vilayanur_ramachandran's picture
Neuroscientist; Professor & Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, UC, San Diego; Author, The Tell-Tale Brain
Chunks With Handles

Do you need language—including words—for sophisticated thinking or do they merely facilitate thought? This question goes back to a debate between two Victorian scientists Max Mueller and Francis Galton.

A word that has made it into the common vocabulary of both science and pop culture is "paradigm" (and the converse "anomaly") having been introduced by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn. It is now widely used and misused both in science and in other disciplines almost to the point where the original meaning is starting to be diluted. (This often happens to "memes" of human language and culture, which don't enjoy the lawful, particulate transmission of genes.) The word "paradigm" is now often used inappropriately—especially in the US—to mean any experimental procedure such as "the Stroop paradigm" or "a reaction time paradigm" or "fMR paradigm."

However, its appropriate use has shaped our culture in significant ways; even influencing the way scientists work and think. A more prevalent associated word is "skepticism," originating from the name of a Greek school of philosophy. This is used even more frequently and loosely than "anomaly" and "paradigm shift."

One can speak of reigning paradigms; what Kuhn calls normal science—what I cynically refer to as a "mutual admiration club trapped in a cul-de-sac of specialization." The club usually has its Pope(s), hierarchical priesthood, acolytes and a set of guiding assumptions and accepted norms that are zealously guarded almost with religious fervor. (They also fund each other and review each other’s papers and grants and give each other awards.)

This isn't entirely useless; its called "normal science" that grows by progressive accretion, employing the bricklayers rather than architects of science. If a new experimental observation (e.g., bacterial transformation; ulcers cured by antibiotics) threatens to topple the edifice, its called an anomaly and the typical reaction of those who practice normal science is to ignore it or brush it under the carpet—a form of psychological denial surprisingly common among my colleagues.

This is not an unhealthy reaction since most anomalies turn out to be false alarms; the baseline probability of their survival as real anomalies is small and whole careers have been wasted pursuing them (think "poly water" and cold fusion"). Yet even such false anomalies serve the useful purpose of jolting scientists from their slumber by calling into question the basic axioms that drive their particular area of science. Conformist science feels cozy given the gregarious nature of humans and anomalies force periodic reality checks even if the anomaly turns out to be flawed.

More important, though, are genuine anomalies that emerge every now and then, legitimately challenging the status quo, forcing paradigm shifts and leading to scientific revolutions. Conversely, premature skepticism toward anomalies can lead to stagnation of science. One needs to be skeptical of anomalies but equally skeptical of the status quo if science is to progress.

I see an analogy between the process of science and of evolution by natural selection. For evolution, too, is characterized by periods of stasis (= normal science) punctuated by brief periods of accelerated change (= paradigm shifts) based on mutations (= anomalies), most of which are lethal (false theories), but some lead to the budding off of new species and phylogenetic trends (= paradigm shifts).

Since most anomalies are false alarms (spoon bending, telepathy, homeopathy) one can waste a lifetime pursuing them. So how does one decide which anomalies to invest in? Obviously one can do so by trial and error but that can be tedious and time consuming.

Let's take four well-known examples: (1) continental drift; (2) bacterial transformation; (3) cold fusion; (4) telepathy. All of these were anomalies when first discovered because they didn't fit the big picture of normal science at that time. The evidence that all the continents broke off and drifted away from a giant super-continent was staring at peoples faces—as Wagener noted in the early 20th century. (The coastlines coincided almost perfectly; certain fossils found on the east coast of Brazil were exactly the same as the ones on the west coast of Africa, etc.) Yet it took fifty years for he idea to be accepted by the skeptics.

The second anomaly (2)—observed a decade before DNA and the genetic code—was that if you incubate one species of bacterium (pneumococcus A) with another species in a test tube (Pneumococcus B), then bacterium A becomes transformed into B! (Even the DNA—rich juice from B will suffice—leading Avery to suspect that heredity might have a chemical basis.) Others replicated this. It was almost like saying put a pig and donkey into a room and two pigs emerge—yet the discovery was largely ignored for a dozen years. Until Watson and Crick pointed out the mechanism of transformation. The third anomaly—telepathy—is almost certainly a false alarm.

You will see a general rule of thumb emerging here. Anomalies (1) and (2) were not ignored because of lack of empirical evidence. Even a school child can see the fit between continental coastlines or similarity of fossils. It was ignored solely because it didn't fit the big picture—the notion of terra firma or a solid, immovable earth—and there was no conceivable mechanism that would allow continents to drift (until plate tectonics was discovered). Likewise, (2) was repeatedly confirmed but ignored because it challenged the fundamental doctrine of biology—the stability of species. But notice that the third (telepathy) was rejected for two reasons; first, it didn't fit the big picture and second because it was hard to replicate.

This gives us the recipe we are looking for; focus on anomalies that have survived repeated attempts to disprove experimentally, but are ignored by the establishment solely because you cant think of a mechanism. But don't waste time on ones that have not been empirically confirmed despite repeated attempts (or the effect becomes smaller with each attempt—a red flag!).

"Paradigm" and "paradigm shift" have now migrated from science into pop culture (not always with good results) and I suspect many other words and phrases will follow suit—thereby enriching our intellectual and conceptual vocabulary and day-to-day thinking.

Indeed, words themselves are paradigms or stable "species" of sorts that evolve gradually with progressively accumulating penumbras of meaning, or sometimes mutate into new words to denote new concepts. These can then consolidate into chunks with "handles" (names) for juggling ideas around generating novel combinations. As a behavioral neurologist I am tempted to suggest that such crystallization of words and juggling them is unique to humans and it occurs in brain areas in and near the left TPO (temporal-parietal-occipital junction). But that's pure speculation.