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In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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We end up looking a lot like the subordinate we identified earlier who never seems to change. Conversely, the theory-in-use of the neutral observer often concerns their own credibility or neutrality:

“I might not be seeing what is really happening” or

“I have too much at stack in viewing this situation to be in any way objective.” or

“I shouldn’t say anything at this point because I might be wrong” or

“I might be biased.”

The resulting decision takes place in the observer’s mind:

“I will remain quiet, even if asked what I have observed.”

Thus, any conversation about theories-in-use is avoided. Argyris and Schon identify this as the “self-sealing” nature of theories-in-use. These theories are non-discussable: we can’t talk about them or don’t see any reason to talk about that which is “obvious”. When you add together the “self-fulfilling” and “self-sealing” dynamics inherent in our theories-in-use, we see how powerful these theories can be and how resistant they are either to inspection or change. We continue to live comfortably with our espoused theories and close the door on our theories in use.

Level Three: Creating and Propagating Alternative Paradigms.

There is an even broader sense in which we have left a cave and are faced with the blinding light of the real world – or at least the shadows of a different cave. This third perspective is derived from the highly influential, historical framework offered by Thomas Kuhn (1962) in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Without going into details regarding Kuhn’s revolutionary analysis of revolutions, we can cut directly to the chase: Kuhn proposed that most scientific work (particularly in the physical sciences) is based on an underlying paradigm.  This paradigm is very strong and reinforced by widespread institutional support (including finances and certifications). Plato would suggest that dominant paradigms constitute thick-walled caves.

Kuhn was one of the first to use the term “paradigm”. It has now become widely (and often inappropriately) used. Kuhn has himself been accused of using the word “paradigm” in multiple ways and has contributed to the confusion regarding this important word. Paradigm refers, in essence, to a community or cluster of ideas, practices, standards, criteria (who can sit at the table), institutional allegiances – and assumptions. This community and cluster reside inside a cave that is filled with all of the biases, limitations and levels of interpretation that I have already identified.

A revolution occurs when the dominant paradigm in a particular science is overturned—to be replaced by an alternative paradigm that does a better job of addressing what Kuhn calls anomalies.  These anomalies are phenomena in a specific scientific domain that are not understood, explained or amendable to either prediction or control when the current paradigm is applied. Anomalies are first ignored and are often addressed only by those members of this specific scientific community who are marginalized because of gender, location, race, ethnicity or social-economic status. These marginalized players often lack the credentials or sufficient prestige to be taken seriously by the mainstream of a scientific community.

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