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.

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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.)

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.

Narrative Forms and the Political Left: The DailyKos Survey

A paper on a survey attempting to identify formal preferences of the political left, and to evaluate the use of survey methodology in an area typically restricted to traditional rhetorical analysis. Click the link below for the .pdf of the paper.

Morrison Project _ Final

Blog #last: left is left and right is right after all (my findings in a [big] nutshell)

In this last blog post I’d like to telegraph the conclusions of my paper. (And by the way, don’t we need a more up-to-date linguistic metaphor than “telegraph”? I’m going to text my conclusions? Doesn’t sound right. Oh well.)

 

My paper is centered on two key questions:

  1. How might we theoretically understand highly partisan and/or ideological media, both in relation to their audiences, and in their operation within the public sphere?
  2. How can this theoretical understanding (developed in answer to question 1) help us to determine the structural breakdown between and within such media? That is, political affiliation is traditionally seen as a simple left/right, or possibly left/right/center. However, in addition to the disagreement between groups, there is often disagreement within groups. So are the media of the far left and right truly distinct, and does disagreement within a group indicate the group is really composed of several distinct but allied groups?

 

I’ll spend a bit of time in the presentation going over my answer to #1. But in this post I’ll get to the juicer bits. My approach involved studying partisan/ideological media reactions the NSA spying as these reactions didn’t fall neatly along party lines. In particular, I want to know if those on the right and left who opposed the spying exhibit some underlying similarities, or if there are underlying differences between those on the right who support the spying and who oppose the spying. (This last question is particularly timely, as there’s a strong libertarian-seeming component to the right, lately, and there is a real question of how much or little this group aligns with the more traditional right.)

 

The key approach was, per Rei and Cintron, to look not so much at what the groups opposed, but how they construct that opposition. (All of the articles were opposed to something; in fact opposition was so key that I think both left and right, no matter how much power they actually have, function as counterpublics.) So here is a “quick” summary of the findings:

 

 

The Right: Both groups (pro and anti-spying) build from existing partisan/ideological schema, drawing in particular on the recent news of local IRS offices targeting conservative groups (though the targeting of liberal groups is ignored, as is the lack of connection to any federal official). Those opposed to spying build their argument from the basis of virtue, arguing government is innately wicked and thus cannot be trusted. This view also defines “private” as “unknown to the government,” and suggests essentially everything should be private. As a result, it functionally eliminates the public sphere as a means of influencing government, as virtue is seen as innate rather than a response to social pressure. No social pressure can make a bad person (or institution) good, so the only acceptable approach is to disempower or eliminate the non-virtuous. Supporters of spying rely on specific definitions of government and private, seeking to differentiate between good/bad branches of government, and private vs. public. However, these authors still operate from a largely virtue-driven perspective, which tends to minimize the role of a public sphere. Thus there are some differences between the groups, but also a core similarity that undermines the public sphere for both groups. Thus I would argue that despite their differences, they function as a single public insofar as the way in which they construct their relationship to government, both in support (military, etc) and opposition (IRS, everything else), is essentially the same.

 

The Left: There are no pro-spying positions evident in the left-wing articles, and a great deal of time is spent attacking Democrats who supported the spying (and some time attacking Republicans who supported it as well). The key problem identified by the left is not even the spying itself, but the secret nature of the spying. This suggests a fundamental belief in the public sphere—a belief that public discourse is a key means of keeping government in check. Related to this position are several attacks on the notion of a good/evil dichotomy, which might be seen as attacks on the virtue-based view of government supported by the right.

 

 

Preliminary Conclusions: Despite the strong internal policy disputes on the right and the talk of the Tea Party as something new, I don’t believe this is the case. The Tea Party and the “traditional” right both construct opposition in the same way, and with the result that they see the public sphere as powerless. There is a certain irony here, of course, insofar as the right-wing media are participating in the public sphere, and, I would argue, are having a profound effect. In any case, such a view may explain why the goals of the right tend to be to eliminate government or its power rather, and perhaps even the right’s opposition to regulation (if personal virtue cannot be impacted by rules, as they suggest, then why regulate? Just trust the “good” people, and eliminate the “bad” people).

 

The left, on the other hand, operates from a very traditional Habermas-ian perspective, and sees public debate as a reasonably powerful and absolutely essential influence on the state. Again, this explains the left’s focus on regulation, and even on government itself. If people’s actions are not mere binary reflections of some innate morality, then rules really matter, and it’s vital that we discuss those rules.

 

Finally, I think this all offers a rather hopeless picture for those interested in “bipartisan cooperation.” Basically, I’m not sure such a thing is possible because the publics’ disagreements about policy and even ideology (small government, etc) are likely just symptoms of a far more fundamental disagreement about the nature of human morality and the effectiveness of public discourse that operates as sort of partisan schema through which we filter information and which leads us to fundamentally different policy views.