Monday, March 05, 2007

Doggerel #64: "New Paradigm"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Woos often like to claim that they're offering a "new paradigm" for science, often citing figures like Newton, Einstein, and Galileo. It's certainly possible that some idea that seems ridiculous at first may lead to better science in the near future, but it certainly won't be done by the woos. The key difference between the radical ideas of the great scientists and the radical woo ideas of, say, Gene Ray, is that the scientists actually care about giving good evidence, making predictions, and testing them.

Woos, on the other hand, resist skeptical tests, torture their predictions into unfalsifiability, or even outright deny the need to examine their claims. This is not a new paradigm. It's an old one: It's true because I say it is. Rejecting that old, narrow way is what has lead science and civilization to where it is today. If we don't preserve the scientific method, we're going to fall back into the dark ages.

The foam-invoking part of this doggerel is the implication that skepticism is about rejecting new ideas. Skepticism is about testing all ideas, so naturally we get quite irritated with people who do nothing but make excuses to avoid tests. The implication is just an attempt to distract people from that point, and the sad thing is that it apparently works on some people.


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Tom Foss said...

Oh, I am so very glad you addressed this, Bronze Dog. "Paradigm" is one of the slipperiest, most ill-defined, most woo-abusable words in the scientific vocabulary. I read Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (the book which popularized the term "paradigm" in reference to science) in my freshman year of undergrad. The entire class, myself included, has to ask the professor at one point to provide a definition for the term, since Kuhn uses it (in every other damn sentence) without ever really saying what it means. Apparently he nails it down in some earlier book or article, but that wasn't very helpful to the rest of us, trying to figure out what the hell he was saying.

So it's no wonder that people come away from Kuhn or see the term and get confused or intentionally misuse it. When the author who promoted the concept can't be bothered to define it, the results are obvious.

Don said...

I read that in a Phil of Science class my junior year, and the teacher did a pretty good job of explaining things. I had had some exposure, though, because my freshman year I had read Michael Shermer's The Borderlands of Science, and one of the first articles it contains is a discussion of Kuhn's paradigm hypothesis. Shermer claims that Kuhn isn't quite right, least of all because he hardly defined "paradigm." Shermer attempts a definition and then points out that Kuhn's claims about mutually exclusive paradigms don't really describe how science is done: the self-correcting framework almost guarantees that the new paradigm will be more accurate than the old one, and a new paradigm is hardly an entirely separate ontological framework from the old paradigm. Almost always it will build upon the ideas of the old paradigm.

This makes the woosters that use the word look even sillier, as they're looking to completely topple an existing paradigm and replace it with their own.

Rhoadan said...

I'm actually related to Tom Kuhn, and one of my pet peeves is woosters' misuse of the term "paradigm."

Anyone who is unclear on what he means should read The Essential Tension: Essential Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, a collection of essays and talks.

He admits in the forward to this book that he effectively used three different meanings for the word "paradigm" in the The Structure of Scientific Revolutions without being clear which usage was appropriate where. The title essay helps to clarify the different meanings.

However, even without that clarification, anyone reading the The Structure of Scientific Revolutions carefully should realize that he's not denying the existence of an underlying reality; he's discussing the limitations of our ability to model it. Even so, many people miss that point.

Anonymous said...

I so hate this one. It ranks right up there with "sending a message".

Here's a message for people who send messages (especially politicians), and I can send it with one finger...

Can I submit a special request for the next Doggerel?


TheBrummell said...

I like this Doggerel entry, since I've seen the word "paradigm" abused so many times, by so many different people (not just woos, it gets heavily abused by annoying business consultants).

I don't understand the picture reference, though - why did you include a picture of an 1828 US dime? That is what I think it is, no?

Bronze Dog said...

It's a visual pun.

1. What's a word you would use to describe something that's been around for nearly two centuries?

2. What are some alternate ways to describe two dimes?

You'll figure it out.