Lessons from Science Can Help Make Sense of This Period of Political Renewal

Thomas Kuhn.

In the 1960’s, Thomas Kuhn, a professor of scientific history at MIT, developed a simple theory behind shifts in scientific understanding.

Kuhn held a fascination at how established norms could so rapidly fall out of favour within the scientific community. How, he pondered, could such stable ideas — the fabric of scientific knowledge — be overturned in what seems to be an instant?

Making sense of progress, Kuhn developed a trajectory of change.

First, an idea is formulated — one that has a logical end point, but will take a generation of problem solving to prove it so. When the day-to-day work of science cannot reach the desired outcome, however, an anomaly arises.

What follows is a period of crisis — one in which new ideas are not only allowed but encouraged to solve this anomaly and reach an outcome. The older models, now proven incapable of reaching conclusions, are replaced. A paradigm shift occurs, and a new norm is realised.

Kuhn understood that it is in the period of crisis — the moment in which new ideas are embraced — that the guiding principles of the next generation of discovery would be established.

While Thomas Kuhn was focused on making sense of scientific change, his logic has broader applications.

Today, the global political environment is in many cases at that third stage in Kuhn’s timeline — crisis.

Not, perhaps, crisis in the normal sense of the word. The world isn’t falling apart, yet. Our institutions remain robust. Our livelihoods, for the most part, are getting better.

But we’ve entered a period in which new ideas about what our world should be are actively encouraged and debated, and the nature of what the inevitable political paradigm shift will look like is emerging.

In this phase — a period of either renewal or regression — the type of debate we embrace will establish the foundations of our politics for the coming generation.

Moments like this ultimately lead to two different approaches to dealing with crisis and embracing a shifting paradigm. One is easy, and one is hard. One is destructive, while the other is constructive.

The Trump and Clinton campaigns represented this simple dichotomy. That the louder, easier, more primal option — the destructive choice — prevailed in this case will have a lasting impact.

The emergence of a darker America is worrisome, particularly here at home. Australia’s security relies upon a consistent US posture in our region. Even if no great shift occurs, that America’s president-elect has questioned his nation’s central international role exposes Australia’s inherent fragility to the whims of global change.

But beyond the question of Australia’s security, Trump’s victory highlights the stark reality in which a destructive vision of our future is more electorally palatable than a constructive alternative.

The success of this new politics is now a template for the weakest political voices in Australia, who, knowing they can never win on substance, now have a vessel through which power can be attained.

It is alarming that much of Australia’s current debate is shifting towards this direction.

The current government often offers an optimistic and hopeful rhetorical style for which it should be congratulated. But equally often, it aims to get out in front of these darker forces of our society and appease them rather than confronting them.

The overtly aggressive and politically charged life-time refugee ban recently flagged is an example of the vacuous approach to confronting today’s darkest challenges.

Such rhetoric has since been one-upped by the immigration minister with his recent comments on Australia’s Lebanese community. It is an early sign of how this style of political debate is becoming the new norm.

But these latest transgressions aren’t entirely new. They’re the culmination of years of embracing the worst nature of Australian society by certain voices within parliament. Abbott’s use of divisive rhetoric was the easy political choice, but it was also the destructive one. It set the tone for the type of debate we now have.

Embracing this legacy of divisiveness is wrong, but if left unchecked, it will emerge victorious in this period of profound disruption.

Anger in the community is real and often justified. It is easy for leaders to channel this anger towards destructive, opportunistic politics. It is harder to channel it to a more constructive vision of our future. Making the necessary choice isn’t a left-right question, it is a right-wrong one that is a shared responsibility by both sides of politics.

This period of renewal requires unfettered ambition, not resigned mollification. It should elevate our brightest ideas, not our darkest predispositions.

Leaders must understand, as Kuhn did, that the debates we have today begets the world we will have tomorrow.