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What Is a Scientific Paradigm?

In his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn was the first scientist to articulate what would soon become a buzzword worldwide: paradigm (pair-a-dime). This word has since popped up in every branch of study from anthropology to astronomy. Why do we need a new word to describe our world? Because science is far from absolute and must be understood in the context in which its theories are created.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

Scientific Vocabulary

Kuhn opens his discussion of paradigms by describing the necessity for an addition to scientific vocabulary. His main thesis is that science can be studied not only for concepts that explain the world around us, but also from a historic and analytic perspective. Even though older scientific theories may have been disproved by newer ones, there is merit is studying how science itself evolves and changes as discoveries are made. In order to understand the development of scientific technique and rationalizations, there was a need for definition of the study of the evolution of science and so was born the study of paradigms and paradigm shifts.

What Is a Paradigm?

Essentially, a paradigm is a set of assumptions governing how we interact and interpret the world. Every human has a personal paradigm which is influenced by outside forces acting on them and their own experiences in support of the paradigm. The cultural situation and status of a person is a large factor in determining the kind of paradigm he or she will have. Someone spending their formative years in suburban Britain will operate under a different paradigm than a person who is a member of the Maori in the south Pacific. Paradigms need constant reinforcement to function. If events occur that cannot be explained by the current paradigm, a new one may be generated.

The set of assumptions on which a paradigm is based are assumed to be true and often they are assumptions that cannot be tested. For example, in what has been called the Western Science Paradigm, the assumption that God created the universe and that humans are intelligent enough to understand His creation are assumptions that cannot be tested. Although many have tried to prove the existence of God, there will always be an element of faith involved to believe in a supernatural force. Obviously humans think we are smart enough to understand the universe - but if we aren't, we wouldn't be intelligent enough to figure out that we couldn't.

Often the type of assumptions included in a paradigm are tacit and arbitrary; in other words, the people in the paradigm don't consciously think about their existence or the potential for deeper meaning behind them. One example of this are rules of the road for drivers. We don't often think about why we drive on a certain side of the road, we simply know everyone has agreed which side of the road each segment of traffic belongs in. We obey this rule even though it is arbitrary.

Paradigm Shifts

Paradigms can exist anywhere but Kuhn applies this concept to the realm of scientific inquiry. He argues that Western science has undergone numerous paradigm shifts, otherwise known as scientific revolutions. These events are triggered by a scientific theory so well proven and revolutionary that it changes the entire set of assumptions on which the current paradigm is based and is replaced by another set. This process does not happen instantly. Scientific paradigms often endure a long time before they are replaced. For example, one of the earliest descriptions of the universe, Aristotle and Plato's "Two-sphere Universe," lasted about 550 years. This was followed by the Ptolemaic paradigm which lasted even longer before it was replaced by Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton's theories. Since then, as modern technology facilitates greater and faster communication between scientists, paradigms appear and collapse at a faster rate.

The Purpose of a Paradigm

Scientific paradigms are necessary for creating a basis to begin research. Scientific inquiry is a quantitative science - relying on numbers, equations and constants in order to work. By its very nature, science requires the researcher to make assumptions about the state of the world before beginning an experiment. One assumption that is fundamental to scientific inquiry is that processes we observe working now are the same as processes which occurred in the past and will occur in the future. If we did not make this assumption, experiments could never be repeated and expected to generate the same results. There would be randomness and unpredictability in all scientific endeavors which is incompatible with the concrete answers science strives to generate.

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Paradigms also help narrow the amount of possible theories for observed phenomenon by rejecting those that do not work in the paradigm. For example, we assume gravity works on all objects on the planet. If something is in the air it must have the ability to generate enough lift or force to overpower gravity, as opposed to assuming the object is unaffected by gravity. By setting up the ground rules, paradigms provide information about how to evaluate new theories and ideas. In the end, if the paradigm is successful in generating good ideas, it will even generate the next paradigm that will replace it.

A Map of Science

A "map of science" created by sorting some 800,000 published papers into 776 paradigms. The red circles are where they overlap from referencing one another - creating a visual representation of scientific discussion in the world today.

A "map of science" created by sorting some 800,000 published papers into 776 paradigms. The red circles are where they overlap from referencing one another - creating a visual representation of scientific discussion in the world today.


henk tuten on March 01, 2015:

Kuhn's concept 'paradigm' has also use wider than 'science'.

In fact 'science' is part of a 'paradigm' (cultural reality)

PWalker281 on September 03, 2011:

I remember reading Kuhn's book in college in the 70s (think I still have a copy somewhere). It was a time during which the field I was studying - linguistics - was undergoing a paradigm shift from the behaviorist model of the Jesuits to the deep/surface structure model pioneered by Noam Chomsky. Your hub is a very clear explanation of what a paradigm is. Rated up and useful.

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