Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Disputed definitions: paradigm shift

NatureNews has an interesting article on words whose definitions get scientists most worked up. Take 'paradigm shift,' for example:
Paradigm shift has a definite origin and originator: Thomas Kuhn, writing in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued against the then prevalent view of science as an incremental endeavour marching ever truthwards. Instead, said Kuhn, most science is "normal science", which fills in the details of a generally accepted, shared conceptual framework. Troublesome anomalies build up, however, and eventually some new science comes along and overturns the previous consensus. VoilĂ , a paradigm shift. The classic example, Kuhn said, is the Copernican revolution, in which Ptolemaic theory was swept away by putting the Sun at the centre of the Solar System. Post-shift, all previous observations had to be reinterpreted.

Kuhn's theory about how science works was arguably a paradigm shift of its own, by changing the way that academics think about science. And scientists have been using the phrase ever since.

In a postscript to the second edition of his book, Kuhn explained that he used the word 'paradigm' in at least two ways (noting that one "sympathetic reader" had found 22 uses of the term). In its broad form, it encompasses the "entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community". More specifically it refers to "the concrete puzzle-solutions" that are used as models for normal science post-shift.

Scientists who use the term today don't usually mean that their field has undergone a Copernican-scale revolution, to the undying annoyance of many who hew to Kuhn's narrower definition. But their usage might qualify under his broader one. And so usage becomes a matter of opinion and, perhaps, vanity.

The use of the term in titles and abstracts of leading journals jumped from 30 papers in 1991 to 124 in 1998, yet very few of these papers garnered more than 10 citations apiece1. Several scientists contacted for this article who had used paradigm shift said that, in retrospect, they were having second thoughts. In 2002, Stuart Calderwood, an oncologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, used it to describe the discovery that 'heat shock proteins', crucial to cell survival, could work outside the cell as well as in2. "If you work in a field for a long time and everything changes, it does seem like a revolution," he says. But now he says he may have misused the phrase because the discovery was adding to, rather than overturning, previous knowledge in the field.

Arvid Carlsson, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden stands by his use of the phrase. "Until a certain time, the paradigm was that cells communicate almost entirely by electrical signals," says Carlsson. "In the 1960s and '70s, this changed. They do so predominantly by chemical signals. In my opinion, this is dramatic enough to deserve the term paradigm shift." Few would disagree: base assumptions were overturned in this case, and Carlsson's own work on the chemical neurotransmitter dopamine (which was instrumental in this particular shift) earned him the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Unless a Nobel prize is in the offing, it might be wise for scientists to adopt the caution of contemporary historians of science and think twice before using a phrase with a complex meaning and a whiff of self promotion. "Scientists all want to be the scientists that generate a new revolution," says Kuhn's biographer, Alexander Bird, a philosopher at the University of Bristol, UK. "But if Kuhn is right, most science is normal science and most people can't perform that role."

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