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State of the Paradigm: A Series
What assumptions are being fought?
Science is "a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions” - Thomas Kuhn
Adolf Meyer, a psychiatrist who served as a chair of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University from 1910 to 1941, noticed that as his patients changed their mental state, their biological state would also get altered. He argued much against the mind-body divide in studying medicine or psychology, and introduced the concept of neuroplasticity—that the mind can rewire itself according to need.
But his colleagues dismissed it. It went against everything in the theories of biology at that time. They were fixated on a paradigm: that the brain does not change after a human reaches adolescence. This is what science philosopher Thomas Kuhn calls normal science. Everything that deviated from the norm was met with skepticism and, oftentimes, resistance.
Thomas Kuhn tried to craft a theory for scientific revolutions in his famous book “Structure for Scientific Revolutions”. He argued that in order for a field to achieve breakthrough revolutions they would need a paradigm shift. A shift that would change norms. In complexity science, these paradigm shifts would have the same journey as a punctuated equilibrium — i.e. periods of stasis (norms) separated by chaotic punctuations.
While Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts as the main driver for scientific revolutions was indeed paradigm shifting, it is not without criticism. The objections revolve mainly around its lack of consideration for other variables of breakthroughs. For example, scientific advancements contribute to any field’s ability to discover something (e.g. mathematical advancements), or how suppression of scientific inquiry affects potential breakthroughs (e.g. Kepler and Tesla all faced oppression, their inquiry was discouraged and even vilified). It is also argued that the concept of paradigm shift doesn’t apply to all fields - but that’s another story.
Either way, it is such an alluring exercise to question existing assumptions. Similar to how a fresh Coca Cola would sound like when you first pop it, the hissing and excitement shortly evaporates. That’s why I’m starting a series on common assumptions in different fields of knowledge.
Last week, I wrote about how scientific communities are like tribes—both in how they value tradition, and how difficult it would be to change their collective mindsets. In the case of neuroplasticity, it would take almost 90 years for early discoverers to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine. What other paradigm shifts are yet to be made?
For the next few weeks, I will be sharing the state of the paradigm in several fields, ranging from the economy, political science, cognitive science, computer science, to history. Subscribe to receive them in your inbox every week!
Lamb, Susan. “Neuroplasticity: a century-old idea championed by Adolf Meyer.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne vol. 191,49 (2019): E1359-E1361. doi:10.1503/cmaj.191099
Alexander Adams. “Objections to Kuhn’s theory of scientific progression” https://hekint.org/2017/01/22/objections-to-kuhns-theory-of-scientific-progression/