Life as an Extreme Sport

Yet Another Person (Me) Wibbling About Kuhn, Paradigm Shifts, & Bioethics

Carl Elliott tweeted a link to a lovely retrospective/review of Thomas Kuhn’s absolutely essential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which as I noted on Twitter, in many ways sums up everything about my undergrad degree in the Comparative History of Ideas: if one is to understand Aristotelian science, one must know about the intellectual tradition within which Aristotle worked. A simple and elegant concept that completely revolutionized the way science — and the history of science — is taught.

Of course, it also dovetails with some other stuff I’ve been reading this week, and an idea I’ve been trying to work out. (Coming soon: talking about gun control because hey, we need more voices there!) Take a look, for example, at this week’s AAP/circumcision debate, the one that actually took down the Oxford servers this morning, so many people wanted to see what Practical Ethics had to say on the topic. As I mentioned in passing to Ananyo Bhattacharya (on Twitter), these conversations always contain so much more cultural baggage than anyone discusses; folks want to rely on science without looking at culture and history, which sets the scenario for endless debating around each other because even though the various “sides” of the debate are talking about the same subject, the language that they’re using to encode all the messages that they’re sending are extremely different.

And yet, it’s the top of the medical/science news cycle — and has been for a week. And this particular zombie horse will inevitably rise again and again for further kicking — why?

Iain Brassington makes some mention of it over on the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, and it ties back to Kuhn and the rabble rabble of potential paradigm shift: because it’s a sexy (okay, I realize the issue with using that to describe something about a penis, but look at it from a reporter point-of-view and don’t crucify me), generates simple snappy headlines, and plays in to the science news cycle, all of which generates the all-important click.

The problem is, at least within bioethics, is that we’re in that period of crisis of Kuhn’s cycle, where people are starting to act out against structural assumptions/dominant paradigm, but that the voice of “normal science” (or established bioethics/bioethicists, in this case) has been too loud. We’ve been seeing a critique of the shiny bioethics paradigm for years — the oldest one I can find it from 1986 (and I’m sure I’m just limited by my lack of university library access).

In the case of bioethics, the status quo is driven by more than just ideology — it’s driven by money. There’s a lot of money in the shiny, in biotechnology and stem cells and cloning and and and. These things are new and exciting and dramatic like a Hollywood movie — and if you play your cards right, you too can be on TV.

A few people have tried to force their perspective to becoming the expected revolutionary change in the field; they have (thankfully*) been unsuccessful. Which leaves us waiting for that something to tip us over into a new dominant paradigm, aware of the rabble rousers who are unhappily railing against the shiny tech money version of bioethics that dominates the field without having the out that, let’s be honest, the dominant paradigm of Kuhn’s work tells us that will happen.

All of which probably could have just been summed up as self-awareness is a bitch, but that’s a more interesting tweet than blog post, eh?

(* Why thankfully? A change in worldview for a field – the much abused “paradigm shift” – should be organic, not forced. Forced just plays in to the status quo of whomever has the power and ability to engineer the change.)