Monday, December 8, 2014

Fifth Harmony Explains Kuhnian Paradignm Shifts

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn explains how one scientific paradigm comes to replace another. A paradigm is a broad theoretical framework or theory that influences the way in which branches of sciences are done. Part of Kuhn's explanation for how one paradigm replaces another is the incommensurability thesis. This thesis states that two paradigms are incommensurable - i.e., they can't be compared, and there's no rational basis for comparison or choosing between the two.

For example, consider when the Copernican Revolution occurred in the 16th century. The two paradigms in this example are (1) the geocentric model of the universe (the theory that the earth was the center of our universe) and (2) the heliocentric model of the universe (the theory that the sun is the center of our universe). What contributed to the shift from the geocentric model of the universe to the heliocentric model is the fact that the two paradigms are incommensurable. The old paradigm, the geocentric model, had problems (e.g., we couldn't use it to explain or predict the orbit of other planets), but the new paradigm, the heliocentric model, also had problems (e.g., we needed an explanation for why it didn't feel or seem like we were moving if the earth was constantly moving).

The two paradigms are not comparable because they both have a different set of problems they are trying to solve and they may explain things in different ways. When a new paradigm is proposed and eventually adopted, it's not because it simply solves the problems of the old paradigm - it helps explain some observations that caused problems for the old paradigm, but it does so at the cost of raising and having to answer a new set of questions.

To help explain this idea of a paradigm shift, I'll compare Kuhn's explanation with Fifth Harmony's "Miss Movin' On." This will entail comparing paradigm shifts to the ending and beginning of romantic relationships.

First, to help the analogy, imagine that Fifth Harmony are a group of scientists who have been working under a particular paradigm for their entire career. "Miss Movin' On" then seems like a song describing the difficulty of leaving one paradigm and deciding to work under another.

I'm breakin' down
Gonna start from scratch
Shake it off like an etch-a-sketch
My lips are saying goodbye
My eyes are finally dry

I'm not the way that I used to be
I took the record off repeat
It killed me but I survived
And now I'm coming alive

It's not easy to switch paradigms - especially if you've been working within a particular paradigm for most of your life. However, once they decide to move on to the new paradigm they find a new life and a seemingly new purpose.The question becomes: what prompts the community of scientists to switch from one paradigm to another? Kuhn's radical answer: it's a matter of choice on the part of the scientists. It's not that the new paradigm is somehow "truer" or "more correct" than the old paradigm - switching paradigms is something like a matter of faith. We choose the new paradigm because we have faith that it will better explain things than the old paradigm. Given that the new paradigm has an entirely new set of different and foreseeable problems, what justifies this thought that the new paradigm will be better at explaining things is a leap of faith.

Using a romantic relationship as an analogy: what causes someone to switch from one partner to another? It's not that you know the new partner will be better than the old (i.e., it's not that you know the new partner will solve all the problems of the previous relationship). Sure your ex had a lot of problems, but the new person has even more potential for problems given that you know so little about them! It's something like a matter of faith - you just have faith that this new person will be better than the last (despite all the unknowns surrounding the new person).

You and your ex once had a new, exciting, and sometimes scary, relationship. Every now and then a problem within the relationship would arise. Eventually these problems would add up and there'd be a crisis. At the time of crisis you have to decide whether you should stay with the person with which there are all these problems, or you have to decide if you're going to switch to a new person about whom you know very little. With this new person there could be equally as many problems. So, you have to decide whether to make the current relationship work despite it's problems (you have to try and work through the problems), or whether you are willing to take a chance on a new relationship. Should you decide to give the new relationship a try, it wasn't because it solved all the problems of the old relationship. Some things may not be an issue anymore, but there are new, and different, problems in the new relationship.

So, while you find yourself singing:

I jumped the fence to the other side (the other side)
My whole world was electrified (electrified)
Now I'm no longer afraid
It's Independence Day (It's Independence Day)

remember that taking a leap of faith may be worth the difficulty of switching paradigms.


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