ASSOCIATES (2010, July, v. 17, no. 1)


Bear Thoughts #13: Paradigms I: Not Just 20 Cents Anymore

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University


OK. So I finally have to take the bull (or bulls***) by the horns and deal with the subject of paradigms. So many jokes and so many misuses. Ah well, I’ll gird my loins (whatever that means) and stride forth.

Prior to Kuhn “paradigm” was a word to describe a model or standard in any field. This meaning seems to have remained in use sotto voce, but it doesn’t really explain the use of the word in daily language. Why, when it seems so obviously true, will be explained (I hope) below.


The concept of paradigms was made popular by Thomas Kuhn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest historians of science, in his book The structure of scientific revolutions (originally published in 1961).

Kuhn’s idea was that there were two kinds of scientific advance, ordinary science and paradigmatic science. Ordinary science is what goes on every day; it consists of advances (great or small) that fill in our understanding of the natural world. They do not result in any disruption in the discipline in which they appear. Revolutionary science produces scientific knowledge that can’t be explained by the science available at the time. It does result in a serious disruption in the discipline in which it appears. This disruption is the paradigm shift.

An example of a significant advance through the processes of ordinary science was the discovery, published in 1982, that ulcers were caused by a bacterium (H. pilori). Until that time it was believed that ulcers were caused by excessive stress. Indeed, just months before H. pylori became the acknowledged cause of ulcers; my manager at Bell Laboratories collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital suffering from bleeding ulcers. Though he didn’t die his treatment would surely have been easier and quicker had the bacterial role been known.

An example of revolutionary science within our (or at least my) lifetime is the discovery of tectonic plates. Until the 1949 the crust of the earth was believed (with scientific certainty) to be one unbroken thing. Some research results indicating that parts of the earth were moving relative to each other just had to be wrong (since geologists knew that the crust was one whole). Then incontrovertible proof of relative movement was published, and geology was thrown into a tizzy. Traditional geologists insisted that the new results could not be true, but geologists who recognized the truth of the new results were busy trying to find out where the old orthodoxy had led their science astray. Now we see the knowledge of tectonic plates everywhere, even in the daily news of volcanoes in Iceland causing air traffic delays in Europe.


Three additional examples of revolutionary science are:

Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler (I always have to include Kepler because he was my ancestor) grew up in a time when the knowledge that the earth was at the center of the universe was a certainty in Europe and scientific orthodoxy was enforced by non-scientific authorities.

It was a real paradigm shift when the proposal was made that the sun was the center of the Solar System, so the authorities rejected it. The history we studied in school followed, and it is safe (I think) to say that the world’s institutions suffered major changes as a result.

Another example of paradigm shift was the discovery of the element oxygen in its role in combustion in 1774 by Joseph Priestley. (Actually Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen in 1772 but the discovery was not published until 1776.) At the time fire was believed (i.e., known) to be caused by something called phlogiston. Both phlogiston (an active agent) and oxygen (an element) could not coexist within the theory of chemistry, but since phlogiston was the older (and more authoritative) concept, it remained and oxygen took decades to become phlogiston’s replacement. It is worth noting that that act of replacement resulted in the modern science of chemistry.

A third example of a paradigm shift (one that is still continuing) is the case of the theory of evolution. Two distinct stories of creation and development are in contention. (There are a large number of creation stories, but only two are currently at odds.) Each has its authorities and its adherents, and believing in the authenticity of one can make belief in the authenticity of the other difficult (although not impossible). The century-and-a-half or so since Darwin proposed his theory has allowed many scientists to find that they can accept the religious explanation of creation and many people of faith don’t have a particular problem with the Theory of Evolution. Unfortunately vocal minorities in both groups insist that only one story can be true, and they work hard to make many of the institutions of western culture unworkable (or at least very inefficient). I do know that however the debate ends, the current paradigm will shift.


So, you ask, “Why do I care about the philosophy of science? I work in the children’s department of my library.” (You can substitute most library jobs for ‘children’s department’ in that pseudo-quote. But my wife spent her career in the children’s department, so I’m prejudiced.)

You should care because ‘paradigm shift’ is one of the most overused and least understood concepts in the English-speaking world today. And I believe that the first step in correcting use is to understand the words in question (oh no … I sound like my grammar teachers). So, the terms ‘paradigm’ and ‘paradigm shift’ have, since 1961, referred to developments in science (i.e., there was a paradigm shift in the meaning of ‘paradigm’).

You should also care because ‘paradigm shift’ is constantly being misused to make an ordinary development look extraordinary. Think of all of the times you have heard advertisements declare that their product represents a paradigm shift. I can’t say for sure that it isn’t a paradigm shift (there are new products), but I can say that most of those advertisements are wrong.

It may appear to simply be a pre-Kuhn use of the term ‘paradigm,’ but it is instead a misuse of the term. The advertised paradigm shift is, more often than not, not even a real development in the product. It’s usually just a new model made to look fancy and called, therefore, a new paradigm.

I found out about the pre-Kuhn meaning when I was researching this column. I don’t ever remember hearing the word before 1961, and I was 17 that year. So my next column will look at ‘paradigm’s’ current use, and try (at least) to explicate some of the social uses and misuses of the word ‘paradigm’.

Until then, I hope that you and your libraries have good times.


Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (Third edition). University of Chicago Press.