Step One in Understanding the Pipe Bombs

It’s an empirical question.

Posted Oct 25, 2018

Antrania / Pixabay
Source: Antrania / Pixabay

Living in a stable, secure environment is foundational to our national and personal health. This current pipe-bomb scare that is hijacking our national headlines is, like a news story on any terrorist attack, making us question just how safe we really are.

But what's concerning above and beyond the issue of security pertains to the differential narratives and polarization that we are seeing as a result of this news story. Our nation is so utterly politically divided right now that this situation, which should lead to some form of national unity, threatens to make the fissures even larger. And to my mind, this fact is nearly as disturbing as the story about the pipe bombs itself is.

A Tale of Two Narratives

Humans across the globe engage in ingroup/outgroup reasoning (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Based on all kinds of criteria, people form social groups, come to think highly of the values and people within their group, and tend to disparage members of other groups. This is social psychology 101.

In case you haven’t noticed, people have been taking sides more than usual in our country over the past few years. Along the way, the two most common political camps in the U.S., which we can call “the right” and “the left,” have become more polarized than ever, and this fact strongly affects all kinds of judgments among members of “both sides” (see Frimer, Skitka, & Motyl, 2017; Motyl, 2018). The narratives on just about everything, from taxes to health care to immigration to guns are pretty much non-overlapping. To me, this is a scary fact about our current world. People are being forced to choose sides, whether we realize it or not.

Along the way, narratives that are unique to each side emerge regarding pretty much any topic. On guns, for instance, people on the “right” talk about the importance of the Second Amendment and focus on how mental health issues are the core problem regarding school shootings. Among those on the “left,” folks point immediately to our nation’s unique gun laws and the role of the NRA in shaping American politics. There is little overlap between these two narratives.

The narratives surrounding the pipe-bomb scare are unfolding similarly. All over Facebook, our friends who identify as being “strongly on the left” are pointing their fingers to, you guessed it, Donald J. Trump and his rhetoric. This narrative underscores the fact that Trump has boldly and loudly criticized the targets of the pipe bombs (CNN, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, etc.), rhetoric that may have influenced whoever is behind this plot.

But the people who strongly identify as being “on the right” are telling a completely different story. They are blaming the media for fanning flames and disseminating fake news, and they are suggesting that the culprit may well be a rogue individual or representative of a hostile nation who is looking to wreak havoc on our nation immediately prior to our mid-term elections.

These narratives are completely different. And it seems to me that people who buy into one of these narratives are fully dismissing the other—and vice versa.

When we don’t know the answer to something, as I tell my statistics students, we can argue with one another until we are blue in the face. Or we can investigate what is going on and figure out the answer. As is often the case, at this point, the causes of the pipe-bomb scare are unknown.

It’s an Empirical Question

One of the most important intellectual tools that should follow from any strong undergraduate education is the ability to genuinely know when to say this: It’s an empirical question. This phrase simply means that we don’t know the answer to the question and the only way we will figure out an answer is to collect actual data and see what the real answer is. It’s often a showstopper that emerges during arguments—and it is often, in fact, a very productive approach to working with others and figuring things out.

I am always telling students in my statistics class that one of the most important things they should get out of the class is the ability to know when to say “It’s an empirical question,” and the related ability to know how to proceed next in terms of data collection and analysis.

Getting caught up in our standard political narratives before we even have any clue as to who all sent those pipe bombs is putting the cart before the horse. Sure, at the end of the day, one narrative may end up being more valid than the other. But it’s premature to make that determination right now (October 25, 11:25 a.m., EST).

When our national security is threatened, partisan politics, based on who can spin a more coherent and believable narrative, has little in the capacity to help things. If there’s been a time where we need unity in the past few years, that time is now.

The fact is this: We don’t yet know who did this. And we don’t know why. I say that we work to go beyond our standard ingroup/outgroup reasoning on this one and work together as a national community to help address a problem that affects all of us and our shared future.

Bottom Line

The pipe-bomb scare is a nightmare that we are having to deal with as a nation. The polarization around this issue is also something of a nightmare. If clear and major threats to our national security are not leading to a sense of unity and shared purpose, then perhaps the polarization that we are experiencing during this era in our history is even worse than we all thought. At this point, regarding the questions of who delivered those pipe bombs and why, the answer simply is this: We do not know. I say we hold off on divisive speculation and realize that this is an empirical question. And that we think about ways to get this humpty dumpty of a nation back together again.


Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.

Frimer, J., Skitka, L. J., & Motyl, M.. (2017). Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another's opinions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72, 1-12.

Motyl, M. (2018). How Ideological Context Influences Psychological Research. Invited Presentation for the Heterodox Psychology Workshop. Orange, CA.