“Ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility.”
Science historian James Gleick,
in his bestseller Chaos: The Making of a New Science,
We looked last time at neuro-cultural resistance to change, and asked what it takes to overcome it.
It takes a paradigm shift — which, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.” Physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn coined the term in a work that was itself a paradigm shift in how we view the dynamics of change.
“The Kuhn Cycle is a simple cycle of progress described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions… Kuhn challenged the world’s current conception of science, which was that it was a steady progression of the accumulation of new ideas. In a brilliant series of reviews of past major scientific advances, Kuhn showed this viewpoint was wrong. Science advanced the most by occasional revolutionary explosions of new knowledge, each revolution triggered by introduction of new ways of thought so large they must be called new paradigms. From Kuhn’s work came the popular use of terms like ‘paradigm,’ ‘paradigm shift,’ and ‘paradigm change.’”
Our cultural point of view determines what we see and don’t see, blinds us to new awareness and perspective. That’s why our visions of a “new normal” are often little more than uninspiring extrapolations of the past. Paradigm shifts offer something more compelling: they shock our consciousness so much that we never see things the same again; they stun us into abrupt about-faces. Without that, inertia keeps us moving in the direction we’re already going. If we even think of change, cognitive dissonance makes things uncomfortable, and if we go ahead with it anyway, things can get nasty in a hurry.
“People and systems resist change. They change only when forced to or when the change offers a strong advantage. If a person or system is biased toward its present paradigm, then a new paradigm is seen as inferior, even though it may be better. This bias can run so deep that two paradigms are incommensurate. They are incomparable because each side uses their own paradigm’s rules to judge the other paradigm. People talk past each other. Each side can ‘prove’ their paradigm is better.
“Writing in his chapter on The Resolution of Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn states that:
‘If there were but one set of scientific problems, one world within which to work on them, and one set of standards for their solution, paradigm competition might be settled more or less routinely by some process like counting the number of problems solved by each.
‘But in fact these conditions are never met. The proponents of competing paradigms are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case.
‘Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing his science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be solved by proofs.’”
What does it take to detonate a logjam-busting “revolutionary explosion of new knowledge”? Three possibilities:
The Element of Surprise.  We’re not talking “Oh that’s nice!” surprise. We’re talking blinding flash of inspiration surprise — a eureka moment, moment of truth, defining moment — that changes everything forever, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. In religious terms, this is St. Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road or St. Peter’s vision of extending the gospel to the gentiles. In those moments, both men became future makers, not future takers, embodying the view of another scientist and philosopher:
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
A New Generation. Without the element of surprise, paradigm shifts take a long time, if they happen at all.
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents
and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die,
and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
In religious terms, that’s why the Exodus generation had to die off in 40 years in the wilderness, leaving a new generation for whom Moses’ new paradigm was the only one they’d ever known.
Violence. Or, if the new paradigm’s champions can’t wait, they can resort to violence, brutality, persecution, war… the kinds of power-grabbing that have long polluted religion’s proselytizing legacy.
Surprise, death, violence… three ways to bring about a paradigm shift. That’s true in religion, science, or any other cultural institution.
More next time.
 Carl Richards, “There’s No Such Thing as the New Normal,” New York Times ( December 20, 2010).
 Carl Richards, op. cit.
 The quote has been ascribed to a lot of different people, including Peter Drucker and computer scientist Alan Kay. But according to the Quote Investigator, “The earliest evidence appeared in 1963 in the book ‘Inventing the Future’ written by Dennis Gabor who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in holography.”
 Max Planck, founder of quantum theory, in his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers.