What Can We Learn About Paradigm Shifts From Science?
November 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
From Kuhn’s ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ that examines how paradigm shifts have happened in scientific thought and exploration. It pretty much encapsulates our struggle with breaking through the current human/nature paradigm in our economy.
In all these cases [of paradigm shifts] the awareness of anomaly had lasted so long and penetrated so deep that one can appropriately describe the fields affected by it as in a state of growing crisis. Because it demands large-scale paradigm destruction and major shifts in the problems and techniques of normal science, the emergence of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity.
This story from the world of astronomy is particularly apt.
Look first at a particularly famous case of paradigm change, the emergence of Copernican astronomy. When its predecessor, the Ptolemaic system, was first developed during the last two centuries before Christ and the first two after, it was admirably successful in predicting the changing positions of both stars and planets. No other ancient system had performed so well; for the stars, Ptolemaic astronomy is still widely used today as an engineering approximation; for the planets, Ptolemy’s predictions were as good as Copernicus’. But to be admirably successful is never, for a scientific theory, to be completely successful. With respect both to planetary position and to precession of the equinoxes, predictions made with Ptolemy’s system never quite conformed with the best available observations. Further reduction of those minor discrepancies constituted many of the principal problems of normal astronomical research for many of Ptolemy’s successors, just as a similar attempt to bring celestial observation and Newtonian theory together provided normal research problems for Newton’s eighteenth-century successors. For some time astronomers had every reason to suppose that these attempts would be as successful as those that had led to Ptolemy’s system. Given a particular discrepancy, astronomers were invariably able to eliminate it by making some particular adjustment in Ptolemy’s system of compounded circles. But as time went on, a man looking at the net result of the normal research effort of many astronomers could observe that astronomy’s complexity was increasing far more rapidly than its accuracy and that a discrepancy corrected in one place was likely to show up in another.
Because the astronomical tradition was repeatedly interrupted from outside and because, in the absence of printing, communication between astronomers was restricted, these difficulties were only slowly recognized. But awareness did come. By the thirteenth century Alfonso X could proclaim that if God had consulted him when creating the universe, he would have received good advice. In the sixteenth century, Copernicus’ coworker, Domenico da Novara, held that no system so cumbersome and inaccurate as the Ptolemaic had become could possibly be true of nature. And Copernicus himself wrote in the Preface to the De Revolutionibus that the astronomical tradition he inherited had finally created only a monster. By the early sixteenth century an increasing number of Europe’s best astronomers were recognizing that the astronomical paradigm was failing in application to its own traditional problems. That recognition was prerequisite to Copernicus’ rejection of the Ptolemaic paradigm and his search for a new one. His famous preface still provides one of the classic descriptions of a crisis state.