The dogma of paradigm shifts

This is also from a post 18 months back:

It’s amazing how many times we see ‘paradigms’ used as a justification for scientific acceptance of intelligent design (ID) and other ideas which lack evidential support. The argument is that science progresses by changing paradigms – ‘paradigm shifts. New paradigms replace old, outdated paradigms. The “materialist” or “evolutionary” paradigm has been around for a while. It needs to be changed. Therefore science should accept new paradigms involving ‘supernatural explanations.’ No evidential support needed!

Science journalists sometimes use a similar argument to promote pet ideas or scientists. This is the ‘oppressed underdog’ argument discussed by Michael White in his article Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog. The idea that authority of leading scientists is used to support a prevailing scientific view – a dogma. Along comes the hero – the underdog scientist, with a new theory which challenges the dogma. However, she faces hostile opposition from the “dogmatic scientific establishment.” The reader is encouraged to accept this new idea as having more value than the ‘dogma’  – based purely on their presentation as a hero without considering the real evidence.

Kuhn’s paradigm shifts

The cheekier of those who take this approach will even quote the philosopher Thomas Kuhn as a justification. His writings conveyed an impression that science only progresses by “paradigm shifts.” According to this story information and theory builds up in science according to the prevailing paradigm – the theories and methods of investigation. Inevitably this develops problems as theories are undermined by new information, or opposed by brave individuals, and is replaced by a new paradigm.

I believe this is a dogmatic understanding – as is often the case when philosophy is imported inappropriately into science.

Sure we can find many cases of paradigm shifts. Newtonian mechanics and concepts of space. Special and general theories of relativity. Quantum-mechanical theories. All these represent a break with the past – a paradigm shift. And we expect many such shifts in the future.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

But none of these involved a complete abandonment of previous knowledge. The babies weren’t thrown out with the bathwater. Scientific theories do involve qualitative changes in their development. But usually we can recognize parts of older theories which are retained as essential parts of the new theory. Atomic theory has been revised again and again but we still recognize the concept of atoms.

While we use special and general relativity to understand phenomena involving high velocities, high energies and large gravitational fields the equations collapse to the Newtonian ones under more normal conditions. We need quantum-mechanical wave functions to understand atoms, electrons and other subatomic particles. But these become the normal physics when considering our normal macro objects.

Most progress in knowledge comes through refinement of theories with the occasional large jumps. But hardly ever do we throw away all aspects of the previous theory.

Where changes in our knowledge occur, or paradigm shifts in our approach happen, this is because of accumulated evidence – not just because we have a hero – a David and Goliath story. And not just because we can label it as a paradigm shift.

Scientific ideas need to make it on their own

Some scientists do get caught in the ‘oppressed underdog’ narrative. They may feed this narrative because they feel under-appreciated or not listened too. Some may even be happier with campaigning than continuing with the work needed to win acceptance for their ideas. Challenging and bringing about changes in prevailing thinking does involve work and time – frustration is understandable.

On the other hand, ID proponents are argue for us to accept their ‘theories’ because they reckon them to be a paradigm shift. The want acceptance purely on that basis – without any supporting evidence. In this case they are clearly unwilling to put in any of the scientific work needed to win acceptance. They prefer to operate purely at the political level. As Ken Miller points out they are treating science as if it should provide “an intellectual welfare for an idea that can’t make it on its own.”

See also:
Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog
Trouble ahead for science
Only a theory – science Friday podcast interview
Intelligent Design: Only a Theory – radio interview with Ken Miller (mp3 download)

Similar articles:
Dogmatism around science – the “supernatural.”
Scientific knowledge – not “just a belief!”
Dembski, peer review and supernova
Evolution – a theory or a fact?
Intelligent design and scientific method



4 responses to “The dogma of paradigm shifts

  1. I can’t stop laughing over that cartoon. It’s PERFECT!


  2. An assumption many people make on this topic is thinking that when one paradigm is replaced by another we have progressed and improved the situation. I think that this assumption is fundamentally flawed. Anyone who believes that we can progress towards something better should spend sometime reading either the French philosopher Michel Foucault or his bro Jacques Derrida. They argue that we can not progress or improve from previous paradigms and that all paradigms are equally valud and equally true.


  3. Richard P – they argue that and of course creationists and other anti-science people like to promote that idea. But I think most scientists would not agree and also most modern philosophers of science.

    Generally I find that Foucault’s ideas are disparaged by modern philosophers of science.. However Alan Chalmers in his interesting and classic “What is this thing called science” does take some positive ideas out of Foucault so treats him more seriously. However Chalmers seems clear that these day philosophers of science do see scientific knowledge as progressive.

    Sometimes people will quote Kuhn to argue that science is not progressive. But in this case Kuhn himself repudiated that interpretation. > Foucault


  4. Pingback: Paradigmă « Instrumentarium

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