Teaching Paradigms


Like anybody actively teaching STS, I imagine that you too reach back to teach a little of Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWell, among the many other lessons about “normal science” relevant to students (periods of shared vision regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” scientific question, general consensus about “proper” methodological techniques, etc), how “anomalies” mount under the conditions of normal science until eventually scientists come to the realization that these “errors” or “unaccounted for findings” were a kind of data in themselves, and then, of course, all the insights about how entrenched scientists protect their privileged positions as purveyors of truth as more recently trained scientists make new, unorthodox, or counter-intuitive claims (in search of achieving their own legitimacy and recognition.

I have two examples to use in the classroom: one that I’ve used for years, and another I only learned about today (thanks Alexander Stingl).

So, there is obviously a lot to Kuhn, but I like to focus on a couple of points for students, mainly, the relationship between normal science and how truth operates. In particular, I find that student glom-onto lessons about scientific discoveries that were made that were essentially unintelligible to scientists operating within a shared paradigm of normal science. Put another way, when a scientist finds something other scientists did not bother to even look for (usually because it is so obvious, taken-for-granted, or something like that).

An example I use in class a lot is deep water hydrothermal vents or “smokers” (students oddly love that nickname).


At any rate, life like this at the bottom of the ocean was thought unreasonable given that life required light, at least, that was the dominant thinking in the previous paradigm. Now, there are excellent videos (for example, here) showing these vents and even some talk a bit about the history of the findings (for example, this short National Geographic special, and, if memory serves, there is even some commentary in The Blue Earth that tackles these issues too — that may even be where I heard of them first).

There is another case I found out about today that is similar to this and I think students will like it: “How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology. It is a story about this: “Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.”


Toby Spribille, against some troubling odds, became a scientists and challenged a paradigm of thinking thought almost unquestionable for 150 years, which is that lichens are really not a single living organism and instead lichen are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus (supplies water and nutrients) and algae (transforming the sun’s rays into energy) — in fact, lichens are sometimes noted to be the origin of the concept of symbiosis in the first place! (this makes the case even cooler, of course) What Spribille finds, of course, disconfirms that two organism paradigm, but nicely re-confirms the symbiosis hypothesis as Spribille demonstrates that three organisms constitute lichen, which, true to form, co-exists in a symbiotic relationship.

There is even a nice closing remark about how Spribille may be credited with the discovery, but he did not make the discovery alone (a great commentary about credit in science, the reality of group work in laboratories, etc.): “But he didn’t work alone, Watkinson notes. His discovery wouldn’t have been possible without the entire team, who combined their individual expertise in natural history, genomics, microscopy, and more. That’s a theme that resonates throughout the history of symbiosis research—it takes an alliance of researchers to uncover nature’s most intimate partnerships.”

13 thoughts on “Teaching Paradigms

  1. ah yeah i’ve been there all too often i’m afraid, my only hope along these lines is to avoid abstractions as much as possible and stick to concrete examples (like STS/ANT at its best) , I used to tell my wife when she was working on her history dissertation to just follow the events and avoid the theorizing as this would be closer to peoples’ everyday experiences (ways thru the world) and wouldn’t be as likely to trigger their sense of the icky/uncanny (as you note very easy to alienate people with how things really are) .
    easy enough in a case-study (or just real life experiences of folks) to make things more complex, or reframe them, recontextualize them, as i often do in consulting and head-shrinking but the problem is that they don’t learn to do it themselves, maybe a bit like being a passenger in a car and not really having a sense of how the route went . ah well there is the blogosphere for the mutant fringe to gather, thanks as always


  2. agree about the difficulties raised (and their potential if learned); however, it can be hard to get some thinkers out of the box at all — after all, the very first step, if rejected, means the rest of what is told, read, learned, etc., is generally lost.

    Almost any time I have had discussions where we take stable, abstract objects and then 1. create some hypothetical space to say “what if it were otherwise” (that the abstract object is not a thing “out there” but that practices enact it or disable some enactments through various means); then 2. assuming that this hypothetical space can be momentarily sustained, imagining another world that looks just like this one (only without stable, abstract objects), and ask “what practices would be associated with the previously assumed stable, abstract object as it comes to exist (or not) in the observable, empirical world?”; and then 3. recognizing that, in our current modern, Western constitution that, in effect (keep in mind, we are hypothetical), the seemingly stable, abstract object might not otherwise exists other than in the practices of it’s enactment (which makes “existing” awfully tenuous all of a sudden rather than hard, stable, and concrete); and if I ever really got there (besides discussions with like-minded academics and the few sympathetic-types out there (cough, dmf)), I would start in on ontological politics and the selective enactment of some realities, some concepts, etc., through selecting or limiting certain enactment practices (or just taking them for granted while ignoring others).

    The making/doing or prepetual-prototyping/designing things through practice is hard to grasp even with something like … well, once, I tried to talk to a close friend of mine about the concept of “friendship” and whether or not “friends” (in the abstract sense) really existed (keeping the Facebook uses of “friend” and “friending” at arm’s length for the purposes of discussion). Now, maybe talking about friendship with a friend is not the best idea (point taken); however, that’s how it actually happened. I basically said “imagine a world where “friends” as an idea did not exist but that all the stuff associated with “being friends” still more or less took place.” Next step: I said “what would that look like — what “happens” when people do “friendship”?” This line of reasoning was rejected with the response being a combination of “not this” (ugh!) and “it must be very lonely in your friendless mind” (clearly intended to shutdown this thought experiment, or perhaps indicate that it was a tasteless discussion “among friends” [double-ugh]). I tried to remain patient, but it was rejections all around for me. No matter what angle I took — keeping in mind, this is all hypothetical in the discussion — nothing seemed to take. I tried to start with ontology, the link between practice and enactment, and even some radical behaviorist insights, and I still failed every time. I even tried to enter through multiplicity. I thought surely that will work. It did not work. I thought walking the friend through the mere analytical possibility that, in a stable abstract sense, there is no such as friendship even if there are friendships that actively happen and a set of practices associated with “friendship doing.” I thought this was possible with multiplicity namely because we could agree that, from a distance, the notion of “friendship” might appear like a stable, conceptually singular “thing” but upon closer examination it ought to be revealed that no two friendships were alike and, thus, that the “doing” of friendship could be enacted through a multiplicity of different practices and so on. So, in references to all those actively-happening friendships, are they “alike enough” to all be bundled together as “friendships” or do many different forms — a multiplicity of sorts — appear if you look closely at practices associated with observed friendships? This was met with: “Okay, I agree that no two friendships are the same; they are all unique; but they are all still friendships nonetheless.” I even tried the full-on relativist angle saying surely “friends” exist to some people (“like yourself,” I said as graciously as possible), but if somebody disagrees with you and indicates that “friends” do not exist, then, on some level, friends apparently both exist and do not exist depending upon the circumstances of enactment, for example, right now in this conversation, claims are being made in both directions. I felt like I was hurling philosophical bombs; they landed like fleas — small and annoying.

    At any rate, long way to say: dmf, I agree.


  3. might be too much to grasp (at any level frankly, as most phds seem incapable of such an aspect dawning on them) but man if they could learn that truth isn’t a thing we have/achieve/discover but something we do/make that might be the most important lesson of their undergrad education (and their lives really), gotta be a way to ease them into something akin to speech-acts even if it never really sinks in.


  4. I like to start with “how truth works” for the undergraduate level; I only shift to “claims-making practices” at higher levels where enactment, boundary-keeping, etc., seem to make more sense (given that theoretical, experiential, etc., background needed to really make that leap in thinking from truth as a thing to truth as a practice/process).

    On Fri, Jul 22, 2016 at 6:41 PM, Installing (Social) Order wrote:



  5. good stuff, seems like sociology/ethnography should be well placed to dig into what are the totems and taboos of communities (and how are they established/enforced) with an update into cognitive-biases and all, tho hard to explain to folks who haven’t been behind the curtains how much of what happens (and who gets to do what , and who gets credit for what) in labs is really about personalities and politics (especially around resources and hierarchy).
    be interesting to tie this sort of thing with the recent investigations into lack of confirmation (and or just poor statistics) for many studies, and the related pressures around publication/review/tenure/etc.
    just skimmed thru emmanuel derman’s not so good book models. behaving. badly. and he gives an excellent example of how a tech helped him with an eye problem that stumped many specialist MDs.

    Click to access FinancialModelersManifesto.pdf

    is this all so much about how “truth” functions or who is allowed to do what?


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