A scientific paradigm, in the most basic sense of the word, is a framework containing all of the commonly accepted views about a subject, a structure of what direction research should take and how it should be performed.
Thomas Kuhn suggested that a paradigm defines “the practices that define a scientific discipline at certain point in time.” He also postulated that paradigms are discrete and culturally based.
For example, a Chinese medical researcher, with a profound knowledge of eastern medicine, will inhabit a different paradigm than a purely western researcher.
The philosopher, Thomas Kuhn was the first to use the term for science, suggesting that scientific research does not progress towards truths, but is subject to dogma and clinging to old theories. The word, like many scientific terms, comes from Greek, and means example.
He came up with four basic ways in which a paradigm indirectly influences the scientific process. A paradigm dictates:
Kuhn believed that science had periods of patiently gathering data, in a paradigm, and then revolution occurred as the paradigm matured.
The new paradigm is not necessarily any better than the old, just different. For example, most psychologists weep at the mention of the Freudian paradigm.
Normal science is the step-by-step scientific process, which builds patiently upon previous research.
Revolutionary science, often 'fringe science' questions the paradigm itself. Kuhn originally believed that a paradigm would make a sudden leap from one to the next, called a shift, and he believed that the new paradigm could not be built upon the foundations of the old.
Probably the best example of this is in physics. Newton's Laws were an example of a paradigm, and scientists worked upon his principles for centuries. The discovery of the internal structure of the atom started to find holes in the theory, and Einstein provided the 'out of the box thinking' that dragged the paradigm in another direction.
However, Kuhn later conceded that the process might be more gradual. For example, Relativity did not completely prove Newton wrong, but added to it and adapted it. Even the Copernican revolution was a little more gradual before completely throwing out Ptolemy's beliefs. Taking the Chinese researcher example, there is now a better integration between eastern and western medical philosophies, so the paradigms are merging.
The Paradigm is closely related to the Platonic and Aristotelian views of knowledge. Aristotle believed that knowledge could only be based upon what is already known, the basis of the scientific method. Plato believed that knowledge should be judged by what something could become, the end result, or final purpose. Plato's philosophy is more like the intuitive leaps that cause scientific revolution; Aristotle's the patient gathering of data.