Thursday, January 28, 2010
Haters of the word, paradigm, have Thomas Kuhn to blame. His seminal 1962 publication, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is a regular on all manner of Top 100 lists for books that rocked the world. In my line of work, you can’t browse a website for five seconds before being paradigmed to death.
My latest close encounter was an online book by Todd Finnerty PsyD on the fine points of Depressive Personality Disorder (see recent blog post). Dr Finnerty thoughtfully summarized Kuhn’s main points, which, together with Wikipedia and other sources, spares me from having reread Kuhn (which I did read way back in college).
Here’s the basics:
Forget about the quest for knowledge being an objective inquiry governed by scientists rationally sifting through the facts. That may be their intention, but in reality they are operating within their own particular conceptual frameworks (paradigms) that govern how they think. Thus, if you are living in an era where the ruling paradigm features the earth at the center of the universe, then your typical 15th century Polish heliocentric firebrand named Copernicus is going to come across as a raving lunatic (okay, make that solartic).
Ironically, says Kuhn, the 15th century scientific community, such as it was, was perfectly correct in rejecting Copernicus, as Ptolemy’s model of the universe still proved a superior predictor of observable planetary motion. Only later, with Galileo and others building on Copernicus, did Ptolemy (pictured here) and his world come crashing down.
During a period of normal scientific development, researchers are working off a shared set of general beliefs, which frees them up for working on specific problems. Anomalous findings either get dismissed or folded into the paradigm. But anomalies have a way of accumulating like unwanted snow. The old guard has a legitimate role as keepers of the paradigm, but history is not on their side.
According to Kuhn, the old and new paradigms are so different that they are “incommensurable.” In essence, there is no common ground by which a scientist working within a new paradigm can prove her point based on the assumptions of the old.
For an example of worlds in collision: At the 2004 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, I heard Jack Barchas MD of Cornell University and a pioneer in the field of how biochemistry and behavior interact, recount how as a young investigator an early mentor challenged one of his ideas on these grounds: “How is this justified in the writings of Freud?”
Not surprisingly, Freud soon became to psychiatry what Ptolemy became to astronomy. But was Freud getting a raw deal? At the following year’s APA, I heard Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel MD state:
“A major need of psychiatry in the future is to put the psychotherapeutic arm of psychiatry on the same solid biological footing as the pharmacological aspect of psychiatry."
Dr Kandel was very much moved by Kay Jamison who said if it wasn’t for lithium she would be dead, but that it was really psychotherapy that gave her a coherent view of her life, that allowed her to tie the various strings of her life together.
"We’re in a fantastic phase of psychiatric thought," Dr Kandel concluded. The biology of the mind is the central scientific challenge of the twenty-first century. Molecular genetics and molecular biology, he said, have given us insights that would have been inconceivable 20 or 30 years ago. These advances will revolutionize psychiatry, but hardly eliminate it. Instead, psychiatry will synthesize with molecular biology into what he describes as "the new science of the mind."
Paradigms, paradigms, paradigms.