Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Paradigm and the Cognitive Frame

One of the things we've learned about successful social change is that different behavior must be preceded by different ways of thinking. I'll take up two examples here, one from science and the other from politics.

The historian of science Thomas Kuhn has argued that scientific theory doesn't really change because of newly introduced evidence, at least not much. Really major changes come about because some small group of scientists see the existing data in different combinations and with a different interpretation, and they construct a parallel body of theory that seems also to fit with the data at hand. They then conduct new experiments that would indicate some further reach of their theory, and gradually (through publishing and teaching) gain converts until the new paradigm, to use Kuhn's term, displaces the old one.

Kuhn gives a striking example of this "paradigm shift" in his book Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912 (1987, University of Chicago Press). In BBT, Kuhn explores the original published papers and unpublished correspondence — in French, German, and English — of the leading physicists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at the moment when Newtonian physics was called into question by the new quantum physics we now associate with Einstein and others. Kuhn focuses on the work of one notable physicist, Max Planck, who was doing work on the mathematics of energy emission and absorption (a "black body" is an object that absorbs 100% of its received energy and reflects 0%). He discovered a small error in the most widely accepted calculation, and introduced a microscopically small multiplier (0.00000000000000000000000000000000006626...) that seemed to resolve most of the issues at hand. This was in 1901.

By 1905, a number of physicists working across Europe and the US had come to the belief that this dinky little number represented not a statistical tidying-up job, but rather suggested that there were indivisibly small units of matter and energy that they began to call quanta, and that these energy/matter units would predict all kinds of unexpected things about physics at scales other than the everyday. Quantum physics was the outcome, and Planck's Constant, as it is called, is seen as the origin. But Planck himself never believed that quantum physics made sense, and died twelve years later as an unrepentant Newtonian.

Now the political. A linguist at Berkeley named George Lakoff who is politically very left-leaning has done some fascinating analysis for why conservatives have so firmly held political power for the past 30 years, even in the face of some pretty objective failures. He argues (like Kuhn, but without invoking his research) that people aren't fundamentally swayed by evidence unless that evidence can be organized into a compelling cognitive frame (the equivalent of what Kuhn called the paradigm). Lakoff and others believe that the thing that conservative thinkers have done best, and what liberal thinkers have to learn to do, is to offer an overarching view of the world that encompasses the evidence at hand, and to recast the vocabulary in a way that supports that bigger frame. As conservative intellectual Eric Huebeck put it,
We must win the people over culturally—by defining how man ought to act, how he ought to perceive the world around him, and what it means to live the good life. Political arrangements can only be formed after these fundamental questions have been answered... The ideas of the masses never come from the masses. The most important thing any movement can do is capture the imagination of the people. One must give them dreams and ideas that have been put in terms they understand, and touch their hearts as opposed to their rational minds. If we cannot capture the imaginations of our members, then we cannot expect our members to make great sacrifices for us. (Huebeck, Eric. 2001. "The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement." Available at the Free Congress Foundation website, )
All of the core ideas of conservative thought — that government is invasive, that markets are self-regulating, that the media is liberal, that the left is untrustworthy, that patriotism should be uncritical, and so on — are drawn from an overarching (and emotionally attractive) cognitive frame about the strength and autonomy of the individual. We stand and are judged on our own merits, with no strength but ourselves, our family, and our faith. Lakoff and others argue that if a political left is to be resurgent, it also needs to express an overarching and emotionally attractive cognitive frame. Facts and policies are not enough, and can never be enough, to change minds in the absence of that larger narrative.

Hey! This used to be an architectural theory blog... how did we get over to physics and politics?

Because I think that both Kuhn and Lakoff are right. If we hope to change the practice and the teaching of architecture, we have to offer an emotionally compelling story about why our vision is attractive and would result in happier communities. We have to reclaim architecture from the profession's current narrative of architect as intellectual and artistic pioneer and from the popular narrative of the architect as master technician. We need to develop (and do the work to support) a new story, that architects know more than anyone about how to enhance personal and social happiness through manipulating the physical world.

1 comment:

nora said...

There's only one problem that I see with reclaiming the story that "architects know more than anyone about how to enhance personal and social happiness through manipulating the physical world."

There is a school of Psychology that believes that behavior precedes cognition and that it is when we see ourselves acting that we know what we believe. Certainly the analogy to politics is there, though I won't pretend to know enough about physics to weigh in on this. And I think the analogy to architecture is also alive and well, e.g. if we give kids rows of desks, their thinking will be as ordered as their rows of desks. The Lakoff frame analysis is interesting to me, but I am one step back, trying to figure out how we parse the chicken-and-egg question of behavior and cognition. And I suppose I will admit that I am not sure that either frame analysis or behavior will do the job until we link them in practice and over time-- learning what the Gibsonians would call what the building will "afford." We ARE our buildings and they are us.