Paradigms and Slippery Slopes

This isn't all that important, but following up on my George Will post, I just wanna say: when you hear the words "paradigm shift" or "slippery slope," it's time to pay real close attention to the speaker. He or she is likely trying to pull a fast one.

"Paradigm shift" is often used to emphasize the importance of a change—"it's not just a shift; it's a paradigm shift!" The speaker could say "big shift," but then they would lose the self-satisfaction that comes with using a rare word with roots in science and philosophy. The problem is that it isn't what the word means. The definition to keep in mind is "A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline." That means "big" the way that "stupid" means "Republican." There may be significant overlap, but that isn't identity.

The more insidious use of the phrase comes from those who want to give more weight to the concept they're describing than it will bear. (I suspect that this is what Will is doing in his column.) Geocentric to heliocentric? That was a paradigm shift, friends. It was a scientific revolution. Thomas Kuhn is the guy who coined the phrase "paradigm shift," and he made a distinction between a scientific revolution, which changes everything, to "normal science," which is the work that most scientists do most of the time—hypothesis testing and adding to the understanding of the prevalent paradigm. The process of normal science will include competing hypotheses, but not every one of these can be called a paradigm shift. Not that that stops people with an interest in one theory from claiming it as such.

And then there are slippery slopes. I can't add much to what Professor Volokh has to say on the subject, so I'll just grab a quote from this paper: those making slippery slope arguments are often simply saying "we ought not make a sound decision today, for fear of having to draw a sound distinction tomorrow." (See footnote 7 at the link above.) In other words, for most people who trot out the phrase, it's enough that they can draw a line of causation from taking step A to getting outcome B. Press them just a little bit on whether there are any logical stopping points along what they are calling the "slippery slope," and it will often become apparent that they hadn't thought about it at all. Such is the intoxicating allure of a phrase with that kind of cachet.

Anyway, I'm just venting. I'm actually angling to stay under the covers (where I dragged my laptop and my dog a while ago). I would get out of bed, but getting out of bed would lead inexorably down the slippery slope to doing schoolwork, and that's totally not my paradigm. Or something.


Lance needs help!

He's sliding down the slippery slope of school work! Quick . . . send him some diversions!


PS Thanks for the quote on slippery sloping. I love it and will use it again and again.


Get your arse out of bed and write a LTE! NOW! NOW! NOW!

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

You'll be pleased to know...

that I wrote one to the Observer while I was in bed. I can't recall the entire text, but it had something to do with knowing how Jack's mother must have felt when he came home with "magic beans." You sold what for what now?

Yay! Lance!

I had to get up....Mom duties and all that.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.