Changing Frameworks

24 March 2017

What is likely to result when, in the course of just five days, scientists recommend the formal declaration of the anthropocene epoch; the Pope decries the destruction of the environment as a sin; and the UK government announces a law to ban plastic microbeads from cosmetics by the end of 2017? A new paradigm of course!

The events of 29 August to 2 September 2016 should feel familiar to anyone au fait with the work of Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), a US physicist and philosopher of science whoese 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the progenitor of the vogueishness surrounding any mention of “paradigm shifts”. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions advanced a radical interpretation of how science functions. According to Kuhn, “normal science” operates as puzzle-solving within a set paradigm. However, as time passes anomalies begin to appear within this framework – puzzles that are insoluble. Once a sufficient number of these have accumulated, an intellectual crisis emerges until the paradigm itself is overthrown, leading to a new worldview free of the difficulties of the old. Scientists, liberated by this new framework, return to puzzle-solving with order restored. Key to Kuhn’s system is the notion that these paradigms are incommensurable: the new system is not objectively better than the former, but rather offers a route out of the anomalies of the old. When a puzzle is no longer solvable, the argument runs, we should simply start playing by a new set of rules.

Feel familiar? The anthropocene, a geological era defined by human intervention, has been discussed for decades. The effect of microbeads on marine environments (the UK releases 86 tonnes of microplastics per year into the environment from facial exfoliants alone) is similarly well-documented. The problems are known, but their solution is impossible against the current political, industrial and social backdrop. It’s high time for a paradigm shift. The institution of new frameworks within science, religion and law seems an encouraging place to start.