The P-Word, Thomas Kuhn, and I

In a way, you can blame it on Thomas Kuhn. It was he who introduced too beautiful and brilliant a term in the early 1960s: paradigm shift. A term that writers of all sorts, particularly about business and information technology, have had no shame abusing since. Myself included. [I can’t help thinking that if the editors of Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had known that the term would be such a hit, they would have probably made it the title of the book.]

So I was reminded of my secret guilt about Kuhn’s term late in October, while attending the first conference for Arab science journalists, in Fez, Morocco. In the Q & A that followed a panel on “Finding Science Stories in the Arab World,” a man in the audience made a comment to this effect: “This sounds to me like all you [Arab science journalists] do is market or publicize Western science and Western paradigms. Unless the departure point in your work is an Arabic and Islamic paradigm of science, he added, your efforts amount to little.

The “P” word again!

Quick as ever with unsolicited opinions, I volunteered a response. I said that “Western science” was a problematic term to begin with. The conclusions of a paper in Nature are equally valid, and replicable, in China and Egypt, by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher. Science is, after all, culture-blind and verifiable. On the question of an Islamic paradigm for science, I believe I said that it was probably easier at this point in the development of Arabic journalism to train reporters than to produce scholars versed in philosophy of science. Then I sat down, content with my authoritative reply.

My contentment did not last long, though. First, several Muslim scholars have argued, fairly convincingly, that there is indeed a different Islamic paradigm of science. In Islam and Science, Muzaffar Iqbal writes that the Islamic view is that there is a unified human knowledge domain where knowledge of the worldly is tributary to knowledge of the divine. So we know God better, for instance, by investigating how trees grow or why dinosaurs disappeared. In other words, the secular-sacred dichotomy, deeply established in Western thought, may actually not have an equivalent in the Islamic worldview.

I’m not sure I completely agree with this, but I don’t know enough to suggest a counter-argument.

Second, to what extent do the paradigms we subscribe to (if unconsciously or unwittingly) affect our work and how we go about doing it? For example, I’ve written several articles about science initiatives in the Arab Gulf; would I have written them differently had I had a different, well, paradigm? But science policy features might not be a good test. How about when you are reporting on “hard science”? Will a reporter with the unified-knowledge paradigm approach a story about cloning differently from one who prefers for the secular and the sacred to stay separated?

Or is it that the whole talk about paradigms is nonsense, as Karl Popper would probably put it. Popper’s view of science was not that it developed according to paradigms that evolved over time. Rather, science was quite the same thing always. If it is falsifiable (or refutable — that is, can be proven wrong), it is science.

No doubt these are major questions. It is good to grapple with them — though I can’t say we must (for an excellent preview on these issues, please take a look at Lesson 5 of the online science journalism course). Still, I shall pay special attention to Popper’s ideas, at least as a red alert when I feel the urge to use the “P” word yet again.