A Model in Crisis: A Soaring Overview

A Model in Crisis:
Can Civilization Bypass the Model Revolution Step or Not?

The great cathedrals of medieval Europe soared to such exalted heights that it seemed nothing would stop them from becoming taller, or wider, or more embellished with the finest artistry the world had ever seen. But alas. It was a grand illusion that could not continue, because the model it was built upon was soon to fall into crisis.

The model was Christianity, then at the height of its power upon the minds and thrones and purses of Europe. Christianity at that point was in step one of the Kuhn Cycle: Normal Science. That cycle has five distinct, predictable steps, as shown in the diagram above.

As this essay will show, Christainity has progressed through all five steps. But when it comes to the sustainability problem, civilization remains stuck in the Model Crisis step. The longer it stays there the worse the problem will become. Understanding how the Kuhn Cycle works is essential for discovering how civilization can break free of the clutches of the Model Crisis step and move on. It can move on to either the Model Revolution step, which is historically frought with peril, or it can bypass it altogether using the System Improvement Process. The latter appears to be the only viable alternative for solving the sustainability problem before catastrophe becomes unavoidable.

The Kuhn Cycle was first described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a short book published in 1962. In it Thomas Kuhn stunned the scientific community with the theory that the history of science is not a slow, progressive, evolutionary accumulation of knowledge. Instead, science is continually undergoing what has come to be known as the Kuhn Cycle, which works like this:

Introduction to the Kuhn Cycle

Normal Science step of the Kuhn CycleStep 1: Normal Science - The Kuhn Cycle begins with Normal Science, which is the normal way science sees the world. Normal Science consists of a model that serves as a good explanation or procedure for a large number of people.

Normal Science is the same thing as conventional wisdom and social norms. A shining example is the role of religion in most of the world. Up until recently it served as the reigning social control model. (A social control model defines how a unit of society works. The most fundamental unit is the family.) While the villages, cities, states, and countries of early Europe had their governments and armies, their power was subservient to the church, whose word was supreme since it was the unquestioned word of God.

The Model Drift step of the Kuhn CycleStep 2: Model Drift - As people use a model more and more, they soon start to discover its shortcomings. For scientific models this occurs when phenomenon are observed that the model cannot explain. For social control models this occurs when procedures begin failing to achieve their intended results. This means the model has drifted away from perfection. Things the model cannot explain or procedures that mysteriously fail are known as anomalies. Sometimes the model can be patched up to eliminate an anomaly, and sometimes not. If it is an ambitious model that seeks to explain or control a lot, then model drift is inevitable.

Model Drift came to Christianity very early. Every time an anomaly appeared, the dogma was patched up to accommodate it. If prayer failed, for example, its failure was not due to any weakness in religion. It was due to some shortcoming or unworthiness on the part of the person doing the praying. Or if evidence that a miracle had occurred or that God himself existed was hard to come by, then faith rather than physical proof was required on the part of the believer. The mantra of “You’ve got to have faith” is an example of this.

Please note that this article is not an attack on religion, but a sincere effort to show its strengths and weaknesses as one of history’s most important social control models. Religion has and still does provide many societies with crucial components, such as morality, social networking, and helping the disadvantaged.

As time went by the most serious sources of Model Drift came from science. The earliest major source of drift was the discovery of the rules of logic by Aristotle in 500BC. People could now reason correctly for the first time. It did not take them long to notice that religion was highly dependent on a number of untestable, and hence unproven, hypotheses. But because there were no other serious competing social control models for them to turn to, religion reigned supreme for thousands of years.

But according to Thomas Kuhn all major paradigms are subject to the Kuhn Cycle, because our knowledge about the world is never complete and our needs are forever changing. Christianity was no exception. In 1543 the Copernican Revolution began to overthrow one of Christianity’s more cherished and central assertions: that the Earth was the orbital center of the universe. But because the new heliocentric model (which placed the sun in the center of the solar system) was based on arcane observations by specialists, it languished and had little effect on the masses. But that was to soon change abruptly.

The Model Crisis step of the Kuhn CycleStep 3: Model Crisis - If enough model drift occurs, the model can no longer serve as a reliable guide. This throws those using the model into crisis, because now they have nothing to base rational decisions on. They are intellectually lost when it comes to interpreting the world and deciding how to solve problems, and are forced to either guess or do nothing. This throws the world around them into crisis because of poor decision making. As the model crisis grows, new models are proposed that may or may not accommodate the anomalies.

In December of 1610 Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens and smashed the geocentric model forever, when he observed that Venus went through the same phases the moon did. With this strong visual proof, because anyone could now peer through a telescope and see the truth for themselves, the old geocentric model crumbled at last. It could not explain (or be extended to explain) the phases of Venus, the revolution of moons around Jupiter, the rotation of the sun, and so on. But a heliocentric model, one with the sun at the center, could.

This ignited a Model Crisis. Galileo’s endorsement of the new model greatly offended the Catholic Church. The church argued that the new model contradicted the Bible, and warned Galileo not to promote it. But truth has no higher master, so Galileo continued anyway. In 1633 Galileo was tried by the Catholic Inquisition and forced to recant under threat of torture, imprisonment, and death on the stake. Always practical, he recanted. Due to his old age and infirmities he got off with house arrest for the rest of his life. But he had ignited a spark that would not die.

The Model Revolution step of the Kuhn CycleStep 4: Model Revolution – Once it is clear the old model cannot be patched up, the search for a new model begins. This is revolutionary because it takes radical change to conceive of the totally new ideas necessary to accommodate all the accumulated anomalies. The Model Revolution step can be quite tumultuous and prolonged. It can take years, decades, or even centuries to arrive at a new model that successfully integrates most of the anomalies into a new acceptable model. The step ends when the new model is discovered.

In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton published what is probably the most influential new model of all time: the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This work presented the three universal laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. This new model of how the physical world really worked was so complete and so well supported by the new laws and examples of their application that the geocentric model, religious explanations, and folk tales purporting to offer an explanation were soon considered quaint relics of history within the halls of science.

But outside those halls was another story. Even though Model Revolution had occurred, it would still take a long time for the new paradigm to be widely accepted by laymen, because of the power of the church over their minds.

That power, and the model behind it, suffered a gigantic blow in 1859 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In one swift stroke he demolished the biblical theory that plants and animals were a divine creation, with the implication that Homo sapiens himself was included. With this new model of how living things had evolved and why they behaved the way they did in their hands, scientists were no longer dependent on religion for any explanations of the world. In science the Model Revolution step was mostly over. But there was still the rest of the world to win over, which required the next step of the Kuhn Cycle.

Meanwhile, the new model of what would replace the power of the church was growing by leaps and bounds. Up to about this time governments had been lineages of royalty, punctuated by violent struggles for power to start a new line of rulers. The problem with this model was a new ruler tended to start off benevolent, and so his subjects were happy. This Normal Science step soon gave way to Model Drift, as the ruler invariably began overtaxing, or waging wars that were unnecessary, or the many ways that absolutists think more of themselves than their subjects. This step in turn gave way to Model Crisis when things got so bad the people knew they needed a new ruler, but did not known how to go about putting one into power. Since this could not be done by working within the established system, Model Revolution was needed to boot the despot out and install a new and hopefully better ruler.

In retrospect it was no surprise when the long smoldering Model Crisis of the American colonies under the heavy handed thumb of the British, and the French under the royal thumb of King Louis XVI, led in quick succession to the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. As these events showed, the more committed the old order is to the old model, the more violent the Model Revolution step has to be to succeed. These revolutions established the new model of democracy. Also, around this time the new economic model of free market commerce also appeared, exemplified by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776. These two developments combined to create the new model of free market democracy. But the new model still had to spread, which required the next step of the Kuhn Cycle.

The Paradigm Change step of the Kuhn CycleStep 5: Paradigm Change – Once the innovators of the Model Revolution step agree on a single new model, the Paradigm Change step begins. Here the mental models of the model users themselves must change, which is difficult. In many cases it is impossible, so Paradigm Change is not complete until many believers in the old model have died off and the new model has been taught to the new generation.

By now the age of cathedrals, along with the age of religion, was over. The new paradigm of free market democracy began to replace the church in country after country as the dominant social control model. Experimental variations appeared, such as communism. But after about 100 to 200 years, the Paradigm Change step was complete at the national level, though the new model is still immature at the international level.

And finally in 1992 the Catholic Church issued a formal apology and declared Galileo to be correct. The heliocentric model was now Normal Science, even within the church.

The Next Cycle – The Kuhn Cycle is complete when the new model is the normal way people look at the world, and the old model is tossed on the rubbish heap of history. The cycle then starts over again, because our knowledge about the world is never complete.

The Central Hypotheses of the Book

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was such an eye-opener that it became one of the most cited works in scientific literature in the second half of the 20th century. But the real beauty of the Kuhn Cycle is that it applies not just to science, but to any body of knowledge whose use is critical and whose construction is evolutionary. Thus it applies to the model that civilization uses to run itself.

This leads to the central hypothesis of A Model in Crisis, the working title of a book in progress. [Update - This book was never completed. Other books replaced it.] The hypothesis is this:

The model that civilization uses to run itself is in the Model Crisis step of the Kuhn Cycle, because the model is no longer capable of running civilization well.

This is a higher order abstraction than the normal one of global unsustainability. The abstraction of the Kuhn Cycle frames the global environmental sustainability problem as something that is part of a predictable pattern of system behavior. Because that pattern is so predictable, the Kuhn Cycle lets us see that the next step is probably going to be Model Revolution. This is to be avoided at all costs, because historically large changes in social governance models take too long and are too often accompanied by excessive amounts of violence, suffering, and unpredictability.

Fortunately there is a better way. The distinguishing characteristic of Homo sapiens (knowing man in Latin) is reason. Why not use mankind’s greatest tool, reason, to cleverly bypass the Model Revolution step, and arrive at the next step, Paradigm Change, much more quickly and reliably?

The System Improvement Process and the Kuhn Cycle loops

This can be done by grafting the System Improvement Process onto the Kuhn Cycle as shown, and then persuading civilization's problem solvers to take the right fork in the road. This leads to the second central hypothesis of the book:

The System Improvement Process is a satisfactory way to avoid Model Revolution and arrive at the Paradigm Change step, with a high probability of being able to proactively solve the global environmental sustainability problem in time.

The System Improvement Process is a simple, generic, highly analytical process designed to apply to all types of complex social system problems. It has the four main steps shown in the diagram. These steps are so central to A Model in Crisis that the four parts of the book are Getting Started, System Understanding, Solution Convergence, and Implementation. The book has 23 chapters, 13 of which are done, including all of the most important.

The first step in the System Improvement Process is to formally define the problem to be solved. This greatly focuses all subsequent problem solving effort. The second step is to understand why the system behaves the way it does so well that the third step, converging on the solution, is relatively trivial. For this to happen problem solvers should spend approximately 80% of their time in the all important System Understanding step. The fourth step implements the solution.

Six and one half billion people now stand at a momentous fork in the road. One road leads from Model Crisis to Model Revolution. This is the road Homo sapiens is hurtling along now, because there is no global conception of the Kuhn Cycle abstraction, and thus no fundamental realization that there is any other way. But as A Model in Crisis argues, there is another way.

Can the model civilization is using to run itself be repaired in time, or will environmental overshoot cause our world to collapse and come crashing down around us, like so many old cathedrals and even the power of the Church ultimately did?

No one knows the answer to that question yet. But ever since Aristotle discovered the basic laws of logic in 500 BC, which allowed people to reason correctly for the first time, we do know one thing for certain: Reason is mankind’s greatest tool. Therefore if the sustainability problem can be solved, the analytical application of reason is the fastest, most reliable, and hence the best road forward.


This essay was written in April 2006. After it was written the Prescience step was added to the Kuhn Cycle.


This entire essay is based on one of the most breathtaking models of explanation ever discovered: The Kuhn Cycle. The cycle is a model of how scientific (and other) paradigms evolve.

The Kuhn Cycle contains the steps shown below. Click on a node to read about it.

The Basic Kuhn Cycle

After this essay was written in April 2006 the Prescience step was added to the Kuhn Cycle.