28 March 2007

Underwear, Peasants, and Paradigms

Underwear saved the lives of peasants in the 1700's.

Innovations in the early day of the industrial revolution made underwear and changes of clothes affordable. Prior to that, clothing that lie next to the skin fostered bacteria and infection and early death. Some time later, fashion became, er, fashionable and people began to buy clothes simply to stay current rather than because their clothes were hopelessly soiled, worn or outgrown.

It is considerably harder to change minds than clothing. Thomas Kuhn's often cited and occasionally read book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions popularized the notion of paradigm. He argued that a particular worldview, or paradigm, does two things. One, it makes sense of the world by ordering data and experiences into comprehensible patterns. Two, it filters out what doesn't fit into the pattern, what doesn't support the paradigm. (At any given instance, our senses are exposed to millions of bits of data; our consciousness can process only about 40 bits per second.) Thus, the paradigm we need to make sense of reality also filters out reality. One of the first jobs of a paradigm is to defend itself from attack.

Kuhn points to various examples of paradigm filters throughout history. Scientists expecting planetary orbits to be perfectly circular threw out data that deviated from that, seeing it as an error or anomaly. Their failure to clearly see the data meant that they missed the elliptical nature of orbits which meant that they missed the opportunity to develop a theory of gravity. The way that they made sense of the world kept them from sensing the world.

Radically new theories generally get accepted only by later generations. The Copernican Revolution actually took a century to be accepted. The germ theory was discarded by Pasteur's contemporaries and only accepted by the next generation, provoking the quip, "Science proceeds by the death of scientists."

A great deal of the progress of the 20th century came from solving problems of information. From semiotics and algorithms to the transmission and storage of information, we've made amazing progress in information technology. Yet new information does not automatically create a new paradigm.

There is a difference between information that streams in to be sorted and filtered to support our existing paradigms and the acquisition of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom that might transform our paradigms. We've mastered the first and have, as near as I can tell, not even bothered to define the latter as a challenge worth pursuing.

I'm sure that the medieval masses didn't think any more about changing underwear than today's masses think about changing paradigms. Yet fluency with paradigms might do as much for our quality of life as information technology did for the last century or textile manufacturing did for the 18th century.

If history teaches us nothing else, it is that paradigms are like underwear; no matter how comfortable they first seem, they eventually need changing. Maybe it's time to make paradigm shifts fashionable.


exskindiver said...

due to the weltanschauung of visible panty lines, the thong was invented. in social science, the term is used to describe the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual (presumably a male) perceived reality (the lines) and influenced women to respond to that perception. am still waiting for this paradigm to shift.

Life Hiker said...

I don't think paradigms get changed in an intentional way. They get changed when people face new circumstances and are forced to adjust, or when people are given new information and an open system where it can be processed and acted upon.

Most people don't currently pay much attention to their energy use or their own contribution to global warming, but if or when the impacts of global warming become ominous, that paradigm will change voluntarily.

Paradigm change in the world of ideas is far easier now than in previous eras. One reason is that so many "experts" on many topics have had to change their minds publically as new information became available.

Remember when doctors gave athletes salt tablets before workouts? When an expert said the entire world would need less than 100 computers? When an alcoholic drink every day was bad for you? People have gotten used to the idea that new information should change the way they view the world and the way they act. They change paradigms without even recognizing that they have changed.

That said, there's no doubt that even in this more enlightened age there are those whose mission in life is to block information and change. Conservatives, in the traditional definition, are those who like things the way they are or even wish to return to some glorified view of a previous time. (Maybe Rush Limbaugh doesn't wear underwear!)

In this age, we need to have leadership that embraces new information and challenges us to openly debate what it means rather than telling us what it means.

This year two conservative Jewish seminaries admitted openly gay and lesbian people. Those decisions were based on information that was openly debated - information that apparently took precedence over teachings that are more than 2,000 years old. Love it!

Ron Davison said...

I should have run this posting by you first: "paradigms and panty lines" sounds like something that would attract more readers. And that's an hilarious example of how the way we see the world changes our behavior. Very clever way to tie it all together into an arresting image, er, metaphor, I mean.

It would be interesting to chronicle the evolution of beliefs. I think that the average person probably does change her mind far more than she realizes. Imagine taking an inventory of beliefs every couple of years and seeing how they change. Now you're making me wonder if the posting ought not to have been about how we've become blind to paradigm shifts whereas we used to be blind to paradigms (he said, scratching his head, wondering even as he wrote it whether this new idea made a great deal of sense or absolutely no sense).

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of Galbraith's Law:

"Given the choice between changing one''s mind or proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof."

Ron Davison said...

Perfect quote. I should have begun with that. Thanks!

ThomasLB said...

Copernicus and Pastuer only had theories. If schools are going to teach these theories to children, then I demand that alternate theories also be taught.

Teach all paradigms, and let children make up their own minds.

Anonymous said...

Might I suggest that teaching students how to recognize the difference between a theory and a fact, and teaching them how to evaluate the validity of any given theory so they can continually develop and revise their own paradigms, is far more important to our students' future success in the world than any number of current paradigms we might choose to teach them today.

Sign me,
A "process" futurist