Some thoughts on science and paradigms

A while back I wrote a post about active vs. passive voice – which isn’t the most exciting topic on the surface, admittedly, but the comments and some of the Twitter conversations I had about this were.

Part of what ensued was a debate about ‘science being about the data’

Here are some comments on that topic:

I guess at the root, I disagree that science is about the data; scientists collect data in service of larger paradigms, which do not change based on the results of experimental testing.


But the passive voice disguises the agency of scientists – it makes it sound like the word of god – this was done, these results were seen. In a sense it’s a rhetorical trick, a sleight of hand, which makes us forget that human beings, with all their fallibility, biases and preconceptions, did those experiments, observed the results, even thought of the question to investigate in the first place. Science strives to be objective, but there’s always some subjectivity.

I would agree that there is some truth in these statements – taking the first statement scientists collect data in the service of larger paradigms
There is alot of truth in this: the majority of science is performed within the current paradigm – most of where we as scientists experiment is within the current framework, certainly – but there has to be a separation between the data themselves and the interpretation thereof which is not apparent in that statement. The data are the data, the interpretation is placed into a wider paradigm which it usually fits until it doesn’t (see Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – good book (link is a .pdf)).

Greater theories and hypotheses, the broader view of putting together alot of experimental data, are not always correct but they are not permanent laws, that is they are not immutable – Newton’s Laws are not absolute and in fact have been turned over, in part, by Quantum Mechanics, which will again probably be turned over by something else. All a scientific law essentially means is – There has never been an instance where we observed this not to happen

For instance whenever you drop something off the top of a big building, it falls to the ground (eventually). Full stop. When this stops happening, such as when things started to be observed that Newtonian science couldn’t explain, well then it will be time to adapt laws and theories again. This is one of the lovely things about science, it is indeed mutable and has a built in mechanism to adapt – which I think is something that is largely forgotten when discussing science in the media.

Paradigm shifts are also in reality gradual shifts, though they don’t always seem gradual on the surface, especially when you learn about them after the fact. This point has been made much more clearly by people other than myself, again by Thomas Kuhn in another of his books – The Copernican Revolution. In short astronomers, amateur and otherwise had been collecting more and more data on planetary movements trying harder and harder to get it to fit into the standard model – it didn’t work. So what happened? The ‘Copernican Revolution’ which was not a single Eureka moment, it was a body of scientists saying ‘hmm, that is funny, it doesn’t really work’ and eventually several of these thoughtful folks tried to put together alternatives – Copernicus didn’t live in a vacuum.

Now taking the second point on rhetorical tricks – do we really think that scientists are tricky, untrustworthy and trying to cover things up? I am sure that is not what is intended by this statement, but this is almost how it reads. Of course this does happen (climategate?) but maybe scientists are just trying to interpret their results in the best way they can? the data is still the data – which is biased by experimental set up – but this is why when you write a paper you explain your experimental set up.

Most of the time, its the interpretation of that data that can be a problem. And sometimes new data, discoveries, come to light and put everything on its head. Science is about taking a series of observables (or things you see happen – data) and trying to make some sense of them. This is not always straightforward, and I agree with the statement that scientists strive to be objective, but there is always some subjectivity – I think this is an important point, but is not the only point or really the focal point of science, you do always have to be aware of unconscious bias; but anything has subjectivity, its just the way of the world.

I just examined a student for her PhD, after her viva we had a discussion about what a PhD in a scientific subject is. I think it is easy to forget that you actually receive a Doctorate in Philosophy not a Doctorate in Science. This is an important distinction, though you may practice science and be a scientist, ideally part of receiving a PhD is about critical thinking, which means you aren’t a slave to your data but can actually think critically about you are doing and when the data you (or someone else) collect does or DOESN’T fit into the current paradigm. This is easier said than done, but it is a laudable, idealistic goal which I must admit I can only strive to achieve – I am after all human.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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One Response to Some thoughts on science and paradigms

  1. MGG says:

    Very nice post, I have shared it with some aspiring PhDs around me.

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