Progress won or Paradigm lost?

(from the book's first chapter) Environmental enigmas such as global warming may pose too great a challenge for science as we know it. The worldwide climate change phenomenon has too many variables to be isolated in any laboratory simulation. These variables are constantly shifting, and therefore cannot serve for the verification of hypotheses in repeated experimentation. Climate instability cannot be simulated, even in the most powerful computers.

Along with the reactions of millions of new chemicals, and of billions of affected people, there are so many empirical factors to measure that scientific methods are unsuitable. This does not mean that current environmental studies are not scientific, it means that the scientific method is inadequate. In fact the presence of these anomalies points to the unreliability of the classic scientific method and suggests that a `paradigm shift' is due.

So, we lack a laboratory large enough to hold all the factors at play in man's effect on the environment. The next best thing is to observe how societies suffered as a result of overtaxing their ecologies in the past. That might answer the questions "what happened?" and "how did we get into this mess?" It will allow us to comprehend those things that laboratories and virtual scenarios cannot offer: a view of how we respond to man-made changes, and how we believe those processes began. This time-laboratory allows us to stand back and see just how paradoxical humans can be. In so doing one is prompted to question conventional beliefs about how the human mind is used. This historical approach also has in its favor the popular conviction that hindsight is twenty/twenty.

Why bring the mind into this? Because there is no satisfactory answer to the question that if the fully rational mind is an ideal instrument, why has it given us global warming, ozone holes and unsustainable societies? Or from another perspective the Bomb, the systematic extermination of humans, and apartheid?

A reverse look at human progress can provide some answers. Many of us are now familiar with the paradigm shift idea. Originally it expressed the forward-moving relationship between phases of development in science and society, which cannot easily be studied in isolation. Change becomes due when continued analysis of a phenomenon produces a large quantity of anomalies or exceptions to the rules. This collection of anomalies however, allows the rule to stand. Galileo called the process `saving the evidence.' Though the term paradigm shift is now overused, the concept is useful for tracing the phases of social and industrial development back through history.

A case in point would be the Copernican revolution. In 1543 Ptolemy's theory of a geocentric universe was overthrown by Copernicus' precise investigations, as well as those of Kepler and Newton, showing the elliptical motion of the Earth and other planets around the sun. Thus Ptolemy's system was rendered obsolete, and so was the prevailing faith in Aristotle's view of the reasoning human mind as the ideal interpreter of information from the senses. The power of papacy was also diminished, since it considered the earth to be the center of the universe with the Pope as God's vicar on earth. Humankind's most cherished beliefs about earth's place at the center of the planetary system proved to be no match for precise measurement of astronomical phenomena.

What preceded the Copernican revolution? Indeed, visionary medieval empiricist Friar Roger Bacon had been warning the Church against rejecting the new empiricism. One could argue that if the Church of Rome had listened to the Friar's warnings it might not have lost its place at the center of peoples' hearts and minds. Instead it followed the spiritual determinism of men like Friar Duns Scotus. Thus, when the sun replaced the earth as the center of the known universe, science became the new religion. With this hindsight and historical data we can establish how and why the Church failed in the late Middle Ages to shift paradigms and sustain its development, in the face of good advice. Science is now the new Faith, and like the medieval church does not consider fallibility one of its key properties. Given the awesome power that science and technology command, it would surely be better for change to come from within. Moreover, the complete subjugation of science to irrational external forces can happen, as Hitler's Third Reich demonstrated.

In our times, analytic tools fail to explain why humans cannot live on earth without damaging it. Also unexplained is why the best efforts of industrialized nations do not succeed in producing broad economic security. Our paradigm—the one that places unquestioning faith in science—is beginning to produce a stream of anomalies showing that the scientific system is as fallible as Ptolemy's. Problems are often tackled by specialists generating mountains of analytic data, but this does not dislodge our fundamental belief that the scientific way is the only way. Even creationists must present their anti-evolutionary teachings in conformity with the scientific method, or lose credibility. As we will see, obsessive analysis and insecurity go hand in hand, often unwittingly. By retracing our historic paradigms instead of gathering more analytic data, we can pay attention to identifying the seeds of failure.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1970

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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)