Paradigms vs. Conspiracies: What’s the Difference?

Last night’s post about the exciting new developments in fringe cosmology provoked some interesting twitter comments. Seems some of the language in the article I linked to (particularly at the end, where it talks about vested interest) reminded some of you of denialist language from one or another favorite science/history denial camps.

Specifically, the word “conspiracy” came up a few times, as in “Do they really expect us to believe scientists are in a conspiracy about the Big Bang?”

So why would I, someone who publicly fancies himself a fairly rational fellow, post something that smacked of conspiracy thinking and call it “interesting?” Because I think there’s a difference between a conspiracy and a paradigm, and it starts with understanding how scientific theories work.

Scientific Theories

In common parlance we use “theory” in the same kind of way Spock uses it on Star Trek: i.e. as an idea that gets troublesome problems out of your hair. For example, “I have a theory, Captain: in order to save the Enterprise, you must seduce the alien’s girlfriend” is not a theory, it’s a policy recommendation designed to remove something troublesome (i.e. Kirk) from the speaker’s (i.e. Spock’s) immediate view, perhaps permanently (i.e. when the phaser-weilding alien catches Kirk boinking the girlfriend).

The closest we get to this kind of thing in science is an hypothesis—“hypo” from the Greek meaning “deficient” or “underdeveloped” and “thesis” meaning “idea” or “argument.” A hypothesis is a guess phrased in such a way that it can be proved wrong if an experiment or discovery goes the wrong way. As an explanation, it doesn’t yet have a good body of experiments establishing that it’s likely correct. If you have a guess about how plants grow, but can’t yet offer supporting evidence, you have a hypothesis.

A “theory,” on the other hand, is what happens when hypotheses grow up. A theory is an explanation for a group of related facts that has withstood (or been changed by) a great deal of experimentation. Because theories are always constructed in a way that makes them vulnerable to contrary evidence, no theory is ever “proved,” it is only “established.” In other words, a theory is what happens when you fail often enough, and learn from it.

One quick note on facts: when it comes to science, facts are almost worthless. It’s not that they’re irrelevant, but rather that all of science exists to explain facts. We’re at no loss for facts, the problem is the opposite: we’ve got too many of them, and they don’t make sense unless we can establish the relationships between them. Theories are the tentative maps of those relationships.

Thomas Kuhn and the Fastest Gun In The West

There was a philosopher in the 1960s who caused a big stink by taking this basic premise (that theories are only “established” and not “proved”) one step further and arguing that theories were essentially fashions, having no dependable relationship with either facts, good theory, or the truth. His name was Thomas Kuhn, and he made this argument in a paper (and book) called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

These fashions, he called “Paradigms,” and he argued that they are enforced by the academic and scientific establishment, which squeezes out competing theories and contrary data until enough contrary data exists for younger scientists (i.e. the ones without an investment in the status quo) to come along and wreak havoc. Thus, he argued, science is a socially constructed and socially determined endeavor, not a search for truth or a method for discovering and minimizing error. As a sociologist at the height of the social determinism and constructivism movements, he makes an ironic poster child for his own argument.

So, by Kuhn’s lights, the only time science ever advances (and it doesn’t really ever advance, it just changes fashions) is when enough young hotshots gun for the old coots that they succeed in overthrowing the old dominant theoretical structure and replacing it with a new one. This phenomenon he called a “Paradigm Shift.” And yes, he invented that term.

Kuhn’s notions have permeated deep into popular culture, which already had an erroneous idea of science as THE TRUTH and the source of CERTAINTY (capitalization intentional). As you can guess, it helped make the whole scientific enterprise deeply suspect. Kuhn’s thesis has become an under-girding element of postmodern epistemology and philosophy, and has had a number of other interesting knock-on effects.

It turns out that most of the history Kuhn relied on to make his arguments was incorrect–he was, after all, a sociologist and not an historian, and as Rodney Stark demonstrates, it’s very easy for a very good sociologist to get himself into trouble when he makes sweeping arguments based on a naive understanding of history. The book Thomas Kuhn in the Light of Reason goes through Kuhn’s work with a much-needed critical eye, and is very accessible. Kuhn greatly exaggerated his conclusions and was wrong about some of its mechanisms, but he does deserve credit for spotting a legitimate social dynamic at work.

So, stripping it of some of the bullshit that Kuhn’s over-ambition imbued it with, a paradigm is a collection of theories that comprise an overarching model of the world. And Kuhn was right about something important: Science advances because researchers try like hell to poke holes in the existing theories. Shooting the old fastest gun in the west is a great way to make a name for yourself, or get a Nobel prize. Stephen Hawking made his name paradigm busting, and he helped the same kind of thing.


Where a paradigm is a structure of theories, a conspiracy is a collusion of people to suppress or obscure the truth, or to frustrate attempts to reveal the truth. Denialists often invoke the language of conspiracies to explain why their ideas are not accepted by the mainstream. Some examples:

The film Expelled posits a widespread conspiracy among scientists to suppress the fact that the theory of Evolution is contradicted by almost all of the facts, and to punish scientists who believe in God. The conspirators allegedly do this in order to advance a utopian social vision.

Holocaust deniers posit a widespread conspiracy among veterans, historians, the media, and others to pretend that the holocaust happened, in order to provide a public justification for the existence of the state of Israel.

Climate denialists posit a nearly perfect collusion of scientists across a wide variety of disciplines in order to whip the public into a frenzy, secure funding, and (depending on who you talk to) transfer national sovereignty to the United Nations.

All these theories, and all other conspiracy theories, depend on three notions: 1) A large number of people have a vested interest in lying about information that is publicly accessible, 2) that vested interest is directed toward a set of articulable ends, and 3) despite the thousands of people involved, they maintain near-perfect discipline and informational control.

Pretty damn unlikely.

That’s not to say conspiracies don’t exist — they do. A conspiracy assassinated Abraham Lincoln, another one led by Deitrich Boenhoffer failed do assasinate Hitler. Read properly, the dealings that brought the U.S. Constitution into existence could be plausibly described as a conspiracy. But the problem with conspiracies is that people talk. Information control is difficult, and becomes exponentially more difficult the larger the conspiracy gets.

History is littered with failed conspiracies (such as the Watergate cover-up) because, as one of history’s most successful professional conspirators and revolutionaries said, “Three may keep a secret, so long as two of them are dead.”

(That was Ben Franklin, by the way, in Poor Richard’s Almanac).

Gunning for the Nobel Prize

So when you’ve got stories about scientific revolutions happening–and there are a lot of them going on right now, it’s an exciting time–don’t mistake the excitement of a paradigm-buster who’s trying to prove the old guard wrong and experiencing social resistance for a paranoid conspiracy theorist. They can sound similar on the surface (in the same way, and for the same reasons, that Climate Denialists and Climate Skeptics can), but when you dig deeper, you’ll discover this distinction:

The Paradigm-buster or skeptic is interested in fixing an outstanding (and often a very widely acknowledged) problem with the state of scientific knowledge.

The Denialist or Conspiracy Theorist is interested primarily in fomenting paranoia and discrediting an existing social power structure by any means necessary (including character assassination, dishonesty, and intimidation).

These categories aren’t ironclad–humans are complicated. Sometimes legitimate skeptics get so angry they act like denialists. And sometimes Conspiracy theorists are really slick and can maintain for a long time the illusion that they’re only interested in the science. Eventually, though, people do tend to sort themselves fairly dependably into one category or another on a given topic.

I’d love to carry on the conversation–please post your comments below!

P.S. For those of you wanting more background on yesterday’s article and the topics it’s addressing, check out Lawrence Krauss giving a lecture on contemporary cosmology, and you can get a multi-perspective quickie overview on this BBC Horizon Documentary about the current cosmological revolution. In both cases, the scientists involved are quite open about the problems posed by Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and other X-factors. It is these X-factors that the article I linked to yesterday is attempting to address.

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