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.


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.

Marx still (mostly) wrong, but not for the reason everyone thinks: Capitalism, Marxism, and Distributed Error

One of the greatest problems with Marxist theory is the failure of central planners to correctly organize an economy. When the supplies at every grocery store are determined not by the owners or managers of each grocery story, but by the central planners, the result was a seemingly random mix of absurd oversupply of some items and crippling scarcity of other items.

One typical justification for this–and one that has become a pillar of one U.S. political party’s thinking–is that the government is simply bad at economic intervention (and, by extension, the private sector is remarkably good at it). This is wrong. I would suggest that both are equally skilled.

Instead, what I believe is happening is simply a statistical issue. If there is only one decision making authority, the errors of that authority are amplified and show up in every store. However, if every store is its own decision maker, then the errors of one store will tend to be cancelled out by another store. If one store incorrectly orders too many boots and not enough flour, its likely that another store will have extra flour, and still another will not have enough boots. With decentralized control, each individual private enterprise need be no better than the central planner for the net effect to be far more positive.

So government is not necessarily worse or better than any other group at such planning (and likely at most everything else). It’s just that, as when rolling dice, more rolls will tend to yield an overall result closer to the statistical average than will fewer rolls.

So Marxism still doesn’t work, but let’s not learn the wrong lessons from this.

Statistical Nonsense: No, Democrats Did Not Lose Support Among Hispanics or Women (probably)

Just a quick comment to point out that all the analysis of how Democrats or Republicans gained or lost among populations in the last election is largely bunk.

In general, it is extremely difficult to accurately compare different elections because you are not looking at the same sample group. So, right off the bat, if you see any comparisons between the party support among demographic groups in 2012 and 2014, ignore them. Apples to oranges. Comparing 2010 to 2014 is better, but still problematic. Consider: Republican support among Latinos went up from 2010 to 2014. So, did some Latinos who supported Democrats in 2010 switch to Republicans in 2014, or did those who supported Democrats in 2010 simply not vote in 2014? Both cases would show up as rising support among this population.

Now consider that turnout for 2014 was the lowest since World War 2. This suggests the second of the possibilities—Democratic voters staying home—is more likely: Republican voters were simply more committed, and so those Republicans in all groups were a larger percentage of the total electorate. So what really happened was not that Republicans gained among Latinos, but that Democrats weren’t motivated enough to vote. In fact, this is largely what happened (in reverse) in 2006, when Republicans stayed home. Regardless, this is a somewhat different issue, and should not be confused with fundamental changes in support. It’s a fundamental change in turnout, likely stemming from a fundamental change in motivation, and while that deserves study, we have to be certain we’re studying the right thing.

(And by the way, I would suggest that motivation comes from having a well-defined enemy more than a well-defined hero, so the out-party will always have an advantage there.)

UPDATE: weighs in, making a similar point. When turnout is high only in Republican states, overall turnout will look very Republican. A turnout problem, then, not a change in support among key demographics.