The Logic of Ideological Narratives

Douglas P. McManaman
April 8, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

During the course of our study of logic, we came across the following conditional form:

If P (hypothesis), then Q (consequent)
Q (facts in evidence)
Therefore, P

For example,

If I come down with the flu, then I will have a fever.
I've got a fever (facts in evidence)
Therefore, I have the flu.

We know this is deductively invalid, for it is a matter of affirming the consequent (there are a number of possible hypotheses that can account for the fever). The point I'd like to make here is that ideological narratives cater to this particular form of reasoning. A narrative is a coherent and readily imaginable account of events; as such, narratives tend to simplify what is in reality highly complex. A historian, for example, is forced to take mountains of data and select certain pieces of information that can be connected together by arrows of causality. What this does is that it "makes sense" out of the data; but the unavoidable drawback of this kind of narrative construction is that it inevitably leaves out other data that might very well be important, but is irrelevant to a specific narrative at hand. That is why historical accounts are always incomplete; at best they are limited, but sometimes they are wrong, at least in part. But historical narratives are important nevertheless; for without them, one could not make any kind of sense out of the vast amount of historical data at our disposal.

An ideology is a system of ideas, usually political in nature (political ideology), and ideologies are also narrative constructions; they attempt to explain social or political realities, as well as promise solutions to complex social problems. Ideological narratives tend to fall into the same logical form of affirming the consequent:

If … ideological narrative is true , then we will see… specified consequences
We see…specified consequences
Therefore, … ideological narrative is true.

If American police officers are racist, then they will be inclined to profile, shoot, and kill blacks.
In 2015, police across the nation shot and killed 258 blacks and 172 Hispanics.
Therefore, American police officers are racist.

We know that such a conclusion stands in need of testing, that is, empirical testing, and a good investigator will look to falsify the hypothesis (antecedent), because confirmatory evidence does not prove a hypothesis. Hence, confirmatory evidence does not prove an ideological narrative, but disconfirmatory evidence disproves the narrative.

An ideology is a system of ideas, and some ideas conform to reality, and some do not. The ideas in the mind of a fictional writer do not conform to reality, i.e., there is no Middle Earth where Hobbits and Orcs live and do battle, etc. Many ideas in the mind of a good scientist do not conform to reality either, and when he discovers this via disconfirmatory evidence, he discards the idea (theory).

The situation is very different in politics, however. Many professional intellectuals, employed by government, live and breathe in the realm of ideas, and many are not the least bit concerned about whether or not their ideas can stand the rigors of a thorough empirical test, that is, whether their ideas are "realistic", or true to reality. That's the difference between a true scientist and an ideologue. The perpetuation of a failed idea in the sciences is simply too costly, which is why they are quickly abandoned (corporations cannot afford it), but the ideas of those employed by government are a different matter, because government employed intellectuals don't pay the cost of a failed idea, the taxpayer does, which is why government level ideas that do not stand the test of reality often remain for years after implementation, despite repeated failure.

For example, consider "discovery math", in which the traditional teacher-student relationship and methodology are set aside and instead, students are encouraged to discover math for themselves, that is, to teach themselves. If studies show that students are falling behind their peers as a result of this new methodology, a private school will quickly abandon it for fear of decreasing enrolment and loss of revenues. But studies do show that provinces that have implemented it do lag behind those provinces that have refused to implement it (i.e., Quebec), and yet many public school boards continue to advocate for it. Consider the idea of "open concept"; schools had their walls, which divide one classroom from another, torn down to create one large open and carpeted area. This, it was thought, would increase enthusiasm for learning, making our lives at school less institutionalized and more like home. It was a costly project, and it failed, for it was far too distracting for kids to remain focused on their work, school did not feel more like home, films that required lights to be turned off could not be shown, etc. My childhood elementary school has since resurrected the walls, but once again at the expense of the taxpayer.

Ideological political narratives have always been attractive because they "make sense" out of a reality that is highly complex. But that is part of the problem; reality is too complex to be adequately explained by a simple narrative. Political narratives, however, remain an attractive alternative, especially for young people, because the ambiguity of a complex world is not as emotionally satisfying as the clarity of a simple worldview provided by the narrative. Examples of such ideological narratives include radical feminism, which attempts to account for all social problems, current and historical, by pointing to the oppression of women by males; Marxism, which attempts to account for social and economic problems by pointing to private property and the oppression of the poor by the rich; the anti-corporate narrative that regards corporations and the free market as the principal source of social problems (an extension of Marxism); the anti-American narrative (everything America does is bad, because America does it), the anti-Israel narrative, etc. A common element to these narratives is their binary character: oppressed/oppressor, female/male, Palestine/Israel, the world/America, proletariat/bourgeoisie, etc.

Recently my students and I discussed "Black Lives Matter". The fundamental criticism directed against this movement by the brightest critics in the U.S. is that it is another ideological narrative alongside others. Black lives do matter, but critics point out that black lives only seem to matter to Black Lives Matter when a black person has died not at the hands of another black person, whether a black police officer or gang of thugs, but at the hands of a white police officer. The shooting of a black youth by a white police officer is confirmatory evidence, corroborating an ideological narrative (i.e., systemic racism in America). But confirmatory evidence does not prove a hypothesis, so the narrative has to be tested against reality, and the reality is that according to the FBI, out of the total number of homicides in 2015, 52% of the victims were black, and over 90% of those involved a perpetrator who was black. In that same year, 50% of those shot and killed by police were white, 26% were black, and 17% were Hispanic. According to the Crime Prevention Research Center , the chances of a black suspect being killed by a black police officer are significantly higher than a black suspect's being killed by a white officer. Such evidence disconfirms the ideological narrative, just as the statistics on the correlation between economic freedom and higher prosperity disconfirm the anti-capitalist and anti-corporate narrative, or happy marriages and women who love being women disconfirm the radical feminist narrative, or the reaction against the prospects of American isolationism and the continual influx of immigration to the United States disconfirm the anti-American narrative, or as Leona Chin disconfirms the notion that Asian women can't drive.