Model Crisis

Kuhn Cycle, model crisis step

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From the viewpoint of solving the sustainability problem, here's the most important step of them all in the Kuhn Cycle. It is imperative that scholars, environmentalists, politicians, funders, etc grasp this abstraction, because civilization is presently stuck in the Model Crisis step.

Model Crisis is the third step of the Kuhn Cycle. In this step a field's model of understanding has drifted so far the field is thrown into crisis, because they can no longer make rational decisions. Their foundation for solving their central problems has been shattered by discovery of too many anomalies their central theory cannot explain. At this point in the cycle the field's energies are best spent constructing a new model that works.

The model in crisis is the world's "social control model"

A social control model is a collection of rules describing how a unit of society works. The most common social control model is the one used by families, which is the most basic social unit. Once a social control model is perfected, it can be used over and over.

Examples of modern social control models are the ones used by school systems, countries, congregations, and corporations. Each social agent type has an unwritten and/or written set of rules that describe how that social unit should work. For example a legislative body follows the rules of a constitution and, during deliberations, follows Robert’s Rules of Order or some other set of debate rules.

The power of the concept of a social control model is that if you know what a model's rules are, two things become apparent: You can understand why that social unit behaves the way it does, such as how it may be contributing to a problem under analysis. And you can predict how the social unit will respond to changes in those rules, such as if various solutions are tried. If your analysis of the social control models involved in a particular problem are reasonably correct, then solution of the problem becomes trivial and boils down to selection of those changes to the models that have the highest probability of solving the problem in time at the lowest cost, and any other constraints that may apply.

From the viewpoint of solving the global environmental sustainability problem, the most important social control model is the one that global civilization is using to run itself. This is the model in crisis in the third step of the Kuhn Cycle: the Model Crisis step.

How seeing things this way is critical to solving the sustainability problem

The Kuhn Cycle applies not just to science but to any field or group using a shared model of understanding to solve their problems. It thus applies to nations and all nations as a whole when dealing with global problems.

Civilization is stuck in the Model Crisis step and doesn't know it. It thus is not even trying to get out. The world's problem solvers know their sustainability solutions are not working. What is their reaction? To try to create better solutions. These fail too, as we have seen for four decades now. Why are they failing? Because the model that produced the solutions is broken. It's in crisis because it can't solve the problem.

Problem solvers should thus do what scientists do once they realize they're in the Model Crisis step. They stop working on problems and shift their attention to fundamental research, where they try to fathom why the model is broken and then fix it.

A famous example was when physics was faced with a gigantic Model Crisis in the early 20th century. Here's what happened, along with a discussion of how the Model Crisis step applied:(bolding is in the original) 1

The expanding crisis prompted by the anomaly triggers a distressing period of uncertainty within the field. [the beginning go the Model Crisis step] This period of uncertainty, or "crisis" as Kuhn called it, is fertile ground for the creative impulses within the scientific community. This is a creative period of revolutionary science, during which the conventional procedure and the customary rules of normal science are relaxed. New and difference approaches to the problem are encouraged. Radical solutions to the problems are entertained as the most creative minds of science tackle the difficulties in an attempt either to alter the old paradigm radically or to introduce a new one. For a while during this period of revolutionary science, researchers live like artists and poets in a world slightly out of focus and slightly out of phase with their normal experience.

Crisis and the Emergence of Quantum Physics - It was this type of world that physicists lived in during the early part of the twentieth century, as a series of troubling anomalies challenged the existing paradigm of classical physics. These anomalies involved the study of the laws of nature as they affect matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic levels, a study that became known as quantum physics.

By the early 1920s, these anomalies had become so prevalent that they became the primary focus of the profession. It was impossible to work in physics at that time without becoming embroiled in the crisis that was brewing within the paradigm. In 1925, John Van Vleck, an American physicist and one of the primary contributors to the development of the contemporary theory of electromagnetic systems, described the crisis by comparing the attempts of various physicists to reconcile classical and quantum effects with the twists and turns of a contortionist.

What Val Vleck was referring to was one of the most famous anomalies that every threatened an existing paradigm, the anomaly described as wave-particle duality.

It may appear that sustainability problem solvers are doing what they should. They are trying to redesign their solutions and create new solutions so they work.

But that misses the point of what a Model Crisis really is. It's not your solutions that are failing. It's your method of producing solutions that's failed. Until the method itself is repaired, it will continue to produce solutions that fail.

This is a subtle point that has been consistently unable to communicate.

If you can spread this enormously productive insight, please do. If it spreads widely, then the world's governments and international bodies will at last start to do what fields of science do when confronted with Model Crisis: They stop solving problems and switch to fixing their paradigm so they can escape the crisis. Only after a new paradigm that explains most of the anomalies that have piled up appears (the Model Revolution step), and has been accepted (the Paradigm Change step), can the field return to Normal Science and solve its problems.

An alternative to getting the world's governments to alter their paradigm is needed because that's too big a change to expect quickly, or even at all in time to solve the sustainability problem. An attractive alternative is to realize that environmentalism is in its Pre-science phase. Its solutions are failing not because its model has drifted, but because it's never had one that worked.

This too is a subtle point that has been consistently unable to communicate. If you can spread this insight, please do. Seven billion people alive today, and billions more to follow, will thank you more than you will ever know.


(1) From Lifting the scientific veil: science appreciation for the nonscientist, by Paul Sukys, 1999, page 17.

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Why People Don't See a Model Crisis at First

Thomas Kuhn studied the history of paradigm change so thoroughly he pinpointed why acknowledgement that one's model is in crisis is so often delayed. On page 64 of the 1996 edition he wrote:

In science... novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a backdrop provided by expectation. Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where anomaly is later to be observed.

Further acquaintance, however, does result in awareness of something wrong or relates the effect to something that has gone wrong before. That awareness of anomaly opens a period in which conceptual categories are adjusted until the initially anomalies have become the anticipated. At this point the discovery [of Model Crisis] has been completed.

Kuhn's insight is that "initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced." That is, people see what they expect or want to see.

That's where problem solvers are today. In the history of Homo sapiens, the sustainability problem is still young. It's still in it's initial stage. Thus it's no surprise the legions of problem solvers working on it have trouble noticing "novelties" or paradigm failure. They can easily see solution failure. But equating that to paradigm failure as the cause is currently beyond the ability of today's sustainability problem solvers.

Famous Model Crises of the Past

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The model that worked so well for so long failed due to barbarian invasion and over extension of the empire. Problem solvers were never able to devise a new model that worked, so the empire disintegrated.

Countless civil wars. The social contract the previously worked no longer can bring agreement, so people create the next model of agreement by force.

The way Hitler took over a democracy in the period of 1919 to 1933. Thereafter Germany was a living model in crisis, because the new Germany was unable to achieve its original goals. It was now achieving Hitler's goals because after the Enabling Act of 1933 Hitler had legal dictatorial power.

Each of the above was a social control model crisis. Model crises are not restricted to science. In fact, the most powerful application of the Kuhn Cycle is not to science. It's to the world's largest social problems, which matter far more.