Judd W. Patton, Ph.D. (Biography) Bellevue University Online
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Paradigm Exercise

Dr. Judd W. Patton

     In the 1960 physicist Thomas S. Kuhn brilliantly demonstrated that each and every science rests on generally unquestioned premises that condition the nature of human thinking and scientific investigation. Dr. Kuhn called this body of foundational premises and assumptions a “paradigm.”

     The essence of Kuhn’s insight is that there are no such things as “brute facts” – facts apart from a definite paradigm. What is a “fact” and what is a “non-fact,” or what is a cause or what is an effect, depends on the specific paradigm one is operating within.

     Today, there are many economic schools of thought, each with their own unique paradigm or worldview. By analogy, each tradition has its own eyeglasses with very different lenses to view the economic world. The result? There is no agreement on the “facts” or on the cause and effects relationships. What, of instance, caused the 1930 Great Depression? Ask five economists and get six different answers! It’s virtually the same with any economic topic or public policy question.

     The real philosophical question is: which economic paradigm can best account or give meaning to economic phenomena? That is a tough question, especially for students taking their first college level class in economics. Before we give you some recommendation is this murky matter, let’s do a fun exercise to make sure you understand the concept of a paradigm.

Below are four thumbnail sketches. Click on the first thumbnail. What do you see?

cow.jpg (102348 bytes)
(Picture #1)

     Does anyone see a cow? See the ears and nose? Once you see it, you always will. But here’s the point. If your point-of-view were from either side, would you see a cow, or perhaps something else? What if it was upside down? Right, you would not see the cow.  So your frame of reference is very important. So it’s not surprising that Keynesian economists, who view the economic realm within the macroeconomic world of aggregates and total spending, understand the Great Depression as a time of “too little aggregate demand.” To them more government spending is appropriate. Microtheorists, on the other hand, looking for causation based on human action and policy, see the Federal Reserve falsifying interest rates by increasing the money supply and thereby giving bad data to entrepreneurs. The early phases of the 1930s reveal the cluster of entrepreneurial errors and mistakes. Their solution is to let the market purge itself of these unprofitable investments. Government was the problem, not the solution.

     Now, lets look at a series of thumbnail sketches. These are quite famous. The first two sketches or pictures will “predispose” you to see the composite picture in one way or the other. Click on Thumbnail sketch #2. Again, what do you see?

      Well, most people see a young-looking woman. Now, skip over the third thumbnail picture and open Thumbnail #4. What do you see? Answer: most people will see the young woman. O.K. Now, click on Thumbnail #3. Do you see the older lady? Has a pretty big nose! Most people don’t have any trouble spotting her. However, if you now go back and look at the composite picture, Thumbnail #4, which lady do you see? Some can see both. Usually, depending on which picture you saw first will determine or predispose you to see the composite in that way.

     What is the moral to this exercise? Our paradigm or frame of reference makes all the difference in the world, so to speak, in how one understands the world around him or her. Your parents and teachers and friends and the TV and movie media and experiences etc. have given you a specific background.  Your understanding of the world around is grasped through these “lenses.” Likewise, academic disciplines often have different “starting points” (premises or assumptions) from each other. Freudian psychologists see the world differently from the Behaviorists or other more “normal” psychologists.

     A person who would take the Bible or Word of God as the foundation for all knowledge, for example, will certainly see the economic world very differently most other people. In this latter case this individual would see and understand that economic failures and problems are rooted in failures to act in agreement with moral principles. Humanistic sciences (man and his reasoning as the sole source of knowledge) will never “see” the moral connection or link between economic events and moral or immoral behavior. They obviously would never look for it in the first place as their paradigm excludes it. Thus there can be no agreement on economic causes and effects until economists can agree on the same paradigm. So expect many different “opinions” about economic matters!

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