Robert Fulford's column about the word "paradigm"

(Globe and Mail, June 5, 1999)

Words may come and words may go, but "paradigm" rolls on forever -- or maybe it just seems like forever. Fashions in words change as fast as fashions in clothes or music: The people who learned not to say "hopefully" are now learning not to say "closure," thank God. There was a time when nobody could have an argument without calling it a "dialogue," which made it sound goodhearted and upbeat. I remember when "parameter" was sprinkled liberally over all government memos, to add distinction and baffle the uninitiated -- but that was in ancient times, before water came in bottles and tomatoes bragged about being dried in the sun.

Fad words fade, their obsolescence more or less built-in, but "paradigm" has turned out to be a word with legs. Scoffers predict it will die and even declare it dead, but the damn thing goes from strength to strength. It's a crossover hit: It moved nimbly from science to culture to sports to business. Now it appears in corporate names, such as Paradigm Asset Management Co., Paradigm Communications Inc., Paradigm Insurance Co. and (of course) Paradigm Software Inc.

People often use "paradigm" when they could as easily use idea, style, format, pattern, hypothesis, or approach. But those are garden variety words, lacking dash and chic. They impress no one. "Paradigm" appeals to the kind of people who say "reportage" when they mean "reporting." It bestows dignity on otherwise banal utterances.

All this began in 1962 with Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He theorized that change in science arrives not through the slow accretion of data but in sudden lurches, which may or may not have rational origins. Revolution comes when a new pattern of thought emerges -- when Copernican astronomy replaces Ptolemaic astronomy or Darwin's theory of natural selection conquers biology. Scientists seize on it and science leaps forward. Then everyone relaxes till the next shift.

Kuhn's theory isn't impregnable, and many philosophers of science are now eager to explain that he got it wrong. Some also blame him for undermining science. He made it seem arbitrary, the creation of capricious individual humans, rather than a steady, inevitable progress toward truth.

But Kuhn turned out to be the best friend a word ever had. He invented a phrase -- "paradigm shift" -- though he didn't invent the main word. Derived from the Greek for pattern, "paradigm" had been living a respectable life in English dictionaries for centuries. It was honest but obscure, an extra in the mob scene of usage. Kuhn made it a star.

One reason was the wide appeal of his theory. It spoke to the anti-intellectual buried in all of us. It flattered non-scientists by suggesting that we Kuhn readers might understand something about the way science works, something scientists themselves didn't know -- a dangerous but exhilarating notion. Writers and scholars of every kind received it as revelation. Joyfully, they ushered it into their many different worlds, most of them unknown to Kuhn. Soon everybody had to have a paradigm, and those who lacked one were considered eccentric or backward.

The 1970s embraced it. In 1973, Carl Sagan wrote that, for his generation, "the Moon was the paradigm of the unattainable." In 1975, a scholar noted that Noam Chomsky "provided a new paradigm for linguistics." Those references were still vaguely scientific, but a larger future for the word was opening up. One sign was the remark in a 1976 book: "The television set . . . is the paradigm of consumer culture." It was a sentence that could mean anything, or nothing -- a real paradigm of a sentence.

Since then, scores of writers on education, music, theology, management, world politics and linguistics have used it in the names of their books. My favourite title is Paradigm and Paradox: Explorations into a Paradigmatic Theory of Meaning and its Epistemological Background, clearly the work of a giddy, infatuated scholar who went weak in the knees at the sound of the word. In recent times, no fewer than five authors have decided it's clever to pun on Milton's Paradise Lost in their titles. And who could resist A Paradigm Lost: The Linguistic Theory of Mikolaj Kruszewski?

Even so, there was no reason to be sure this word was ready for the marathon. I didn't really appreciate its staying power until 1995, when a doctor wrote in The New York Times: "King Ludwig's story is paradigmatic of psychiatric abuse: labelling a politically undesirable person as paranoid . . ." In this case, the writer meant "typical," but a taste for fancy words led him toward paradigm's sister adjective, paradigmatic. The same year, another writer in the Times declared that "Seattle is not exactly a paradigm of urban decay." He meant it wasn't an example. That was when I realized that this thing could some day be bigger than "icon." In 1999, The Globe and Mail has used "paradigm" 30 times so far, The New York Times 39. Ben Ratliff of the Times wrote last week that the Newport Jazz Festival was "the paradigm for outdoor music events"; in The Globe, Rick Salutin recently called Wayne Gretzky "the inaugurator of a new paradigm" in hockey.

For a while, the word was getting such a workout that it seemed likely to die of overexposure. I assumed (and the occasional remarks of scientists confirmed) that scientists, being incurable elitists, would soon abandon it in disdain. In fact, the opposite has happened. Being used by almost everybody, to mean almost everything, has only heightened its stature among ambitious scientists. In 1991, it appeared in the title or summary of 30 papers published in an international selection of scientific journals; in 1998 (according to the March 26 issue of Science magazine), the equivalent figure was 124. A database of biomedical publications shows that the use of the phrase "new paradigm" has increased by 26 per cent a year during the 1990s; for some reason, it appears particularly often in studies of nursing.

But Science magazine also reported that these papers weren't frequently cited by other scientists, a sign that they were not widely appreciated. In fact, papers using this word received, on average, fewer citations than those that didn't use it. Which suggests that scientists throw the word around with wild abandon, just like the people in cultural theory and management.

Why? They want attention. Steven Weinberg, a University of Texas physicist and Nobel laureate, has said "it's harder and harder for scientists to make a splash that goes beyond their fellow specialists." So they haul in "paradigm" to do the job. Science magazine quotes Josef Penninger of the University of Toronto's department of medical biophysics, who may not be a fan of "paradigm" but doesn't entirely avoid it. "I use it, too, sometimes," he says, "but really for political reasons -- to make reviewers happy and for funding."

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image