Structure of Scientific Revolutions vs. The Black Swan (Journalism remix)

Structure of Scientific Revolutions CoverI’ve just finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the title, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term: “paradigm shift.”

I won’t pretend it was an easy to read. Written in a classic academic style, what is a fascinating topic and set of ideas struggles to shine. However, don’t hear me blaming the author for this… it is both that the book comes from another era, and that it springs from a cannon of academic writing that simply doesn’t seek to be as penetrable outside a certain community.

That said, I did enjoy it immensely. One reason is that I once again lucked out and ended up reading it at the same time as another book – Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s The Black Swan – that despite being on a different topics and written 45 years later, dovetails nicely.

blackswan-199x300Paradigm shifts are black swan events. They can be hard, if not impossible to predict. They can arise because of the appearance of a single unforeseen data point (a black swan in a world where all swans were previously believed to be white) and they overthrow systems that we have become overly, comfortably, complacent and reliant on. Finally, although paradigms shifts are rare, because they force us to see the world in an entirely new way they have a disproportional and possibly even unparalleled, impact.

I often like to refer to Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Both Taleb and Kuhn’s books play on this theme. For Taleb, our problem is that we can’t see or predict the changes in our world. We expect that we can predict them and that they’ll arrive in a nice orderly – or bell curve distributed – manner.

They don’t.

Despite the mental image we have of history (and our lives), history doesn’t crawl. It moves it fits and starts. Oscillating between long steady states and sudden change. We often believe the steady states will last forever, and when change comes we trivialize it and then fight it, until it becomes the new steady state, at which point, we come to believe it was always that way.

This is also Kuhn point. Look at how he sees paradigm shifts as being important for both the science and politics changes:

Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environmental that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by growing sense, again restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution…

…The parallel has, however, a second and more profound aspect upon which the significance of the first depends. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favour of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarization has occurred, political recourse fails. Because they differ about the institutional matrix with which political change is to be achieved and evaluated, because they acknowledge no supra-institutional framework for the adjudication of revolutionary difference, the parties to a revolutionary conflict must finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion, often including force. Though revolutions have had a vital role in the evolution of political institutions, that role depends upon their being partially extrapolitical or extrainstitutional events. (Kuhn, Pages 92-93 of the 3rd edition)

If you don’t think the world operates this way, just look as far as the news industry.

When Shirky says revolutions are times when “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” he is paraphrasing Kuhn. Journalism is already dividing into camps, those defending the old, and those seeking to figure out what the “new” will be.

But despite all the discussion, we are still very early on in the debate. How do I know? Because we haven’t even begun to shed the old paradigm? The entire debate about journalism, what it is, how it should be practiced and what makes it good or bad is still being largely being evaluated and adjudicated by the old matrix. When journalism finally gets saved I suspect it will be because it will be, in part, radically redefined – a redefinition affirmed and made possible by the establishment of some new institutions, organizations and/or processes. (That’s what my post on the death of journalist was seeking to do).

So yes, we’ve left the ridiculed phase (that lasted 20 years), but we are still early on in the violently oppose phase. All thos unhappy journalists are angry because they may be the midst of a paradigm shift, and that means much like Newtonian physicists confronting Einstein’s theory of relatively everything, absolutely everything they believed in, fought for, taught and lived. is probably going to get redefined and altered beyond recognition. It will still be there, but it will forever be understood differently.

That’s a scary thought. But it is fun one as well, filled with possibility. Which is why Kuhn and Taleb are fun to read together.

5 thoughts on “Structure of Scientific Revolutions vs. The Black Swan (Journalism remix)

  1. Conrad Barwa

    Hmmm, I didn't find Kuhn's book that hard, I thought it was very readable really and if you think that it is typical of academic prose then….you have spent far too long outside academia Dave LOL! SoSR is very concise and clear compared to a lot of what is wirtten on the philosophy of sicence and you don't need much knowledge of science or maths. I tried reading that book on Golder, Escher and Bach and got lost very quickly. You should read the volume of essays edited by Lakatos and Kuhn, it is very good.Re the deabte I think what is important about SoSR is that it shows what is important for such paradigm shifts to occur is not just ideological but material as well. It should and does reflect changes in the very concrete particular interests of different social groups and communities who are stakeholders in the process. This can lead you down an anaylsis of social and economic groups who struggle over the change process and determine its shape.The unsaid element in Kuhn is of course, that not every Scientific Revolution just like Political revolutions is successful and every successful one builds on the failed attempts of earlier generations (less true in science than in politics but still).

  2. david_a_eaves

    Hey Conrad – thanks for comment. You are definitely right that SoSR isn't as a bad as some academic prose, which can be completely impenetrable. In this case I wasn't saying that Kuhn was hard to understand, he just wasn't easy to read… the style is one that I just didn't find engaging, it never drew me in (and I love reading about science). I'll definitely check out the Lakatos and Kuhn volume of edited essays.

  3. Frank Hecker

    Another key point made by Kuhn (don't have time to find the exact quote right now) is that typically scientific revolutions triumph not by a mass “changing of minds” among existing scientists, but by those committed to the old paradigm dying or otherwise leaving the field. Thus too will it be with the revolution in journalism.

  4. godot10

    Paradigm shifts are in dialectic of black swan events.Paradigm shifts occur after a period when people continue to study deviations from the expected results and ask why. Paradigm shifts are a product of the pursuit of truth.Black swan events occur after a period when people ignore deviations from expected results and claim they don't matter. Black swan events are a product of the pursuit of ignorance.

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