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The Birth of the Paradigm Shift

The idea that scientific advancement is not evolutionary is nothing new. But the late Thomas Kuhn was the first person to put it down on paper and mass distribute it.
July 18, 2013, 9:05pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By this point, we could almost file away paradigm shift away alongside other cheapened buzzers the likes of synergry and disruptive. But like all good, bad, and game-changing ideas--in this case, that scientific advancement is not evolutionary--this one came from someone: Thomas Kuhn.

Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher of science, kicked up quite the controversy over the paradigm shift when he introduced it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). You might say, ‘paradigm shift, controversial?!’ But yes, the idea was actually pretty wild for the mid-1900s, and Kuhn was criticized and ostracized before he went down in scientific history for his brilliance.

It's a lesson was been pounded into our skulls sometime during those middle or high school years we’d rather forget. Put simply, paradigm shift is the idea that a scientific revolution comes when we encounter phenomena that can’t be explained by the universally accepted paradigm. Instead, advancement is a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions” in which "one conceptual world view is replaced by another,” Kuhn wrote.

Just think of it as a change in one way of thinking to another in the development of society, like how the creation of the internet changed our world in unforeseeable ways forever. A requirement for a paradigm shift, at least when it was first discovered, is that the notion of scientific truth must be established by a consensus of the scientific community and cannot be guided by objective criteria.

Why did it take someone so long to put the pieces together and realize that change doesn’t always come in the form of a straight line? I don’t know. Everyday and probably every few minutes, some researcher gets a light bulb over her head, shining bright because of something incredible and life-altering just found that knocks out whatever theories and assumptions were made before it. It’s nothing new, but Kuhn was the first one to put it down on paper and mass distribute it.

As it turns out, today would have been Kuhn’s 91st birthday. In a moment of _synergistic disruption _across so much of our lives, it's a moment to reflect on one the late philosopher’s greatest contributions to our understanding of the world. And although it's disputed as to where Kuhn actually coined the term “paradigm shift,” his role in disseminating the idea, even if only to be questioned, is undeniable.

That’s why the American Chemical Society made the Thomas Kuhn Paradigm Shift Award in his honor. Presented to anyone who has conflicting views with mainstream scientific understanding, the award shows that Kuhn’s gifts to the scientific community didn’t stop at the paradigm shift, but he also encouraged people to question what we consider to be truth and explore those alarming thoughts we sometimes have. Who knows, the next crazy idea you have might be the cure to cancer. Or the next Interrotron.