Thomas Kuhn and Partisan Conspiracy Theories: What Paradigm Shifts and Normal Science Tell Us about Fox News and the FBI’s Secret Society

Thomas Kuhn is of course known for his notion of “paradigm shifts” in science: when one worldview gives way (reluctantly, slowly) to a new, as in the switch from Newtonian to Einsteinian mechanics in physics.

What was equally interesting to me, though, was his discussion of the periods of “normal science” that happen between shifts, when researchers are happily operating within an established paradigm. Here, he argues, the existing paradigm is useful in many ways as it guides inquiry, suggesting areas of study and framing observation. In particular, he says that one of the reasons “normal science” progresses so rapidly is that the paradigm tells researchers which “puzzles” should have answers, and so makes their time far more productive.

Of course, paradigms eventually break down. Researchers gather data that doesn’t fit or find questions that can’t be answered, and when there’s enough of this (and when the adherents of the old paradigm die out)… voila, scientific revolution.

Though he doesn’t address the point, I’ve always viewed these two scientific modes—“normal science,” and “revolutionary science” as I suppose one might call it—as correlated with deduction and induction respectively.  During normal science, the paradigm gives the major premises of the deductive syllogism. Scientists then fill in the minor premises through research and observation, and come to a conclusion. And, as with all deduction, the conclusion is inevitably contained within the premise in some sense.

On the other hand, revolutionary science seems inductive to me. Researchers have a pile of data that don’t fit with any major premise, and from this accretion of detail they must reach toward larger principles. If they do this well enough, and often enough, these larger principles may eventually become a new paradigm, and normal science begins again (for a while).

So what does all this have to do with partisanship? What does Kuhn have to do with Sean Hannity? Partisanship, I would suggest, is a paradigm, and as such it guides us toward particular puzzles (and away from others), and shapes how we look at data. Most of all, though, it gives partisans the foundational major premise of all their syllogistic reasoning: my side is right and good, and the other side is wrong and bad.

When one starts with that premise as a truth beyond question, the descent into conspiracy theories becomes almost inevitable. If one begins with the assumption that Hillary Clinton is evil and Donald Trump is good, and then the FBI clears Clinton but not Trump, it’s reasonable—perhaps even necessary—to believe there is a vast secret liberal conspiracy at the FBI. It’s only rational. Any other conclusion might challenge the paradigm.

I wish I had easy answers to this, but as Kuhn suggests, paradigms often change only when one generation born in that paradigm dies out and another takes its place. I would imagine political paradigm mat be even more resilient.

I would suggest, though, one idea: the enthymeme. If we must be deductive (and I do think we must, at least some of the time), perhaps we can step away from Platonic certainty and embrace the mere probability of the humble enthymeme. Let’s at least try not to begin with my side is right, and the other side is wrong, but rather with my side is probably right, and the other side is probably wrong. That’s not enough, really, but it might be a start.


Two Quick Rhetoric and Running Updates

The big part of my life that is neither rhetoric nor running has consumed me recently, and is likely to continue to do so for a while, but I have time for a quick update on both the rhetoric and the running.

The Running: The half marathon is now eighteen days away, and though I was pretty settled into fifty mile weeks and feeling great about the whole process, the world (sickness, travel, family, the fragility of life) decided I would be best served by a zero mile week just three weeks out from the race. Could be worse.  I suppose it may still get worse. Regardless, I’m back on the road as of today, and given my time in a 15k trail run a few weeks back, I’m still aiming for a 7:20/mile pace, or about 1:36 for the whole race.

The Rhetoric: I’m scheduled to present at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in May (actually I’m up on June 1, I think), and while I had hoped to get way more done this break (again, sickness, travel…) I’m basically done with my initial research. It looks like I’m going to be able to suggest that Lakoff’s notion of narrative framing isn’t quite correct, and, though I won’t get into it in the presentation, there may be deeper problems with his understanding of liberals and conservatives. In essence, it seems the same differences Lakoff identifies between the left and right exist between factions of the left. In other words, there are liberals who, at least in some areas, have a “conservative” worldview, but still have very liberal policies. Clearly I’m going to need to get my ducks in a row before I go too far with such claims, though. (The only reason I’m willing to write them here is that I know pretty much no one reads this!)

One other rhetoric note. Lots of people are talking about the need for Democrats to develop policies that will help working class voters. I think this may be good governance, but it’s a stupid electoral strategy. First, basically no one picks a party based on it’s policies. Instead, they tend to pick the policies based on  their party. Political affiliation is far more an identity than a rational choice. Second, to the extent that people do care about policies, they don’t so much care if they are getting enough, but rather they care if someone else is getting too much. Anger about “welfare” or corporate tax breaks or immigration isn’t about people wanting some of those goodies for themselves, but rather being angry that someone else is getting something they don’t deserve. It says nothing good about humanity, but it seems we’re happy to suffer ourselves so long as we can make sure everyone else is suffering along with us. So helping the working class will not win a single vote, I predict. Like too many of us, they want to stick it to someone else, not help themselves.


Stay healthy, be active, enjoy friends and family, work to understand everything generally and a few things really well, and try to leave everything a bit better than you found it.


Why (Many) Republicans Get Defensive When People Attack Nazis

My Facebook feed is loaded with conservatives posting angry memes defending confederate statues and attacking those who marched against the Nazis in Virginia and Massachusetts. This, of course, follows three responses from Trump, one of which was clearly scripted, and the other two of which focused more anger on the protesters than on the Nazis.

In other words, conservatives saw people protesting Nazis, and they became extremely defensive.

This is strange, to say the least. One becomes defensive when attacked. So the question becomes, why did these folks see attacks on Nazis as attacks on them?

Okay, I know what you’re thinking… and I think it’s wrong. Sure, many of those Nazis were clearly Trump-ites, but that doesn’t mean the reverse is true—that many of the Trump-ites are Nazis. That logic doesn’t work. (Consider: all motorcycles are vehicles, but only a small fraction of vehicles are motorcycles.) Plus, I know many of these Facebook folks. I disagree with their politics—deeply, profoundly, in some cases—but they’re not Nazis. They’re wrong, and sometimes horrible, but not Nazis.

So what’s going on?

There are two broad ways we can be driven to become members of a community—and I mean any community, from Yankees fan to Southern Baptist to runner to liberal/conservative/Democratic/Republican. First, we can positively identify with the people and ideas of that community. In other words, we share some positive elements, characteristics, loves, beliefs, understandings of the world, etc. But we can also become members of a community by sharing an opposition to something with other members of that community.

In other words, you can be a Democrat because you think Obama was great or because you support a higher minimum wage or universal health care. But you can also become a Democrat because that community, like you, hates Trump or opposes the Iraq war or something like that. Burke (Kenneth, that is) called this identification by antithesis. A simplified view of this is below:

Political Identity_2_no narrative


The thing is, the modern Republican party no longer stands FOR much of anything; the green side of the picture above is largely empty but for a few items like guns, the military, police. However, the red side is jammed because Republicans are mostly AGAINST things. What things? Immigrants. Government. Taxes. “Urban” people. Welfare. China. Europe.  That list goes on for quite a while. But mostly, they stand against “The Left.” Hating liberals (progressives, Democrats, whatever you want to call them) is far and away the most significant element of modern Republican/conservative identity. If the left is for it, they’re against it. Update daily.

So what happens when a bunch of liberals go out and protest Nazis? Republicans find themselves in a bind. They hate liberals, but liberals hate Nazis, and they sure can’t agree with liberals. The answer, apparently: attack “both sides.”

There’s always more to it. And in this case, some of the obvious answers are obviously correct. Republicans have, since the 60s, become the Southern party, and so have a knee-jerk defense of anything related to the South. They also identify with guns, and it was the Nazis who had the guns. Plus, to be a member of a community is generally to rally to the side of others in the community, even when they do something horrible. Like excusing Nazis.

But in the end, I think many of my conservative Facebook acquaintances would have been happy to condemn Nazis… If only liberals hadn’t done it first.


(By the way, for those still paying attention, this notion of identification by antithesis also means that no, we can’t just get along. Hating the left is what defines much of the right, so the left can’t just adopt moderate stances and win these folks over. The hatred isn’t based on the stances. They hate the left for the same reason that Yankees fans hate the Red Sox, which is to say, for no logical reason at all. It’s just part of being a member of that community.)

Peggy Noonan Hates Trump… And Women

Or, How the Right Will Turn on Trump

I don’t know exactly when, or even if, conservatives will finally turn on Trump. But I know what it will look like. Indeed, longtime conservative and current Wall Street Journal editorial columnist Peggy Noonan gives us a preview.

In her August 3rd column, she writes of Trump:

He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen.

Strong stuff, but look more closely at how she characterizes him: “whiny,” “weepy and self-pitying,” “sobbing,” “drama queen.” In each case the goal is not merely to show Trump as weak, but to undermine his masculinity. For Noonan, Trump is the worst thing one can be: feminine*.

This runs throughout the article. She describes his tweets as “plaintive, shrill little cries.” And who is “shrill” but the nagging wife of stereotype fame? His attacks on “fake news” are “whimpering” according to Noonan. His speech to the Boy Scouts, she asserts, shows he is driven by his emotions. Then, of course, Noonan slips into the standard conservative lament about how masculinity has changed from the good old days of the “strong silent type” like “Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda,” leaving us with men who are “nervous and chattery.” She doesn’t need to add “like a girl” to that last line for the meaning to be clear.

Sure, she admits Trump may not be smart as he doesn’t understand things like the health care policy he is pushing, but it’s clear she’d happily accept this ignorance if only he’d be the head-breaking brute he pretended to be on the campaign trail. Stupid is fine. Weak is terrible. But female is unforgivable.

Remember, apart from the other issues the right had with Obama, the one that seemed to make Fox News hosts most apoplectic was that he insisted on “talking like a professor” instead of a WWE wrestler. In other words, he was weak, one of those “chattery” modern men who are hardly men at all. And then Democrats had the gall to run an actual female human in the next election!

So when Noonan begins to attack Trump as weak and womanly, what’s really happening is she’s beginning the process of casting him out of the conservative club. “He’s not one of us,” she’s saying. “He never was.” And that’s what they’ll all say eventually.



*at least “feminine” according to her stereotyped view of the term


White Collar Privilege

Come Tuesday I’ll have been sidelined from running for two weeks, and from tennis and any other activity that uses my right shoulder for one week. And it’s made me realize how profoundly lucky I am.

These are both overuse injuries, made worse by the fact that 48 year old bodies don’t heal like 25 year old bodies. So I have to lay off strenuous exercise for a couple weeks.  Annoying, but nothing more than that.

Imagine, though, a 48 year old making a living doing the sort of physical labor (landscaping, for instance) that I’ve done in the past. Overuse injuries would be inevitable. And what happens when this person can’t lift a shovel, or bend down to pick up a roll of sod. Missing work for a few weeks isn’t an option; these jobs don’t pay enough to give the financial cushion for that sort of thing. And sick leave? Nonexistent in most such professions.

So I’m profoundly lucky that my injury has no impact on my earning. Everyone should be so fortunate. Really. I mean we need to work to make sure our nation ensures everyone has the same comfort of knowing that a pulled muscle isn’t going to mean their children go to bed hungry or they can’t make the next rent payment. This starts by maintaining the systems we have: workers’ compensation and social security disability coverage just to name a couple. But they aren’t enough, so the work isn’t finished.

The Narrative–Political Continuum

narrative & politcal continuum

Liberals are predominantly comic, but there is a significant minority that is essentially melodramatic (the Bernie Sanders element in the latest election). Both narrative elements are represented in liberal media.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are dominated by melodrama, so much so that there is essentially no comic-conservative media. This, I suggest, is the “missing right”–a group that likely exists but lacks media representation, and to a great degree political representation as well.

Beyond Left & Right: Melodramatic or Comic?

Political identity is not merely about the people and policies you support or oppose, but is also about the narrative lens through which you view the world. The two basic narrative world views are described below:

narrative characteristics_2

Examples will follow in later posts, but this is the foundation.