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Thomas Kuhn and Why Paradigms Shift

Thomas Kuhn and Why Paradigms Shift

The term "paradigm shift" was coined by the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996). He argued that science couldn't advance until most people working within a field agree upon a paradigm. Before the agreement, collaboration and teamwork are restricted.

Once a paradigm theory is established, those working within it can start doing normal science. But now and then, normal science reveals anomalies that can't be explained within the dominant paradigm. When the inexplicable results start piling up, it eventually leads to a "crisis."

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Paradigm Theory

A Paradigm theory is a general theory that provides a broad theoretical framework or "conceptual scheme." It offers underlying assumptions, key concepts, and methodology to scientists working in a particular field. It gives their research its general direction and goals.

Examples of paradigm theories include Copernicus' heliocentric astronomy (with the sun at the center), Isaac Newton's theory of gravity, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, germ theory in medicine, gene theory in biology.

A paradigm shift occurs when one paradigm theory is replaced by another:

  • Ptolemy's astronomy giving way to Copernican astronomy.
  • Newtonian physics (time and space are the same everywhere for everyone) replaced by Einsteinian physics. (time and space are relative to the observer's frame of reference.)

Thomas Kuhn argues that reality cannot be described independently of the conceptual schemes through which we observe it. Paradigm theories explain our conceptual systems.

When a paradigm shift occurs, the theoretical opinions of scientists working in the field changes.

Kuhn's claim related to paradigm shifts is very controversial.

His critics argue that this "non-realist" approach leads to a sort of relativism, and concludes that scientific progress has nothing to do with getting closer to the truth. Kuhn states he still believes in scientific progress since later theories are usually better than earlier theories.

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The term paradigm can be used in many distinct senses. For example:

  • A paradigm could refer to a special kind of achievement that draws an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity, but is open enough to leave all sorts of problems for the new group to solve.
  • Paradigms can be used to offer general epistemological viewpoints, like a broad sweep of reality, when it "determines large areas of experience at the same time."

What Thomas Kuhn meant originally by paradigm has, over time, assumed an expansive set of meanings, sufficiently open-ended to allow other possibilities to be explored.

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Galileo Galilei, a contemporary of Kepler, built a telescope and began fixing its lens on the planets. He made a series of remarkable discoveries: that the moon was not flat and smooth, there were spots on the sun, Jupiter had moons that orbited it, Venus had phases like the moon, which proved that the planet rotated around the sun.

Galileo published his findings but was later put on trial for heresy and put under house arrest for the remainder of his life. He never stopped his research and published several theories until his death in 1642.

Metaphors that scientists use to talk about the microbiome influence scientific understanding and can shape medical treatment. For example, viewing the microbiome as an "organ" or a "part of the immune system."

Some physicians support fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) - treating the malfunction of the gut microbiome by swallowing a pill full of someone else's poo. It follows the same basic principles as an organ transplant, and the treatment is probably a consequence of understanding the microbiome as an organ.