Doing the Paradigm Shift

Way back when, in the Wonderland that is LA, I had a roommate? Buddy? who was smart, and goofy and intense and funny. He wrote a song “doing the paradigm shift”, which I think he sang for us once, possibly accompanying himself on his Stick. It was rather clever, but the only thing I remember from it is the title.

The discussions on whether or not psychology is a science has prompted a lot of tweets on Paradigm Shifts and Kuhn and the use of the term, especially from Keith Laws. He linked in this 5-part New York Times series about Kuhn and sharp glass ashtrays written by Errol Morris, a former student. It is quite a read, and bears repeat reading. I read the first part when it first was published in 2011. Now that I have read all of it, I think I may even subject my next batch of theory of science students to it.

I haven’t read Kuhn’s original, well, yet. Turns out you can get it on Audible. When I teach, I do spend some time trying to make his ideas clear – although they are derived ideas, all from Bem & deJong. The narrative arc in their book (or, at least the narrative arc that I extract from it) seem to culminate with Kuhn, as the final, overwhelming evidence that there will be no clear demarcation criterion, no algorithm with which to separate the science from the pseudoscience a priori. There will always be cases where you can’t tell. There will always be cases of pseudoscience mimicking as science. And science that will turn out to be, well, on par with pseudoscience.

Kuhn also emphasizes how important place in history, and the social surroundings are forces shaping research. (He wasn’t the first) Bem and deJong tries to unpack this, as the new new idea at the time. I think it is an important idea to keep in mind, to refrain from being seduced into too much certainty, and belief that science is uninfluenced and untainted by the matrix in which it exists. Then again, I’ve been in theory of science seminars with students in the clinical program where they were so relativistic that I once dropped my note-pad just to remind them that not everything floats. There are limits. Like gravity. Which, of course, is also relative, (I do follow the canadian space station commander on twitter), but when you bring up relativity it has to be relative to what, not anything goes.

It is a tension going through Bem & deJong, which I gather has gone through Philosophy, between the “things are out there to be discovered” and “it is all in our head/socially constructed”. Assuming, and trying to find absolute certainty about the world as it is out there – discovering cracks, and then fleeing into Plato’s cave, or floating into something relative because there is no absolute certainty. Bem & deJong are very explicit about that they don’t think you should go there, into the anything goes. It just is not the answer to uncertainty. But, I can feel the temptation. It is like there are two attractor points and an unstable saddle point in between – hard to balance at. Perhaps. It may be an empirical question.

I also like that Kuhn (in Bem & DeJongs version) emphasize the importance of the tacit knowledge. The stuff you get trained into in the lab and seminars and writing and reviews- the craft of the science, which you work on mastering, but which may not be so explicit. The second half of the theory of science course is really the practice of science – science as a craft. Starting with laboratory boot-camp – whole days doing hands-on work, trying on the different – dare I say – paradigms within the disciplines represented at our department. This is followed by a first short project. This time, I will have them document their work – rather than trying to turn their poster into a written paper. I don’t want product, I want process.

I always bring up science as a craft, because my encounter with it as a craft was so revealing. I began my studies at a junior college. Great teachers, no ongoing research to participate in. The first time I actually did an experiment was a eye-opening, in a not entirely positive way. I wondered, how the hell do they read out those things from THIS? The textbooks tells the findings so categorically – again. A narrative of how it is, not of how it varies. I later experienced having both of my advisers away on long sabbaticals. At one point, I had run an experiment with weird results. At a brief visit from my adviser she noticed that one of the display intervals – I can’t recall which one – was way too short. The kind of thing experience teaches you, and that it is easier and faster to learn with mentors around. It also never makes it into papers. Not even papers that pushes towards overly honest methods.

Learning the craft at the hands of masters can go wrong, too, of course. At the Brussels symposium this spring, the representative from the Levelt report expressed that the training seemed chocking at times, having talked to junior researchers saying that throwing out data from half of the participants was just normal. I’m not sure Kuhn brings that up, how the practice also can become corrupted and slack, with real consequences for the science.

In the Ashtray series Errol Morris brings up the notion of incommensurability. Which, before reading that, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about, just, kind of accepting the metaphor of the duck/rabbit or what ever of those double illusions that artists and psychologists are fond of (I found another one to show my class) that Kuhn uses as his illustration. But, as Morris brings up, it is not like you cannot see the other once you have seen the first. You can be well aware of that it is two different ways of seeing the same thing and almost deliberately flipping between them. In fact (I think) researchers have looked at timing of the flips of the necker cube. Kuhn seems to mean that this is not possible. When I looked up Paradigm on (whispering blushing) wikipedia (oh, it has gotten A LOT better – but of course I can’t find it now), they claimed that this incommensurability actually could be experienced, and cited some story by rizzolati and mirror-neurons, but to my take that was just a regular that it is hard to reconstruct what led up to anything, and what you were thinking. Isn’t that a saying? What was I thinking? Well, usually about more mundane experiences like that fleeting crush that now seems incomprehensible.

Morris does such an interesting dive into the word, the origin of incommensurability (pythagoras, square roots, numbers who cannot be expressed rationally, and mythologies and stories that they evidently never tell schoolchildren in Sweden, but apparently do in the US, because I had not heard of this). In the end, I get a feeling, perhaps not even Kuhn knew what he wanted to convey. And, I don’t think we cannot see across from one way of thinking to another. Not that it is necessarily always easy, but not impossible.

The crush on paradimgs and paradigm shifts – at least the terms – seem to endure. The twitter stream from a couple of days ago turned up increasingly silly uses of paradigm shifts in titles, prompting Keith Laws to say if the title says “Paradigm Shift”, it most certainly isn’t. I wanted to reply “I feel verklempt. Tawk amongst yourselves. I give you a topic. “paradigm shift” is neither a “paradigm” nor a “shift”. Discuss.” (Well, now I did). Shortly after that I saw an tweet about some issue or symposium in clinical psychology announcing a “paradigm shift”.

Perhaps my goal should be to teach student to avoid putting “paradigm shift” in their titles, and disabuse them of the notion that they will know a scientific revolution as it happens – if they really happen. But, then, in B &dJ version, Kuhn doesn’t seem terribly sexy and alluring, so this may be a generational thing. New words will be found for when one believes something will dramatically change the shape of things to come.

There is one way in which I will teach my students to use paradigm – one I learned from training also. Mainly it means a specific research method. For example, the double factorial paradigm, put together, modeled and thoroughly researched by my old advisor Jim Townsend and his academic offspring (I had some plan on using it – may still do). It is highly concretee – the only thing that it doesn’t specify is the particular stimuli you use. In essence, you have wto factors that you know influence processing – it could be a set of eyes and a mouth – and, you vary them on two levels; absence/presence. Happy/neutral. You create all possible stimuli that you can (may not be that many), and present them to your participant at ridiculously fast exposure times. I participated in one where the exposure time was 70 ms, and I started actually seeing things in these gostly stimuli, mostly captain Picard, as they all resembled bald guys. (I was so bad at it, I couldn’t keep participating). My own research was similar using a search paradigm instead, where I showed faces for 100 ms. My poor participants did this for an hour at a time, returning day after day after day after day. It is really really really dull, but you have to pay attention. From this, you collect so many reaction times, that you can begin to create good RT distributions for each type of stimulus, and compare their survival and hazard functions, finding signatures of underlying mental processes. There are many more. I talk of paradigms, I talk about the particular method.

A model. A pattern, an good example. And that, Wikipedias etymology section tells me, is kinda what it means.

Doing the paradigm shift.

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About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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2 Responses to Doing the Paradigm Shift

  1. Hi Ase,
    I really like this post, thanks. I teach paradigms/shifts to my first year psychology students and it leads to a bit of a bizarre paradox in their learning – it is an Intro to Experimental Psych module and so I cover paradigms/Kuhn etc., by week 2/3 and at the basic level we cover it they get it absolutely fine. However, as soon as they start to take part in research a couple of weeks later they realise that the depth we have covered in the first couple of weeks is not enough to explain the myriad of topics/methodologies that they are faced with. So (the good students at least) start to read more in order to understand more, and start to get into the in-depth arguments that then start to confuse them (they’re only first-years). This leads to the paradox that less knowledge leads to greater (or at least less confused) understanding, at least in the short term.
    Personally I don’t think we’ll recognise a shift when/if it comes but we’ll look back and say ‘ah, right…’

  2. asehelene says:

    Thanks!
    My students are masters students, rather ambitious, and many of them already have experience working in a lab. I think they felt rather pummeled by theory of science (OK, so it was the first time I did all the lectures, so it could have been that). One of them said she was going through the stages of grief… Now I’m listening to Kuhn’s book. I haven’t gotten far (I start as I go to bed, as I’ve found this helps with my insomnia – I can’t sleep, rather than surf the net, I’ll listen to a book – and it puts me to sleep. So many iterations). It is interesting, but, one thing that struck me first is that he got inspired by hanging out in social sciences – where things were a lot more messy than in physics. Also, that it seems rather peculiar to physics or very low level fundamental sciences, and not loopy weird shit like psychology. And, finally, that by now people have spent a lot of time with these ideas, that they don’t seem so peculiar to me. No need to run off into extreme relativism.
    Science is a strange thing….

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