The Use and Abuse of Kuhn’s “Paradigm Shift”

A half century ago Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to describe the way that science lurches unpredictably forward. The terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” quickly escaped the narrow confines of history and philosophy of science and are today rarely used to describe scientific change. Instead, they are bandied about to explain nearly any change, from economics and politics to sustainable public transportation and sanitation. There’s even a YouTube channel, Paradigm Shift that offers “leadership training.”[1] So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it applied to transgender: “A Lifetime of Anomalies Explained by a New Transgender Paradigm.”[2] This latest invocation of Kuhn’s celebrated phrase seems a rather tenuous application of the term.

According to Kuhn, paradigms are shared worldviews that structure the way science is done.[3] They typically function for a long time, but there’s no way to predict how long any paradigm will reign supreme. Now and then a sufficient number of anomalies are identified, which leads to the replacement of one paradigm by another, the “paradigm shift.”[4] A paradigm shift does not occur when one scientist realizes that s/he had misinterpreted evidence and then reinterprets it in a new way, to demonstrate something different. That, had Kuhn said anything about it, is simply a mistake.

So a person who has failed to recognize, ignored, or misinterpreted evidence, and then realizes that mistake and adjusts accordingly, is simply admitting an error and correcting it. No paradigm. No anomalies. No crisis. No shift.

It seems that Kuhn’s expression has drifted so far from his intended meaning that we should no longer attribute it to him. I get it. Saying “paradigm shift” sounds a lot better than “I was wrong,” so by all means let’s continue to use the term. But let’s not slander Kuhn in the process.[5]

  1. Even the “nu metal band” Korn has an album named “The Paradigm Shift.” As with more Korn music, it is an acquired taste.  ↩

  2. A quick internet search for “transgender paradigm shift” turns up loads of hits.  ↩

  3. Ok, “the way science is done” is shorthand for Kuhn’s longer discussion of normal science, puzzle solving, education of subsequent generations of scientists, recognition and identification of meaningful data, etc. For brevity, let’s just agree on “the way science is done.”  ↩

  4. Kuhn remains a bit fuzzy on the details here, e.g., What is an anomaly? How many anomalies? How significant? How long does it take? etc.  ↩

  5. Here’s the nitpicky footnote that points out some of the significant mistakes in the article:

    Copernicus found numerous anomalies that science really couldn’t explain: retrograde motion, the fact that the sun wasn’t really rising, (it just looked that way) and why no one ever bothered to give either Aristotle or Ptolemy a first last name. Copernicus had what Kuhn would call just over 400 years later a crisis. (It would have been 400 even, but Kuhn couldn’t define crisis without attaching several hundred more pages.)

    Copernicus did not find “numerous anomalies.” The major problems were the precession of the equinoxes and convoluted corrections necessary to bring calculations in line with the best observations of planetary positions. Neither the sun’s apparent motion nor a planet’s retrograde motion was an anomaly. Though I don’t understand why a first name matters, Ptolemy did have one: Claudius is how we typically write it in North America. Ok, Aristotle might not have had a first name, but really, who cares (perhaps this is an attempt at humor, but I don’t really get it)? And Kuhn’s book is, in total, a mere 200 pages.

    What Copernicus had found, however, threatened the religious status quo and the primacy of the Church, something that would have threatened him had he not died right as he finished his theory: On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. That honor fell to Galileo Galilea [sic] who came to the same conclusions as Copernicus. Galileo was fortunately healthy enough at the time that the Catholic Church threatened to kill him if he didn’t recant.

    I don’t even know where to begin here. So let’s move on.

    The damage to the geocentric theory of the universe, however, was done. Too many anomalies begat one big crisis, and – BOOM! – the heliocentric view of the solar system became the dominant paradigm by which people now understood the cosmos.

    And no. No one big crisis. No BOOM. Not immediately after Copernicus. Not immediately after Galileo. As Kuhn points out, paradigms don’t shift in an instant as a result of a single person’s observations. Instead the change happens over a period of time, often as generations change. Finally, after enough time, the people who hold the former paradigm simply die off. Less a BOOM and more a rattling, dry exhalation as the last believer expires.  ↩

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