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Science paradigm-shifts for dummies

20130815-105741.jpg In his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn describes how science progresses through phases of continuous improvement in-between paradigm shifts.

An emerging scientific paradigm (which can be referred to as a theory or a model) can be compared to a net which is just good enough to hold a few large pieces of evidence that have been observed – but so far not grasped – by the scientific community. At the risk of overworking the metaphor, picture a net-bag holding Newton’s apple: as a bag, it is rather unsophisticated, but it is good enough to catch the apple as it falls. If it also manages to catch a few other pieces of fruit, the bag becomes effective and consistent enough in the eyes of the scientific community, that everyone adopts it as THE bag that will enable them to grasp ANY piece of fruit. A paradigm is born and everyone believes in its abiliy to explain the whole world.

Such is the faith in the new paradigm that scientists do not even see that peanuts slip through the net. Who cares? They’re peanuts! Follows a phase of continuous improvement (which Kuhn calls ‘normal’ science) during which scientists make the net tighter and tighter, such that eventually it catches peanuts too. They knit it so tight that it even manages to hold sunflower seed, and then poppyseed. But despite the frantic efforts of the scientists and the increasing complexity of their knitting, they realize at some point that the net will never be able to hold dust, water, molecules, sub-atomic particles. The paradigm has been useful to explain a wide range of phenomenons, but it cannot explain everything in the world. The time for a scientifc revolution has come.

However, finding the new paradigm that will re-unite the scientific community in a common faith can be a lengthy and painful process. Before an Einstein can come up with a new lead box to catch apples and particles alike, a lot of competition between different models takes place. Eventually a new paradigm emerges and science becomes ‘normal’ again.

Interestingly the old paradigm can still enjoy some form of second life. It is no longer regarded as THE model that will explain everything, but it can continue to be used in the domain where it has performed well in the past. Newton’s physics for instance continue to be taught and used, as it is good enough for phenomenons at a safe distance from light speed, and its net-bag is a lot lighter than Einstein’s lead-box.

So, that’s paradigm-shift in science explained in, hopefully, simple words. In the next post, I will explore the analogy between paradigm-shifts in science and the paradigm-shift occuring in the energy and mobility sector today.

  1. September 21, 2013 at 19:35

    True science in a nutshell! Nice analogy.

    In my experience there are two types of scientist, with any number of gradations between these two. There is the army of scientific practitioners, who are absolutely excellent at practicing the set of skills, knowledge and theories they were taught and which they have developed over their careers. They make their living within the exisiting paradigm and see no reason to challenge it too readily!

    Then there are the others who are always challenging, asking the difficult questions, the perturbers, the ones who notice that the peanuts dont stay in the bag and go looking or a new bag, rather than trying to plug the holes in the bag we have.

    For science and technology to function we need both, of course, but that doesn’t stop them getting on each other’s nerves! đŸ™‚

  1. August 20, 2013 at 09:03
  2. May 29, 2014 at 15:33

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