The trouble with paradigm shifts

Vince Formica's team will not let a beetle get to a fungus unobserved and recorded.

Vince Formica’s team will not let a beetle get to a fungus unobserved and recorded.

We biologists know well the popular version of Thomas Kuhn‘s famous work, The structure of scientific revolutions, and we all want to shift paradigms in our research. This has serious negative consequences. Let me explain.

Kuhn in his famous, paradigm shifting book in 1962 argued that knowledge does not accrete in anything like a linear fashion of facts piling on facts as a child might color in an outline of a Disney figure. Instead, careful collection of data under existing theories is jolted by new ideas, new techniques, or new data to a new way of thinking. After a paradigm shift of major scale, the questions researchers ask change, the data scientists collect takes on a new focus, and understanding is more profound. The most satisfying paradigm shifts are those that reveal new and powerful simple patterns under something once thought complex and highly variable.

There have been a number of paradigm shifts in evolutionary biology in the decades since I first embraced this absorbing field. Phylogenetics, molecular evolution, and kin selection are perhaps most important to me, but this is not a piece about the paradigm shifts of the last few decades. It is about the problem with seeking out paradigm shifts. There are many.

If a new researcher thinks that only paradigm shifts are worthy, she is likely to despair. It is not so easy to come up with even small shifts in our thinking, let alone major ones. So who can even get started if that is all that is worthy?

The opposite of a paradigm shift is normal science. How boring does that sound? But if a paradigm shift is not followed by thousands of careful studies, then who knows if it is going to hold up? We need data behind ideas, so normal science is crucial and exciting. It is also full of discovery. Maybe we need a different name that sounds more exciting than normal science.

Finally, there is the ostrich problem. Some scientists, desperate to shift paradigms, think they can do it by simply ignoring what has gone before. They name well known phenomena with new names, hoping no one will notice, but of course we do. Then it is tiresome to wade through the terminology, new and old, though most new terms for old things will simply be rejected.

Each of these three points is worthy of an essay on their own. Just remember to take a corner of the world and explain it in as open a way as you can, making use of meticulous observation, attention to all relevant theory, and exploratory tools. Normal or shifty, your work will be great!



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Creativity, New ideas, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.