers they willingly wanted to know about what current researchers in the field were doing, and they got excited and wanted to participate in the research. The difference with anomalies is that they are forced upon these now older researchers against their will. Everything they know about their field, the foundations of this field they willingly joined, crumbles, and they’re scared. They bet their careers on what others knew, perhaps solved some puzzles of their own, but now these anomalies dwarf mere puzzles. The majority of researchers didn’t sign up for this. Nobody likes an ultimatum. Nobody likes their funding stopped and PhD students leave to explore the anomalies of the day. From the perspective of members of the new paradigm, they probably say, look here, this is happening, this a thing, as good scientists we cannot not look at this. The ones who do are probably considered freaks, outcasts, or outliers to indulge in such fanciful investigations. There are at least two possible outcomes for researchers exploring novel avenues of research: (1) they probe and probe, but nothing comes out of the research. Time and money are wasted, and future careers of arguably bright people are forfeited or delayed. (2) These people actually discover something, they hit pay dirt, they expose something the previous paradigm did not account for, they prove dissenters of the old and dying paradigm to have lacked vision, to see what was indeed possible. 

Nobody likes being forced to do anything. Members of the old paradigm don’t have to agree with new evidence and methods that explain anomalies, leading to new paradigms. As Kuhn says, however, these people eventually die off, giving way to future generations who will decide the future of scientific research and what the next generation of students will learn. And the cycle continues. 

Kuhn, T. S. (1996/1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

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