When Paradigms Collide

Social perspectives are often irrational, biased, and dysfunctional. What then?

Posted Jul 28, 2020

The seminal work on scientific “paradigms” (meaning models of reality) is Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For Kuhn, ruling—but inaccurate—scientific models (like the Earth-centric view of the universe) persist until an accumulation of evidence that they can’t account for overthrows the ruling paradigm or worldview.

Except, Kuhn’s theory has been disproved repeatedly without dislodging it as our ruling version of social and scientific paradigms. Here are current instances where a disputed paradigm doesn’t exit gracefully, causing considerable, often crescendoing, social unrest.


Evolution via natural selection might be considered a paragon among scientific paradigms, the unifying doctrine in the life sciences. It has been proven through its repeated ability to account for esoteric, new, and foundational biological data and discoveries since its presentation (separately) by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-19th century, more than 150 years ago. (The title of Darwin’s 1859 work is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.) Yet, currently, in the United States, only one-third of American adults fully accept the idea that “humans evolved due to processes like natural selection with no involvement by God or a higher power.” 

Abortion (women’s choice)

Evolution is a scientific paradigm; the acceptance of abortion as a woman’s choice is a social one. In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, within time limits, as a fundamental Constitutional right. Since that date, thousands of instances of violence against abortion clinics, providers, and advocates have occurred in the U.S. In 2019, a number of states imposed severe restrictions on abortions aimed at effectively ending such procedures. Many fear that the current Supreme Court will ultimately endorse one or more such legal restrictions, potentially affecting abortion rights nationwide.

Social and racial privilege

While evolution is a scientific paradigm, and the right to abortion is a legal one, both are also social paradigms—i.e., their legitimacy depends on social approval and endorsement. Racial and social restrictions and privileges likewise cross disciplinary boundaries, leading to conflicting theories of the sources and remedies for inequality. 

For some time, white privileges (and black disadvantages) were ensconced in the law, most notably, in the Southern states, through Jim Crow laws and segregated schools. In the 1950s and 1960s, such laws were rescinded. Yet, in the half-century since, racial and social inequality has persisted, even intensified, in the areas of economics, education, health, and opportunity. For example, people in the U.S. stand less of a chance of raising (or lowering) their socioeconomic status now than they did before the civil rights movement, and schools and neighborhoods have never been more racially and economically segregated than they currently are.

Both the explanation for and steps to remedy these inequities have been debated for decades, never more than they are right now. For instance, a new vision of racial and social inequality and discrimination as extending well beyond specific laws has arisen: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy,” writes the best-selling theorist Ibram X. Kendi. “Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity.”

Books like Richard Reeves’s 2017 Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust describe how the upper 20 percent socioeconomically of Americans limit access to the means (especially education) for those in lower socioeconomic niches to improve their social standing. They do so both through specific tax laws and social policies, but also through their ability to offer access to skills training, even social attitudes and behavior (like functional work habits and achievement motivation) that encourage such advancement.

Remedying inequality

When inequality has never been greater in the United States, while views of the sources of inequality are widely divergent, the potential remedies for such inequality are hotly disputed, leading to widespread, and expanding, conflict. Thus the U.S. is riven today by urban unrest and police and federal responses to it, currently focused on Portland and Seattle, but spreading to protests and unrest in other American cities.

These conflicts embody different views of the source of the problems. Are the social and economic disadvantages of African Americans and other relatively deprived groups due to these groups’ lack of prosocial values or due to onerous social institutions that attack their family structures and opportunities? Are those in the upper social and economic quintile there due to their abilities and efforts or because they were vouchsafed upper berths in the ship of life?

Different views on these questions are inherently antagonistic and likely to result in conflict, up to and including violence.

And, so, we see how “paradigms,” meaning conflicting views of scientific and social reality, can be very explosive things.