Kuhn and Kashmir

Published: September 3, 2019
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Thomas Kuhn was an American philosopher of science. The term “paradigm shift” that he introduced in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was not only influential in understanding how scientific revolutions move forward, it was also pivotal in understanding how new and impactful ideas take shape and propel human understanding forward.

There is nothing in Kuhn’s masterpiece that talks about Kashmir. I am not sure if he knew, or cared where Kashmir was. But a passage in his writings aptly describes the current predicament about new ideas, especially from the Pakistani side. Kuhn in his book says that there comes a time of crisis in the life of an idea that leads to “proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to the debate over fundamentals”. The latest ideas associated with the half hour of national anthems and sirens is exactly what Kuhn talks about when he talks about “the willingness to try anything”. This particular experiment conducted last Friday was both bizarre and absolutely counter-productive. The argument put forward by some that it was not a big deal since it was only a half-hour is completely inaccurate. We all know that schools were canceled a lot earlier, people decided to leave work hours before noon (if they went to work at all), and traffic was forcibly stopped creating further chaos. In a country where hard work is not part of the work ethic, where people are eager to leave work hours before the due time, where children ought to be in school and commercial activity needs to pick up pace, stopping everything and waving flags is among the poorest of the ideas of this government both on merit and execution.

Fortunately for us, Kuhn offers a clear path forward as well — and one that has been proven to be correct by generations of scientists, scholars, and philosophers. Kuhn argues that deficient ideas will stay, no matter how bad they are until a new set of paradigm-changing ideas replace them. Business as usual, Kuhn says is not going to work. A new set of ideas is needed if we are to change course for the better and move forward.

Some argue that it is easy to criticise the current government for its ideas and the critics are not offering better solutions. This is a valid argument but with a caveat. It is true that criticism for the sake of it is cheap, easy and convenient. The caveat is that we are unwilling to listen to all ideas. We are not ready to dismiss them on merit or after a debate, but because they raise uncomfortable questions. Seeking solutions require a discussion that has to be open, honest and transparent. It may challenge the official narrative, ask us to reflect on the mistakes of the past, and even cause discomfort as we confront our policies of appeasement. It may ask us to ponder on what statements do we make when innocent people of a particular ethnic minority are put in re-education camps, or when a military campaign leads to the worst cholera outbreak in human history.

Kuhn was an exceptionally gifted scholar; and while he was mainly concerned with scientific revolutions, he was perceptive and right on the mark with new paradigms in thought needed in social sciences and even policy. I wish our leaders would read Kuhn. If they did, I think they would come to a clear conclusion. A paradigm shift in ideas is possible, viable and well within reach. But that requires absolute honesty in reflection and an unqualified frankness in the discussion.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2019.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Solomon2
    Sep 3, 2019 - 11:24PM

    ” A new set of ideas is needed if we are to change course for the better and move forward…A paradigm shift in ideas is possible, viable and well within reach. But that requires absolute honesty in reflection and an unqualified frankness in the discussion.”

    Whoa, back up. First there has to be the desire to seek out and tolerate new ideas. Otherwise the response to all efforts to invent and propagate new ideas will be to squash them into oblivion, and failure to squash will simply fuel a search for more effective weapons to squash new ideas. That way the old ideas and their supporters can remain standing, even as their support grows weaker. Recommend

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