Thomas Kuhn and the January 6 hearings: Which reality is ‘true reality’?

by Steven Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan

As the January 6th hearings continue and Americans watch new, seemingly undeniable video evidence of insurrection and quibble about whether one could reach the steering wheel of the Presidential SUV from the back seat, the ideas of Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher and historian of science who coined the phrase “paradigm shift” to explain scientific revolutions remain prescient as ever, even as we approach his 100th birthday.

According to Kuhn in his most famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientists generally think and work in a state of what he called normal science. Under normal scientific conditions, all research occurs within a paradigm. Paradigms, he explained, do four interrelated things.

First, they define the terms that describe the universe, like atom or force. Second, they determine what counts as legitimate questions. (“What is the mass of the electron?” might be fair, for example, but not “Do electrons have polka-dots?”) Third, they set limits on which tools you can use to answer those questions. (Reading a voltmeter is perfectly acceptable, but reading tea leaves is out.) And fourth, they determine what counts as an acceptable answer to those questions. (Just to pick one: you don’t get to use negative lengths.)

Normal science is puzzle solving. The paradigm frames riddles and gives us the rules we need to follow in order to solve them. If you solve an approved riddle, you get to publish your answer, becoming a member of the community of normal scientists. The paradigm gives members of the scientific community their union cards, essentially, so the last thing they want to do is to question the rules of that paradigm.

Sure, there might be other paradigms, but when normal scientific conditions prevail, we completely understand the world through the current paradigm. As a result, people who come from other paradigms sound like they’re speaking in gibberish. They don’t seem rational, because the paradigm you’re coming from defines what’s rational and what isn’t. It’s almost as if they live in a different universe.

And here’s what’s really tricky: you can’t have any good reason to switch from one paradigm to another because good reason itself is determined by the paradigm you’re coming from.

So, why are some paradigms dominant and others marginalized? Kuhn’s answer is political, not rational. A paradigm becomes dominant because it gives the established scientists who come from it the power and resources to control the education, grants, jobs, and awards that new scientists want. Paradigms are self-policing, self-reinforcing social-political entities.

Somehow, though, there are revolutionary times when one paradigm replaces another. Paradigm shifts, as Kuhn called them, happen only rarely because they require a large group of scientists to abandon a well-established structure and give up the benefits it offers to embrace an upstart way of seeing the world. A scientist changing paradigms, Kuhn argued, was essentially a religious conversion.

What makes a scientist convert from the scientific “religion” in which they were educated to another? Kuhn’s answer: anomalies. Whenever you ask a well-formed question and use the methods prescribed by your paradigm, then get an inappropriate answer, you have an anomaly. If the anomaly is big enough, or if you suddenly discover a lot of them, it can induce a state of crisis. If it happens to enough scientists, they start questioning the dominant paradigm… and some start looking at new ones.

For a scientific revolution to occur, a critical mass of scientists has to abandon the current paradigm and convert to a new one. When that happens, they build a new political power structure. They establish a new regime with new truths, new rules, new power relationships, and new people in charge. Scientific revolutions, Kuhn argued, are very much like political revolutions… which brings us to the insurrection of January 6th.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. We can have different values or commit to different policy proposals in order to realize our values, but we have to share a common foundation of facts. A Kuhnian would beg to differ, however, because people who come from different paradigms can, and do, believe in different realities. For decades now, in fact, that Kuhnian notion has inspired a growing number of American conservatives to build a new political paradigm that’s radically different from our current democratic structure.

For decades, Democrats and Republicans agreed on the norms and procedures that grounded our political reality: every eligible citizen should be allowed to vote; race, gender, and religious belief shouldn’t make anyone ineligible to vote (although it did take different amounts of time to reach consensus about who was eligible); all votes should be counted; and whoever gets the most votes wins the election, except in the case of Presidential elections, which are governed by the more complex rules of the Electoral College. These rules were all part of the political paradigm that Americans once widely accepted.

But things changed. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, founder of the Moral Majority, said “I don’t want everyone to vote…our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” His declaration started a new wave of voter suppression efforts intended to make sure not everyone would get to vote and to challenge which votes would be counted. In 2000, there was ambiguity about whether Al Gore received more votes in Florida than George W. Bush. The Brooks Brothers revolution showed that if Republicans raised enough of a fuss, Democrats would protect the paradigm rather than their electoral victory. They were willing to sacrifice the power that would come with electoral victory to protect the structural stability of the entire election process.

Over time, conservatives began to establish an alternative paradigm, setting themselves apart from what an unnamed Bush aide called “the reality-based community” of people who believe that political solutions derive from a “judicious study of discernible reality.” The aide defined the new conservative paradigm both brazenly and clearly: “That’s not the way the world really works any more… [W]e create our own reality.” In 2017, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway embraced the new paradigm by referring to the administration’s falsehoods as “alternative facts.” For adherents to that new paradigm, those alternative facts are absolutely real.

The new paradigm explains why it’s so much more difficult to have political conversations across party lines than it once was. Those of us who are members of the “reality-based community” rely on double-blind testing and statistics to determine whether certain facts, like the efficacy of masks and COVID vaccines, are rational to believe. Those who are members of the “alternative facts” paradigm have removed the scientific method from that role, replacing it with declarations made by powerful political and media voices. Between those two paradigms, we no longer agree on which facts constitute reality.

The “alternative fact” that widespread voter fraud influenced the outcome of the 2020 election—the big lie told by the Trump administration—was meant to achieve two things.

First, it signaled the existence of a new paradigm that voters could choose to inhabit.

Second, by creating the appearance of electoral anomalies, it induced a state of crisis. The Eastman memos outlining the so-called “Green Bay Sweep” made the Republican election strategy crystal clear. They intended to undermine the credibility of the 2020 election results by fabricating anomalies: fake voting irregularities.

By loudly claiming voter fraud, conservatives tried to create a big enough crisis to justify ignoring ballots and relying on the partisan whim of statehouses to determine the outcome of the election. If they had succeeded, the “alternative facts” paradigm would have become dominant, creating a new political system, with new rules and power structures. That Kuhnian revolution, which many conservatives referred to as “1776,” is precisely what they’ve been trying to bring about for more than four decades.

Many Republicans no longer accept the paradigm in which everyone gets to vote, all votes are counted, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Most Democrats still do. We are living in a state of crisis, even though the supposed anomalies aren’t real. Through these hearings, as a nation, we are deciding which reality we will live in, which “truths” will be facts, and which rules and values will govern our lives.


Steven Gimbel is professor of Philosophy and affiliate of the Jewish Studies program at Gettysburg College. Gwydion Suilebhan is executive director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and project director of the New Play Exchange for the National New Play Network.