Tag: Thomas Kuhn

The Copernican Revolutionary

Thomas Kuhn, writing under a pretty lame nom de plume, tried his hand at historical pulp fiction. The story of a Revolutionary War-era woman who refused to live by society’s patriarchal norms.

Another book I wish had been written, though I doubt Thomas Kuhn could have written it.

Ok, there’s no way Thomas Kuhn could have written such a book. But it’s fun to pretend.

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.  ↩

Everybody has a “Paradigm”

I recently reread Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I had first read Kuhn’s book in my first year of graduate school. Perhaps because I was reading Structure I seemed to hear the term paradigm frequently, in contexts ranging from a strange conversation in a cafe, to an attorney discussing evidence in a trial, to investment officers in a financial firm referring to investment strategies. The man in the cafe recalled fondly his reading of Kuhn’s book as an undergraduate. The attorney could not identify the source. The investment officers remembered that it was from a book about science but admitted to never having read it. Kuhn’s lasting legacy is the widespread use of the term paradigm well beyond, and perhaps more commonly beyond the history of science.

I began to wonder how often Kuhn used the term “paradigm” in Structure. Excluding the 1969 Postscript, I counted 446 occcurences of paradigm, pre-paradigm, and post-paradigm, spread throughout the book. Then, as an exercise in gratiutous graphing, I plotted the occurence of these words and then overlaid a bargraph showing the number of times these words were used in each chapter.

A graph showing how often Kuhn used the term paradigm. Each bar represents a chapter. Numbers in bars indicate mentions in that chapter (click for larger image).

The width of the bars is proportional to the number of pages, the height to the number of mentions (the actual number is shown in each bar). The graph doesn’t really illustrate much beyond the fact that once Kuhn began using the term paradigm in chapter two, he used it consistently. He used the term most frequently in chapters three and twelve, “The Nature of Normal Science” and “The Resolution of Revolutions.”

As it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kuhn’s book, essays on it can be found all over. See, for example, Hamish Johnston’s short piece in Physics Today or John Naughton’s piece in The Guardian or Rebekah Higgit’s piece in The Guardian. Or purchase fiftieth anniversary edition from the University of Chicago Press, which contains an introductory essay by Ian Hacking.