Illustration: Anna Sanchis

«Someday all watches will be made this way.» This was the slogan used by Seiko in 1969 to market the Quartz-Astron 35SQ watch. It was a conventional-looking watch, with its face and hands, as any other, but its machinery was quite singular. No balance or reducing gears, it was a quartz oscillator that measured the time. Its precision was unprecedented (only five seconds deviation per month). The capsule was made of gold, which made it more expensive: almost half a million yen, as much as an average car. But the first one hundred units were sold in just a week.

They say that the Swiss engineer who envisioned the quartz oscillator watch failed to interest Swiss watch industry. For them, precision resided in well-made gears and in ruby bearings. They were sure, they had centuries of experience. They made a paradigm mistake, because a good clock is not a machine with superb gears, but a device to measure time accurately. Water clocks do not have gears or oscillators…

«The work of economists, which is so important, is ascribed to the field of human decisions. These are emotional and, therefore, irreducible to the scientific method»

Shortly before World War I, the Austrian General Staff thought aviation was ridiculous and cavalry was splendid. They lost the war. North-American Confederates suffered, more or less, what Rhett Butler predicted in Gone with the Wind: sabres were nothing against Unionist rifles… The clock and war paradigms changed with quartz and Henry repetition rifles. Improving within a particular paradigm and abandoning a paradigm when results cannot be improved are two very different things.

The Greek word παράδειγμα (parádeigma) means “model”. The term was first used in grammar, referring to verbal conjugation or inflection. At the end of the nineteenth century, Ferdinand de Saussure extended it to linguistics. And it finally reached the world of science when, in 1962, Thomas Samuel Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn showed the existence of different and equally valid roads and options («marginal» science, alternative to «regular» science). In fact, many scientific discoveries of the last decades started as «marginal» hypotheses. In the case of watches, we could say that «marginal» quartz was as valid as «regular» gears. Much more, because it opened the way to the electrification of the clock, both in motion aspects and in the conception of new digital faces. And, obviously, in their integration with other mechanisms, as evidenced by any smartphone. A smartphone is not the result of the evolution of old Swiss watches, of calculating machines or of desktop notebooks, but a paradigmatic revolution born of «marginal» options.

Modern technology, particularly electronics and computer science, are immersed in this revolutionary process, once the marginalist Pandora’s box is open. On the contrary, economic science is still anchored in absolute «normality». Perhaps because, strictly speaking, it is not a science. Manfred Max Neef, «marginal» economist, despite having been a Senior Executive at Shell, argues that all the paraphernalia of models that economists seem to like so much is a shield against the epistemological weakness of their hypotheses, which are nothing but guesswork. It is not impertinence, but a careful observation. The work of economists, which is so important, is ascribed to the field of human decisions. These are emotional and, therefore, irreducible to the scientific method. The problem arises when these conjectures are disguised of inexorable and compulsory scientific theory. We can confirm the result every day. Just take a look at current affairs…

© Mètode 2015 - 87. Online only. On the origin of life - Autumn 2015

PhD in biology, socioecologist, and President of ERF, Barcelona (Spain).