A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Homeopathy and the Paradigm Problem

Posted by apgaylard on December 14, 2007

Once Thomas Kuhn applied the term ‘paradigm’ to science in his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” it quickly entered into common usage.  It’s often used as a way of describing the conservative nature of science; or the incompatibility of a new idea with orthodox science (new paradigm).  It’s also used to describe the way science can radically change over a short period of time (paradigm shift).

It struck a chord with groups who had been, by and large, excluded from being classified as part of “science”: psychoanalysts, sociologists and even economists.  If a discipline could lay claim to “…being dominated by a paradigm that generated sui generis puzzles and criteria for assessing solutions to them…” then it would seem, according to Kuhn’s philosophy, that it could really be a mature science.  Because of the outstanding successes of the natural sciences this categorisation would, by association, increase their status and access to public funds.  Even if a discipline were riven by inter-Nicene feuding between competing schools it could claim to be an emerging science in its pre-paradigm state; a reasonable candidate for research funding from the public purse no doubt.

This early trend has continued.  Now homeopaths and their apologists make similar claims.  They seek to enhance their status, image and access to public funds by claiming to be part of a ‘new paradigm’ for medicine.

Some are even so bold as to contend that their paradigm is a ready replacement for, or at least an amendment to, the prevailing pharmacological medical paradigm.

We shall see that Kuhn’s ideas moved on; unlike the reading of Kuhn by some who invoke his authority.  Therefore it is important to understand how his ideas developed.

This is not to say that Kuhn’s philosophy of science is necessarily correct; or a model for proper scientific conduct.  However, if anyone wishes to use Kuhn to bolster their position they must represent his views accurately.

So, what did Kuhn mean when he used the term paradigm?  In his 1969 postcript to the third edition he reflects on his early use of the term.  He says of his original text that it “…leaves no more obscure or important question…”, therefore it is best to reflect on the clarification that he provides (page numbers in parenthesis [ ] refer to the third edition, 1996. emphasis is mine):

Having isolated a particular community of specialists … one may usefully ask: What do its members share that accounts for the relative fullness of their professional communication and the relative unanimity of their professional judgements?  To that question my original text licenses the answer, a paradigm or set of paradigms.  But for this use … the term is inappropriate…”


It is unfortunate that Kuhn’s original use of the term is the one that persists in the popular imagination; even though he came to view this usage as inappropriate.

This, from a Kuhnian perspective, inappropriate usage can be seen today by those who would make a case for homeopathy being part of a new medical paradigm:

PARADIGM: A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline…”

Medicine and science” by newparadigmmedicine

To be fair, this has become a very common miss use of the term.  However, if one is invoking Kuhn’s authority then what he says must be decisive.  This revision by Kuhn, made as long ago as 1969, raises two very interesting questions:

  • What, then, did Kuhn decide he really meant by paradigm? 
  • If the “…entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by a given community…” [p.175] isn’t properly to be called a ‘paradigm’ then what is it?

Paradigm as Exemplar

Kuhn’s view was that science was mostly characterised by long periods where it developed incrementally.  He called this phase ‘normal science’.  For him it meant “…research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practise…” [p.10]

During periods of normal science scientists seek puzzle solutions within this framework.  It is the best of these that Kuhn came to see specifically as paradigms.

 “…the concrete puzzle-solutions which employed as models or examples can replace explicit rules as a basis for the remaining puzzles of normal science…”

[p. 175]

This paradigm definition returns to the primary meaning of the word: example, pattern; especially : an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

In the postscript Kuhn contends that “The paradigm as shared example is the central element of what I now take to be the most novel and least understood aspect of this book…” [p.187]

It is the presence of these exemplary solutions to scientific problems that identify a mature science.  In this scheme they are also a pre-requisite for normal puzzle-solving research: they define the challenging puzzles that will occupy researchers and provide along with clues to their solution.   Finally, for Kuhn, this type of paradigm guarantees that the truly clever practitioner will succeed.

Kuhn was aware that some may not be happy with this clarification: “Only those who have taken courage from observing that their own field (or school) has paradigms are likely to feel that something important is sacrificed by the change” [p.179]

The clear inference is that some fields of endeavour that claim to have paradigm(s) because they constitute a community that shares “assumptions, concepts, values, and practices” may not actually have these concrete shared examples.  They may lose the comfort of being able to justify having paradigm(s) at all.

So what is this shared intellectual framework if it is not a paradigm?

The Disciplinary Matrix

Kuhn re-defines this general framework as a disciplinary matrix: “…‘disciplinary because it refers to the common possession of the practitioners of a particular discipline; ‘matrix’ because it is composed of ordered elements…” [p.182]

The main components of this replacement term are suggested to be:

  1. Symbolic generalisations
  2. Beliefs in particular models
  3. Values
  4. Paradigms

Several of these components raise relevant and interesting issues.

Symbolic generalisations are defined by Kuhn as “…those expressions, deployed without question or dissent by group members, which can readily be cast in a logical form like (x)(y)(z)f(x, y, z)…” [p.182]

The text then provides the well known formulae f=ma (Newton’s second law) and I=V/R (Ohm’s law) as examples.  Why is the availability of such generalisations important?

“…If it were not for the acceptance of expressions like these, there would be no points at which group members could attach the powerful techniques of logical and mathematical manipulation in their puzzle-solving enterprise…normal science can proceed with few such expressions, the power of a science seems quite literally to increase with the number of symbolic generalisations its practitioners have at their disposal…” [p.183]

It’s instructive to ask at this point how many such generalisations of this type can homeopathy claim; or ‘alternative medicine’ as a whole for that matter.

The belief in particular models, for Kuhn, also provides an important function.  These include supplying the group with permissible metaphors and analogies thus helping to determine acceptable explanations and puzzle-solutions.  They also aid the determination of the “…roster of unsolved puzzles and in the evaluation of the importance of each…” [p.184]

Kuhn notes that scientific communities usually share models; but he suggests that this is not necessarily required.

Values are next in Kuhn’s list.  He sees these as being more widely shared than the two previous elements in the disciplinary matrix, providing a “…sense of community to natural scientists as a whole…” [p.184]

Their importance comes to the fore when a community must identify a crisis or “…choose between incompatible ways of practising their discipline…”  If the possibility of a shift to a putative homeopathic disciplinary matrix were to be considered, for instance, the shared scientific values would be of central importance.  What are they?

Well, nothing that would surprise a scientist: predictions should be accurate and preferably quantitative; any permissible margin of error should be constant for a given field.

When whole theories are to be evaluated the key values are the permission of puzzle formulation and solution.  Kuhn also prefers that theories are chosen under the guidance of the values of simplicity, self-consistency, plausibility and compatibility.

This scheme allows for those who share these values to apply (and weight) them differently.  However Kuhn does state that “…Judgements of accuracy are relatively…stable from one time to another and from one member to another in a particular group…” [p.185]

At this point Kuhn comes as close as he ever does to providing a demarcation criterion that would separate science from non-science when he opines, of values, that “…commitment to them is both deep and constitutive of science…” [p.185]

Does the allowance for variability in their application open the door for subjectivity and irrationality in theory choice?  Let’s allow Kuhn to provide a rebuttal: “…shared values can be important determinants of group behaviour even though the members of the group do not apply them all in the same way…” [p.186]

An excellent summary of Kuhn’s real position is “…Kuhn supposes that individual differences are normally distributed and that a judgment corresponding to the mean of the distribution will also correspond to the judgment that would, hypothetically, be demanded by the rules of scientific method, as traditionally conceived…”

This approach also provides an explanation for disagreements between “rational men“: different application, or weighting of, of shared values.

Finally Kuhn focuses on paradigms as the key element of a disciplinary matrix.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a thought-provoking summary of the role played by paradigms in the development, and the emergence, of a mature science.

“…Exemplary instances of science are typically to be found in books and papers, and so Kuhn often also describes great texts as paradigms…Such texts contain not only the key theories and laws, but-and this is what makes them paradigms-the applications of those theories in the solution of important problems, along with the new experimental or mathematical… employed in those applications.

…The claim that the consensus of a disciplinary matrix is primarily agreement on paradigms-as-exemplars is intended to explain the nature of normal science and the process of crisis, revolution, and renewal of normal science. It also explains the birth of a mature science. …This widespread consensus now permits agreement on fundamentals…The successful puzzle-solution, now a paradigm puzzle-solution, will not solve all problems. Indeed, it will probably raise new puzzles…Generating new puzzles is one thing that the paradigm puzzle-solution does; helping solve them is another…And since the paradigm puzzle-solution is accepted as a great achievement, these very similar puzzle-solutions will be accepted as successful solutions also. This is why Kuhn uses the terms ‘exemplar‘ and ‘paradigm‘. For the novel puzzle-solution which crystallizes consensus is regarded and used as a model of exemplary science. In the research tradition it inaugurates, a paradigm-as-exemplar fulfils three functions: (i) it suggests new puzzles; (ii) it suggests approaches to solving those puzzles; (iii) it is the standard by which the quality of a proposed puzzle-solution can be measured…In each case it is similarity to the exemplar that is the scientists’ guide…”

For Kuhn, the lack of this sort of paradigm indicates an immature science.  Conversely, consensus is not possible in a field with competing schools.  Where there is no agreement on theories, procedures or metaphysical presuppositions there is no paradigm.

Where does Homeopathy Stand?

This review of Kuhn poses some interesting questions for those who would invoke him in support of homeopathy.  It is clear that claiming to be part of a ‘new paradigm’ requires substantial justification.

This must include satisfying answers to the following questions:

  • What symbolic generalisations does homeopathy possess?
  • What models are shared by the community as a whole?

Does the homeopathic community really share a deep commitment to the values of Kuhnian science?  In particular:

  • How is the predictive accuracy of homeopathic theory assessed and what is the agreed margin of error?
  • How is the preference for quantitative predictions over the qualitative expressed?
  • Is the homeopathic theory of disease and cure really the most simple?
  • Is homeopathic theory self-consistent?
  • How important is the plausibility of homeopathy to homeopaths?
  • How compatible is homeopathic theory with other scientific theories?

Finally the key question, from a Kuhnian perspective:  What are the concrete exemplars (paradigms) of good science that the whole field refers to?

Given the number of different schools in the field of homeopathy it looks like they have no paradigms at all

Anyway, I have decided to leave these, for now, as open questions to those who appeal to Kuhn to justify their position. 

If homeopaths and their apologists really think that they are part of a new ‘paradigm’ (they should really be calling it a disciplinary matrix) for medicine then they really need to address these questions in a thoughtful and serious manner.

It is no easy path to invoke Kuhn.  His philosophy does not open the door to irrationality, theory choice by whim or an ‘anything goes’ relativism.

He also has interesting things to say on the characteristics of scientific communities, the relationship between normal science and anomaly, as well as the thorny topic of incommensurability.  I’ll cover these will be in subsequent posts.

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