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Document Abstract
Published: 2001

Some things can't be true but are: rice, rickets, and what else?

'Unlearning' conventional wisdoms to remove paradigm blockages
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How often has evidence that supported a new explanation been ignored or rejected when it did not conform to the accepted way of thinking about a particular problem? The authors describe this situation as a "paradigm blockage". This paper examines two examples:
  • childhood rickets going unseen as a disease in Bangladesh because it is "well known" that rickets does not occur in the tropics
  • a system for intensifying rice production rejected as too good to be true because it did not match prevailing beliefs about how rice is supposed to be cultivated

Both cases show how the way that we organise and communicate our own knowledge can keep us from responding to significant needs and opportunities.

The paper stresses that sometimes scientists and other experts need to 'unlearn' the things they think they know, and accept that it is possible to see things that were previously thought impossible.

Paradigm traps are not restricted to any particular discipline, profession or era. It is instructive, and appropriately humbling, to recall the confidence that previous generations have had, each in its turn, in the correctness and sufficiency of their understandings of the world, being wiser, of course, than their predecessors. Yet, do we not make the same assumptions about our knowledge, that it is not only superior but relatively complete? Surely it, too, will be improved. How can anyone be certain that we know the "biological ceiling" for rice production? How can we be sure that we understand fully the etiology of any particular disease?

Changing paradigms calls for some degree of personal engagement in solving important problems. This paper argues that engagement is particularly important because it can engender the commitments that prompt one to become detached from dogma in ways not possible otherwise. This should not be surprising since science remains always a very human endeavor.

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N. Uphoff; J. Combs

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