The Structure of Social Revolutions

This post is about science. (Science isn’t what you think it is.)

This post is about society. (Society isn’t what you think it is, either.)

This post is about revolution.

Science

What is science? We’re taught that science is an accumulation of knowledge about the world. Scientific theories evolve over time to account for new knowledge gained by observation and experiment. We’re taught that scientific progress looks kind of like this:

science is a line

This is a complete and total lie.

You know the old adage that the winners write the history books? In science, the winners write the science textbooks.

What scientific “progress” actually looks like is more like this:

science is actually really messy and violent.

It’s not a straight line at all, it’s a complex tree of theories. Revolutions spatter it all over the place — each crisis point where a theory splits into many — and scientists in opposing camps attack each other vehemently until one theory wins out over the others. Sure, we hear about a couple of scientific revolutionaries, like Galileo and Einstein, but what the science textbooks don’t tell you is that the entire history of science is painted red by crisis and revolution.

Theories that don’t fit into the current scientific paradigm meet one of two fates. One, they’re whitewashed from next year’s science textbooks due to irrelevance. The dead-end branches are pruned.

history is whitewashed to appear consistent.

Two, they’re reframed and “translated” into the current scientific paradigm so that it looks like the people in the past were really doing modern science all along, just in an uninformed way. The bendy-wendy arrow is retroactively straightened out so it looks like it was going that direction the whole time.

science is a fake line

Paradigm

There’s got to be a pretty powerful force out there to do all this whitewashing, dead-end pruning, and arrow-straightening, right? There sure is, and its name is paradigm.

A scientific paradigm is the set of unwritten rules that determine what is and is not acceptable scientific research. For example, in the current Western scientific paradigm, research into physics or biology gets a thumbs-up, but research into chi or telepathy gets a thumbs-down.

The scientific paradigm is demanding and unforgiving. To practice science at all, you must practice it under the dominant scientific paradigm or be shunned and ridiculed.

If you find something that doesn’t fit into the scientific paradigm, your duty is to either ignore it, discredit it, or somehow force it to fit into the paradigm.

But sometimes, stubborn facts persist and demand to be accounted for. If enough scientists care, you get a scientific crisis.

Crisis

A crisis is when counterexamples call the scientific paradigm into question. Scientists respond to crisis in one of three ways.

  1. They come up with desperate exceptions, trying to cram the facts into the box of the current paradigm. (epicycles within epicycles)
  2. They hang up their lab coats and quit science altogether.
  3. They start a revolution.

Revolution

There are four steps to a scientific revolution:

First, a group of scientists acknowledge that anomalies exist and cannot be accounted for within the current paradigm.

Second, they blur the paradigm and loosen the rules for research.

Third, people pick sides and paradigms compete. The people advocating the new paradigm(s) are young or new to the field. The paradigm that gets the most adherents wins.

Fourth, the old people die off. Some people will never switch paradigms, so you just have to wait for them to kick the bucket to shut them up.

Step 3 is especially interesting, because very few people will ever abandon a paradigm unless they have a concrete alternative. It takes a special kind of person to go against the current paradigm before it becomes acceptable. It takes a leader. A heretic. A revolutionary.

Shifting to a new paradigm is like moving to a new world. You can no longer relate to the people in the old paradigm, because you now see the world differently in a fundamental way. You can’t communicate with them clearly anymore because your assumptions have changed. The usual error kicks you in the face every time you try to explain your point of view.

Your perceptions are your only window onto the world. Your paradigm (your assumptions) filters your perceptions. In a very real way, shifting your personal paradigm shifts you into another world.

Society

Everything above this line is my interpretation of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. When I read it, I was amazed by the parallels between scientific revolutions and social revolutions — in particular, the Freak Revolution.

Paradigm

The whitewashing, dead-end pruning, and arrow-straightening that Thomas Kuhn talks about in a scientific context is the exact same thing Daniel Quinn talks about in a societal context. It’s The Great Forgetting.

The dominant scientific paradigm that Kuhn talks about is directly analogous to the control paradigm that we talk about in the Freak Revolution Manifesto. The control paradigm is rigid and unforgiving. Those who dare to suggest that there could be another way to live are ostracized and demeaned. Crackpots. Outcasts. Freaks.

Crisis

People’s responses to a societal crisis is just like scientists’ responses to a scientific crisis. They respond in one of three ways:

  1. They come up with desperate excuses, trying to explain why the world has to be this way, and why anyone saying anything to the contrary must be crazy. (the iPhone effect)
  2. They quit society altogether and live in the woods or become homeless.
  3. They start a revolution.

Revolution

And just like a scientific revolution, there are four steps to a societal revolution:

First, a group of people acknowledge that there are problems with the current systems that cannot be solved within the current paradigm.

Second, they blur the paradigm and loosen the bounds of what is societally acceptable. (Freaks, anyone?)

Third, people pick sides and paradigms compete.

Fourth, the old people die off. Some people will never switch paradigms, so you just have to wait for them to kick the bucket to shut them up.

It takes a special kind of person to go against the current paradigm before it becomes acceptable. It takes a leader. A heretic. A revolutionary.

E pur si muove, y’all.

Feel clear and confident about your direction in life!

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In other words, I can help you find your path.