We’re doing better and better

There is this notion called “paradigm shift”, which is one of the most abused science concepts. The term, coined by Kuhn in his famous book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, had emerged from an observation that science does not develop as a logical progression of incremental improvements. Rather, incremental improvements are followed by crises in which new data cannot be rationalized using the previously accumulated theories. These periods lead to “paradigm shifts” that refer to the advent of radically new concepts that are revolutionary in that they throw previous beliefs down the drain and offer something completely new. The newly born concepts clarify the data that used to be uninterpretable. When I say that the notion of a “paradigm shift” is misused, I am referring to the fact that rubidium carbonate’s dramatic improvement of a cross-coupling reaction (for example) is a decent discovery, but is nowhere near what should be considered a “paradigm shift”. Yet, I see this term used in some fairly trivial cases. I don’t know about you, but I think the real paradigm shift in chemistry occurred when van’t Hoff thought of tetrahedral carbon. The vast majority of other discoveries might be remarkably amazing, useful and interesting, but they are not to be confused with the original meaning intended by Kuhn.

But maybe I am wrong and we are really living in a world where truly remarkable things are happening more frequently than in the past… Let’s use Google. Here is a bit of research I just carried out. Take a look at a comparison in the use over time for the following two words: “ground-breaking” and “mediocre”. Evidently, things are getting better and better, so maybe I need to be careful with my criticism of the emerging new paradigms and give credit where it is due…

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4 thoughts on “We’re doing better and better

  1. Wide spread use of “paradigm shift” came from management theory mountebanks who are always on lookout for new catchy phrases. Do you remember “aligning team priorities” and “synergies”? It now feels so dated…

  2. Yes, that is true. Although the ones you mentioned are more or less purely managerial, whereas “paradigm shift” is actually an important science-related concept, albeit misused…

  3. And before Van’t Hoff’s paradigm shift was Avogadro’s molecule concept brought into the Karlsruhe convention by Cannizzaro; one of my favorite science history landmarks. In more recent times? If pressed I’d say the achievement by Bertrand’s group of turning a boron atom into a Lewis base but it hasn’t fully changed the prevailing views on Boron chemistry but rather found a very interesting, and elusive, counterexample; so no paradigm shift there.
    Great blog!

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