Thursday, March 30, 2017

Paradigm as Prison

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. 
~Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 

There is a trend in academia to put together teams of researchers in ways that are described as interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, (and sometimes the more inscrutable and maybe even more aspirational 'transdisciplinary'). In general, I see this as a positive development because I think it reflects a basic understanding that a disciplinary approach to problem-solving is insufficient, and that contemporary wicked problems require new ways of seeing and doing. But, to advance scientific methodology and praxis in paradigm-changing ways, I think it is incumbent upon researchers to be precise about how they will frame problems differently and how they are able to rise above disciplinarity and/or evolve new paradigms that grapple with the past and reinvent the imagined future. This is no easy task, and my suspicion is that most of these au courant collaborations are multi-disciplinary in that they are bringing together researchers from different disciplines, but they are not truly transdisciplinary. As such, we are not breaking free from the paradigms that have become more our prison than our salvation.

Most academics become proficient in a particular discipline, or paradigm, and engage in what Thomas Kuhn called 'normal science' (1). Adherents to particular disciplines draw on that discipline's established and accepted laws, theoretical frameworks, instruments, and practices in order to carry out their research, to draw conclusions, and to frame new research questions.  As Kuhn notes (p. 10-11),
The study of paradigms...is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke over disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.(2)
The edifice of western science and its attendant tradition of making sense of the world through discrete paradigms is upheld in many ways, e.g. journals, awards, conferences. In addition, academic incentives are structured in such a way as to actively dissuade academics from moving beyond their disciplines. For the academic, a discipline acts like a security blanket. It's what allows them to advance themselves in their career, and enables both increased stature and salary. However, it can also act like a prison or a dark cave, and it's not hard to see how such a set-up might serve to perpetuate the paradigm more than solving complex problems. It's also becoming increasingly clear how such a set-up has actually caused and exacerbated the most complex problems facing humanity today (3).

That's where the push towards multi- or inter-disciplinarity comes in. The academic community knows there is a problem and that traditional disciplinary approaches are not sufficient. That is, we are at a crisis point, and this is, according to Kuhn, the necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories. But, what seems to be happening in many cases is that there is an assumption that bringing researchers from different disciplines together in multi-disciplinary teams is enough to transcend disciplines. There may be some research papers out there that discuss this in more scientific ways, but from my perspective, having people from multiple disciplines work together in teams doesn't usually do anything to promote seeing problems through new theoretical frameworks or developing solutions differently. For example, teams may divide up the work, and figure out some research questions that they can answer by putting their disciplines together, but the research doesn't do anything to actually generate novel ways of understanding or seeing the problem.  In other words, across disciplines, the same world view generates the problem's construction as well as the inquiry for addressing that problem. So, while there is a sense that things must change, there is not a full understanding that the problem goes way beyond bringing disciplines together and hoping that mixing scientific traditions together can somehow result in a better pot of soup.

Again, Thomas Kuhn (p. 92):
Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution.
With a Trump presidency, I have seen scientists adopting more of a political awareness, but I think it is more defensive than reflective. Unfortunately, I think we're in a moment of self-preservation where scientists feel the need to protect the paradigms, not reject them in favor of theories that would render the "wickedness" of wicked problems impotent. So, though there is a sense that things need to change as evidenced by the trend of multi- and inter-disciplinarity, I think that the political environment is not conducive to a scientific revolution. Perhaps we can make the jump with a future administration.



(1) Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. 2, no. 2.
(2) Yes, I also noticed all the "hims," "hises," and "hes."  It's annoying, but I've learned to read past it.
(3) There is a lot of good writing on the limitations of paradigmatic problem solving. Lately, I particularly enjoy the critiques of Economics. A recent article: "What if sociologists had as much influence as economists?" 

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