Voice

The book that should bake every eighteen-year old's noodle

Now is the time of year when students go to citadels of higher learning and hopefully learn some stuff instead of getting bogged down in weird cheating scandals.  Coincidentally enough, this past month there's also been a lot of talk about how impressionable young people often get enamored with Ayn Rand and isn't that awful or something

These laments this misses the point of how 18-year olds encountered the world of ideas in college.  That is the age when they are expected to seriously think about ideas for the first time.  They will crave ideas that will bake their noodle -- or at a minimum, that's the time when they should have their worldviews rocked ever few weeks or so.  If not Rand, then whom? 

In your blogger's humble opinion, there's another book that is celebrating it's 50th anniversary and remains far more earth-shattering in its intellectual effects.  A few weeks ago the Guardian's John Naughton celebrated Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions with an astute essay on its significance.  The highlights: 

Kuhn's version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative "progress", he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating "normal" and "revolutionary" phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work....

Kuhn's central claim is that a careful study of the history of science reveals that development in any scientific field happens via a series of phases. The first he christened "normal science" – business as usual, if you like. In this phase, a community of researchers who share a common intellectual framework – called a paradigm or a "disciplinary matrix" – engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies (anomalies) between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Most of the time, the anomalies are resolved either by incremental changes to the paradigm or by uncovering observational or experimental error. As philosopher Ian Hacking puts it in his terrific preface to the new edition: "Normal science does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover."

The trouble is that over longer periods unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually get to the point where some scientists begin to question the paradigm itself. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis characterised by, in Kuhn's words, "a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals". In the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one. This is the paradigm shift of modern parlance and after it has happened the scientific field returns to normal science, based on the new framework. And so it goes on.

This brutal summary of the revolutionary process does not do justice to the complexity and subtlety of Kuhn's thinking.

He's right -- read the whole thing.  I've blogged before about why Kuhn is equally important to social science here and here.  To put this into words that today's millenial generation can comprehend:  the effect of reading Thomas Kuhn to 18 year old is like the moment when Neo realizes there is no spoon

One's education about how science works shouldn't stop with Kuhn -- there have been some worthy responses to him -- but it's a great place to start. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Diary of a wimpy Sunday morning pundit

Dear God, that head is enormous!! Pull back!  PULL BACK!!

In a futile determined effort to expand his public intellectual brand, your humble blogger was on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC for about an hour this AM.  It was a veeeeery interesting experience.  Now, I know that some readers of this blog aspire to poison me and take my place on the FP masthead punditry themselves.  So, as a public service, this is what happens when you go on a Sunday morning talk show:  imagine the Law & Order chunk-CHUNK! going after each paragraph:

WEDNESDAY:  I receive a polite email from one of Melissa's segment/booking producers, who we'll call "M", asking if I want to be on the show this Sunday.  Having never done this kind of punditry before, and having my previous obligation for the weekend cancelled, I accept. 

Immediately after accepting, I experience two contradictory emotions.  First, the fear builds that they will email back the same day and say, "uh, we just re-checked our Rolodex, and.. [laughs] we have no idea who thought you merited being on television."  At the same time, I realize I'm going to have to watch the rest of the prime-time Republican National Convention speeches.  At which point I let loose a strong of profanities [What if had been the DNC instead?--ed.  The same number of profanities would have been released.]

THURSDAY:  I talk with M again, who runs down the planned topics with me -- the RNC, the DNC, the state of the election, and gun violence.  Immediately I have a slight quandry -- my expertise is in international relations, not electoral politics.  Do I dare to think I can play in the sandbox for a Sunday morning talk show?  At which point my inner media whore screams, Gollum-like, "YES!!  WE WANTS TO BE ON THE TV!!!  IT'S OUR PRECIOUS!!" 

This is, as near as I can determine, the First Commandment of Televsion Punditry -- you have to be secure enough in your abilities to chat with authority about issues outside your intellectual wheelhouse. 

FRIDAY:  To make my inner media whore proud, I start reading up on gun violence statistics.  I also read as much commentary as I can about the Republican National Convention.  Whatever intelligence I gain from the former I lose by reading the latter.   

SATURDAY:  Full disclosure:  Melissa and I were political science colleagues at the University of Chicago back in the day, so I'm familiar with her style and her politics.  That said, I haven't been a regular watcher of her MSNBC show, so I tune for the first half-hour in to get a sense of the roundtable.  Clearly MHP leans juuuuust a little to the left.  This raises an identity issue -- am I supposed to be  wearing the hat of "defender of conservatism"?  It's not a role I've been comfortable with as of late.  Or am I gonna wear the "dispassionate, snarky observer of the political scene"?  I feel much more comfortable with that hat on.  In all likelihood, it's going to be a little from column A and a little from column B.

LATER ON SATURDAY:  If you're going to be on roundtable for radio/television, there's a 98% chance you will need to do a "pre-interview" with a producer so they have a sense of what you're going to say during the conversation.  So I have that conversation with M, during which I learn that the topics have been jiggled around a bit and all those minutes hours of sketchy detailed online research into gun violence stats won't be worth much.  Instead, we'll be talking gay marriage.  Which is fine, I will rally with yet more Wikipedia-surfing intense study of primary texts.  And, of course, that segment will be moved as well.  So, the Second Commandment of Television Punditry is that the schedule will always change.

EVEN LATER ON SATURDAY:  The MHP show is classy -- they took care of all the flight/hotel/car service logistics.  So by Saturday night I found myself in a comfortable midtown hotel with a lovely view of Central Park.  Surfing the web furiously to research for Sunday AM, I see that some fireworks broke out on MHP's Saturday show after I switched off to pack.  Melissa was responding to the panel's most conservative participant making a point.  Ruh-roh. 

To prep, I take notes on each of the "blocks" or segments that I'm supposed to weigh in on.  I'm a professor and an academic, and therefore alwasys feel better with notes. 

SUNDAY MORNING PRE-SHOW:  I get to 30 Rock on time, which means I'm the first panelist there.... or so I think.  In actuality, the two female panelists -- NYU's Cristina Beltran and the Center for American Progress' Aisha Moodie-Mills -- are in makeup.  As they enter the green rom, I quickly comprehend that I am in deep trouble, because I am not nearly as pretty.  As the clock ticks towards 10 AM, and no one comes to get me, I am petrified that I have been typecast as the splotchy-faced redneck surrounded by urbane alluring panelists.  Before this scenario can play out in even weirder directions inside my head, however, M sends me to makeup.  They apply as enough powder to my face to fuel at least two Dunkin' Donuts franchies -- but it works .  My family later informs me that I looked good, so many, many thanks to those professionals at MSNBC. 

SUNDAY MORNING, 10 AM-11 AM:  OK, having done my first hour of Sunday morning chat -- which you can watch here, here, here and here -- I have learned the following effects on one's senses when three cameras and numerous klieg lights are pointed in your general direction:

A)  Time speeds up.  Seriously, that hour flew by.  Every time I was feeling like we were getting to a good part of the conversation, we hit a commercial break. 

B)  Almost all prep work is useless.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say in response to the first question asked, and I did that competently.  After that, whatever good punchy things were in my notes might as well have been left back at home for all the use they were to me.  Part of the issue is visual -- you don't want to be looking down at your notes.  Another part of the issue, which I've blogged about before, is the academic weakness of trying to directly answer the question

C)  Really, cameras can make you stupid.  If you mangle your words during an ordinary conversation, or even when giving a speech, you can take a moment and regroup.  If you mangle your words during a panel show, you become acutely aware that you're screwing up, which compounds the problem.  Another panelist will be happy to enter the breach.  On at least two occasioons, I had written down a better answer than the one that came out of my mouth during the program. 

SUNDAY MORNING, 11 AM:  I  need to get to the airport to come home, but I find two pieces of critical feedback from the experience worthwhile.  The first was the thumbs-up that Moodie-Mills and her partner give me as I exit the green room.  The second is an anonymous  email I soon find in my inbox: 

Drezner........Why are you such an idiot? Your appearance on MSLSD was laughable and embarrassing. It's really sad and embarrassing how you liberal bedwetters continue to be brainwashed by your worthless president. Why can't you clowns form a coherent thought on your own? Exactly, because you buffoons are mindless robots programmed by your worthless president. Barnum and Bailey have nothing on you clowns. What do you call a basement full of liberals? A whine cellar. Keep up the good work loser................

Why, it's... it's a troll!!  I've made it!!  I'M A REAL PUNDIT NOW!!!!!