Paradigm Shifts

Thinking in terms of wicked problems forces us to deal with an often arcane topic—paradigm shifts.

In the fifty years since Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the term paradigm shift has entered the intellectual mainstream. As Kuhn saw it, scientists only reached sweeping new insights when they shed one way of analyzing the world and replaced it with a dramatically new one.

The same holds in the social sciences as well. One such example is the adoption and ratification of the United States Constitution after it abandoned the Articles of Confederation in 1787.

Paradigm shifts do not happen in one fell swoop. In the case of the Constitution, the new system incorporated elements of the old one, and, more importantly, it took decades before it was fully adopted and/or implemented. And, most constitutional experts would argue that it is still evolving

Paradigm shifts typically go through four overlapping phases:

  • Problems with the existing paradigm appear, but we start off by ignoring them in a process roughly akin to an addict’s denial.
  • As the number and severity of the problems grows, we can no longer deny they exist, but because we “know” the current paradigm is correct, we make the data fit its preconceptions, analyses, and predictions.
  • Eventually, someone develops an alternative paradigm or world view. Copernicus did that by creating a model that put the sun at the center of the solar system which, itself, was but a tiny part of a much larger universe.
  • Then, an intellectual battle takes place in which the defenders of the new paradigm have to convinced everyone else who counts of its superiority. That does not always happen.

It is hard to locate where we are now in that cycle, since some of us are farther along it than others. Many policy makers, for example, are in a state of denial because they are not willing to even consider another paradigm. Most of the so-called realists are in the second group because they assume that there is no alternative to institutions and practices that define power as one side’s ability to get the other to do what it otherwise wouldn’t do. Only a handful of us have begun sketching out an alternative paradigm, and all of them fall far short of being definitive. Thus, the struggle to gain support for any new paradigm has yet to begin.