Thursday, April 07, 2005

Paradigm, Schmaradigm

Let's clear something up. Yes, 'paradigm' has been hijacked by evil marketing forces. No, it is not a meaningless word. The problem is most people don't know what 'paradigm' means, so marketers are able to twist it and turn it and slap it onto any old crappy idea. If everybody knew what it meant, it would lose all its mysterious power, and marketers would give it up for some more fuzzy, vacuous word, like 'folksonomy'. So with that goal in mind, I'm going to briefly educate you on the real meaning of paradigm and immunize you against the marketing buzzword of the same name.

The meaning of paradigm I'm using here comes from Thomas Kuhn in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm is a set of assumptions that cause you to think about things in a specific way. For example, assuming that the Earth is the centre of the universe might cause you to think that there is inherent order in the universe, with everything in its place, and with Earth holding a special, exalted position. The four elements, earth, water, air, and fire naturally seek their proper place. The sun, moon, planets, and stars revolve in perfect circles around the Earth. This paradigm, for two thousand years, helped people understand the world.

No paradigm is perfect, and there will be anomalies that the paradigm cannot explain. In the beginning, the anomalies won't seem important, and people will ignore them, or make small exceptions or corrections in the paradigm to account for them. But over time, as understanding deepens, the anomalies will gain significance until they are too problematic to ignore any more. For example, astronomers observed that the planets didn't move in perfect circles, so they invented the concept of epicycles to try to correct their model. Eventually, the required epicycles became so messy that the geocentric cosmology reached a crisis.

When a crisis is reached, new paradigms arise to compete against the prevailing paradigm, and eventually a new, usually better one wins out by eliminating the anomalies of the old paradigm. This process is called a paradigm shift. For example, by considering that the Sun is the centre of the universe, and that orbits are elliptical instead of circular, the need for epicycles vanishes. (Some people use the term 'paradigm shift' to refer to an individual person's internal shift in viewpoint from one belief system to another. I confess I also use the term that way, but I only apply it to genuine paradigms, not just any viewpoint shift.)

There's another important aspect to paradigm shifts, which is the historical fact that paradigm shifts tend to be nasty, with the old-guard staunchly defending their tried-and-true paradigm, and the new generation brazenly promoting their new-and-better paradigm. Sometimes, the only way to complete the paradigm shift is to wait for the old-guard to literally die off! For example, the Catholic church had so much invested in the geocentric paradigm that it took two generations of scientists (first Copernicus, later Galileo and Kepler) to establish the heliocentric paradigm among the mainstream scientific community. And we all know what happened to Galileo. Thomas Kuhn called such messy scientific paradigm shifts 'scientific revolutions', and in fact, the Copernican paradigm shift is considered the Scientific Revolution since it is one of the major events of the Renaissance.

One last important feature of paradigms is that they are often mutually unintelligible, and trying to explain something in the context of one paradigm, when the other person holds a radically different paradigm, can cause huge misunderstandings and pointless arguments. People talk right past each other, saying things that make perfect sense to themselves, but are completely meaningless to the other person. You can imagine the different answers you would get from a geocentrist versus a heliocentrist when asked the question, "Why are we here?"

The word paradigm, when used in the sense of Kuhnian paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions, is a very powerful and useful concept. It can help you understand major events in the world, and to see the recurring structure in them. So, now that you understand the real meaning of 'paradigm', you can just ignore the clueless marketing drones who babble about 'optimizing your paradigm', and not get so worked up over this perfectly good and useful word.


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