And that’s the point: while scientists and technocrats will exhibit their fair share of inertial pettiness, the rejection of a potential new paradigm by the relevant experts is inevitably due to that institutionalized skepticism without which science no longer functions as a means to finding reliable knowledge. There are, after all, an infinite number of spectacular but erroneous breakthroughs for every one that stands the test of time. With these overwhelming odds, skepticism serves as the immune system for science, protecting the well-tested body of reliable knowledge from chronic infection by pathological phenomena that may play well in the media but can’t be reproduced in the laboratory. This skepticism is even more important in confronting the latest alleged technological wizardry, because lives are often on the line, not just investments. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, speaking in particular of the demise of the space shuttle Challenger, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Such is not the case with mankind in general, however, scientists or otherwise. Good scientists are trained to be skeptical so as not to be deluded or, more particularly, as Feynman said, not to delude themselves. Indeed, in both science and technology, it is not embarrassing to be skeptical of a brilliant new paradigm or a remarkable breakthrough that turns out years later to be right. It’s simply the nature of the job.
This leads us back to Kuhn, because virtually every paradigm-busting breakthrough, whether scientific or technological, is launched from a position of evidentiary weakness. The brilliant minds, the progenitors of new technological or scientific paradigms, are the ones who can extract the truth while it is still mired in that swamp of conflicting data. So it is that a new paradigm is likely to attract opponents: it is proposed while the supporting evidence is still ambiguous. Most experts will then oppose it for the right reasons (the evidence ain’t convincing) rather than the wrong ones (close-minded adherence to the old world view)-despite anything Kuhn, the press or the beleaguered scientists and inventors might say to the contrary.
The history of science and technology is actually rife with new paradigms that were so compelling they were accepted with little opposition. The emergence of molecular biology is one example, as the British biologist Lewis Wolpert has noted. “The evidence from the structure of DNA and other key discoveries was so persuasive that almost everyone-certainly the young-got caught up in the excitement of what is clearly a new age for biology,” he writes. Or take Claude Shannon’s theory of information, backbone of today’s digital revolution. When Shannon published his theory in 1948, it was so compelling, recounts author M. Mitchell Waldrop (see “Claude Shannon: Reluctant Father of the Digital Age,” TR July/August 2001), that it “exploded with the force of a bomb. Around MIT, the reaction was, ‘Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?’” Simply put, the excitement of a legitimate new discovery is a stronger motivating force in science than petty self-interest.
In this era when a potential new paradigm can be worth the wealth of OPEC, when an entire field of science or technology can emerge virtually overnight on the basis of a single scientific publication, the challenge lies in differentiating the valid paradigmatic breakthrough from the compelling fantasy. Both, after all, will garner supporters and copious press, because both promise wondrous things. The press, however, will be worthless at rendering sober judgment; reporters will back the new-paradigm angle because that’s the better story. They will allude to the abundance of believers as proof that the new paradigm is correct. If there happens to be an abundance of skeptics, the reporters will cite them as evidence that Kuhn was right and that the experts are petty and lacking in vision, rather than as evidence that the new new thing is worthy of skepticism.
The reality is that vigorous skepticism aimed at a potential new paradigm means one of two things and usually both: first, that the spectacular breakthrough or the wondrous paradigm is indeed too good to be true, and second, that the reasons to be skeptical are very good ones. If the evidence supporting the new paradigm reaches a high enough pitch, then the skepticism will fade. (Although, as the new economy suggests, even if it does, we should keep our heads.) The longer that skepticism lasts, the more likely it is that the new paradigm is delusional and will eventually evaporate in the harsh light of reality. Should you buy into it despite the skepticism, then, as one of my old engineering professors liked to say, you pays your money and you takes your chances.