As a Christian the most influential book in my life is the Holy Bible. Nothing else comes close. But if I were to name the second most influential book I have read, then my inclination is to say The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I read it in graduate school, and it shook my world. I think every graduate student in the sciences needs to read this book.
For those of you not familiar with this book, Kuhn looks at the very nature of science. He comes to the conclusion that most of the time science works within some type of conceptual paradigm. This paradigm determines what the important questions are and what the answers will be. We do not think of such predetermination when we think of science. We think of men and women searching for truth no matter where it lies. But that is not Kuhn’s conclusion. Rather scientists are constrained by the paradigm in their community and work to uphold the dictates of that paradigm.
If this is the case, then how does science advance? How do we get new scientific understandings? Eventually the paradigm, which developed due to incomplete knowledge is found to be insufficient for answering the scientific questions of the day. The well-established members of science continue to hold on to the old paradigm, but many of the younger scientists or those outside the mainstream continue to challenge that paradigm. Eventually there is a revolution, and the old paradigm falls. Scientists search for a new paradigm. It is only in this search, it is only in the revolution, that we can advance science beyond old understandings.
But soon scientists once again begin to coalesce, with incomplete knowledge, around a new paradigm. New defenders of that paradigm rise up and that new paradigm constrains the questions one can ask and predetermines what those answers will be. The cycle continues, and the common state of science is one of paradigm defending, rather than paradigm challenging.
Kuhn wrote about the hard sciences. But I saw this process occurring quite readily in the social sciences. I saw that there were questions that could not be asked and certain answers were forced onto the allowable questions. In graduate school, I did not come from the same social background as other sociologists. In addition to being a Christian, I came from a lower SES background and went to high school in the South. Perhaps it was this different social origin that led me to question many of the taken for granted assumptions made by social scientists. Kuhn’s work perfectly captured my experience of being an ideological outsider who looks at the current paradigm and realizes that often the emperor has no clothes.
I remember one particular course where this all crystalized for me. It was a course on early 20th century feminism. I asked the professor about her conclusions. I asked her whether she came to these conclusions about sexism in the formation of American sociology as a result of her examination of her data or whether she had the conclusions first and then looked for the evidence. To my surprise she admitted that the latter was true. It was evidence to me that science usually works in a paradigm that predetermines the acceptable findings.
This is not a critique of science. I am a scientist, and I love discovering knowledge. But I realize that science works in a community, and that community often prescribes rules that prevent us from having an open search for the truth. It is not anti-science to realize this limitation of science. Such realizations help us to be careful about reading more than we should into scientific findings. We would do well to look at the larger paradigms often driving results and ask critical questions about the scientific results arising from them.
And this bring me to the title of this blog – Shattering Paradigms. I have done research that reinforces the current paradigm of my field and research that challenges that paradigm. It is clearly easier to get published when one reinforces the paradigm. But at this stage of my life and career, I find it more fulfilling to challenge paradigms that work to constrain the search for truth and an accurate interpretation of reality (I am obviously not a post-modernist).
My challenge is to go beyond the paradigms when they are inadequate but to be open to the ideas within them when they are sound. Although I will strive to do both, I have a feeling that it is when I do the former that my writing will be most controversial. But I think God has given me the mentality to handle that controversy. In the coming weeks and months, we will see if that is true.
Now I know that some will say that as a Christian have I not fallen into a religious paradigm. Such an assertion is built on the assumption that I never intellectually challenged my Christian faith. I have done just that and did it at a time when I emotionally wanted to leave my faith. Since this is not an apologetics blog, I will not go into why I did not lose my faith at that difficult time. But, I am quite intellectually comfortable with my faith. The biggest hurdles to my faith are emotional and volitional – not intellectual.
Now, it is true that I hate political correctness. Political correctness is the ultimate paradigm that shuts done rational inquiry. But do not think that my willingness to shatter paradigms will be limited to progressive paradigms. In my last post I make it clear that I am neither consistently conservative nor progressive. When I was in college, and a young Christian, I often saw this sort of paradigm reinforcing thinking among conservative Christians. I was willing to challenge it at that point of my life, and I am still willing to challenge my conservative Christian brothers and sisters when their paradigms get in the way of understanding reality.
So in this blog you can expect me to challenge preconceived paradigms in academic and in political life. It is just the way my mind tends to think. It gets me into trouble, but I also think it helps me to gain insights I would otherwise overlook. I will not be contrarian just for the sake of being different. I have known people like that, and usually they are annoying. But when the time comes, I will also be willing to “shatter the paradigm” of my conservative Christian friends, or my political radical colleagues or traditionalist, or race scholars or whoever else may be locked in that paradigm.