Maybe you should read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Maybe you shouldn’t. Here’s a little bit of information to make up your own mind.

When I use the word paradigm, I mean it in the Kuhnian sense. I don’t use it as a hyperbole or superlative. I don’t look at a new ice cream brand extension and breathlessly declare that it’s a paradigm shift in desert delivery. Paradigm shouldn’t be a buzzword.

Kuhn defined a scientific paradigm as a set of evidence, experiments, achievements and observations that are universally recognized, that provide a set of problems and solutions that are worthy of a communities’ focus.

Communities are very particular about what they consider to be knowledge and what they consider to be not knowledge. And for so many, often, what they know is the way reality is. So it’s a bit easier to understand why debates about the word is are so intense. Not everyone though. To quote James Burke, “if the Universe is, at any time, what you say it is, then say.”

To get a real sense of how profound a paradigm shift is you should read Kuhn. Throughout, you can get this sense of just how much community consensus and discord matter to the cycle of discovery.

It’s quite common to encounter concepts that approach the meaning of the word paradigm. The words lens, frame, and perspective all glancingly mean something that is akin to the word paradigm. Those kinds of concepts may emerge from a paradigm. But a framing or another lens on a given aren’t really paradigms.

Sometimes a paradigm is mistaken for static axis selection. Let’s say that a dominant player in a market has defined that market as a two-by-two grid, comparing stability with simplicity. And, to the shock and surprise of absolutely nobody, the dominant player is located in the far upper right hand corner. They’re number one, after all, because they’re in the upper right hand quadrant. You can see it right there.

Then a competitor comes in and says that superior two-by-two grid compares stability with cost. Or stability with speed. Or usability with safety. Those are all efforts at highlighting a different perspective. They aren’t paradigm shifts. It doesn’t change the way all the knowledge is structured or the way that reality is really interrogated. Changing the labels on a pair of axes and asking you to look at it in another way is really a time honoured tradition in technology. It’s a tactic that’s contained in a paradigm. The formulation of axes isn’t the paradigm.

Paradigms are often a form of common sense within a community that they’re invisible to those that operate in them. Take, for instance, the reason why there is even a central bank interest rate that comes with an inflation target. The entire idea that currency is intended to spoil at a very specific rate didn’t come from thin air. It’s connected to a whole set of observations, models, and experiences that are universally recognized by a few communities.

Reading Kuhn will at least give you some idea as to why so many beliefs are sticky, why knowledge accumulates at the rate that it does, and why communities can be reluctant to accept new ideas.

It’s a good read.