Errol Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers. Every year I show students in my “War and Science” class The Fog of War. The film, which won an Academy Award in 2003, reveals how war corrupts us. More specifically, it shows how an intelligent, rational, decent man, Robert McNamara, ends up enabling the slaughter of civilians in Japan and Vietnam.
This post isn’t about Morris’s films. It’s about Morris’s “contempt”—his word--for philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which suggests that science cannot achieve absolute, objective truth, changed the way we talk about science, and not for the better, according to Morris.
In the early 1970s, Morris studied under Kuhn while pursuing a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science at Princeton. The two clashed on a personal, intellectual and even physical level, as Morris recounted in a splendid five-part essay in The New York Times in 2011.
In 1972, Morris complained to Kuhn that Structure has a contradiction embedded in it. Kuhn argued that different scientific worldviews, or paradigms, such as physics before and after quantum mechanics, are “incommensurable,” or incomparable, because they invest terms such as matter and energy with different meanings. You thus cannot say one theory is truer than another. Morris describes his encounter with Kuhn as follows:
I asked him, “If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? Wouldn’t we be merely interpreting the past in the light of the present? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be ‘incommensurable?’ ”
He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, “He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.”
And then I added, “…except for someone who imagines himself to be God.”
It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me. And missed.
Kuhn missed, but he expelled Morris from the graduate program. Morris revisits his run-in with Kuhn in “The Ashes of Truth,” a podcast on the philosophy website Hi-Phi Nation. Forty-five years after his time with Kuhn at Princeton and 21 years after Kuhn’s death, Morris still loathes him on personal and intellectual grounds.
Kuhn did not tolerate criticism or even discussion of the ideas in Structure, according to Morris. Kuhn was “dogmatic, inflexible and abusive,” Morris says on the podcast. “I wouldn’t say it was just to me, I think it was to a number of people, but I think he was particularly abusive to me.” Morris blames Kuhn for promulgating a wrong-headed critique of scientific truth, and truth in general.
Morris calls Structure “bullshit,” “repellent,” “despicable.” His most dramatic claim is that Kuhn helped pave the way for Donald Trump’s presidency. In his “angrier moments,” Morris says, he blames Kuhn for contributing to “the debasement of science, and the debasement of truth.” He adds, “I see a line from Kuhn to Karl Rove and Kelly Ann Conway and Donald Trump.”
I agree with Morris that Kuhn’s philosophy is flawed. I spent several hours interviewing Kuhn at MIT in 1992, trying to figure out what he really believed. I concluded that he was a radical postmodernist, who viewed truth as unattainable. Scientific theories can be neither falsified nor verified, he said, because we lack absolute, objective standards for judging them.
At one point, trying to get Kuhn to conceded that some hypotheses are either true or false, I brought up the claim, which a few people were still contesting, that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. Surely that claim is either right or wrong, I said. Kuhn shook his head. "Whenever you get two people interpreting the same data in different ways," he said, "that's metaphysics."
In The End of Science, I called Kuhn’s stance “absurd” and compared it to that of “literary sophists who argue that all texts—from The Tempest to an ad for a new brand of vodka—are equally meaningless, or meaningful.” (I present an edited version of my profile of Kuhn in “What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific ‘Truth.’”)
So I blame Kuhn for poseurs who babble about “paradigms” and wrap air quotes around “scientific truth.” But I can’t blame Kuhn for Trump, as Morris does. His complaint recalls a self-flagellating 2004 essay by philosopher Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour excoriates himself and other postmodernists for enabling skepticism toward climate change and other problems.
Just as Latour attributes far too much power to French philosophers, Morris attributes too much to Kuhn. Kuhn has had an impact on intellectuals, and academia, but these are minor niches of modern culture. Philosophy's influence on public affairs, including politics, is trivial compared to that of the legal profession, corporations, the religious right, the media.
Think how the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries have opposed the case against their products. How Fox News undermined the Obama administration and promotes right-wing policies and views. How the Pentagon and its hawkish allies have gotten Americans to buy the war on terror. These powerful institutions have never needed Kuhn or any other philosopher to achieve their goals.
I also doubt that Kuhn’s ideas have somehow made the public more gullible. People knowledgeable about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions are probably the least likely to be taken in by the propaganda of the Pentagon, fossil-fuel industry, Fox News or Trump administration.
Moreover, if the public doesn’t trust science these days, that is at least in part science’s fault. Scientists are imperfect arbiters of truth. They make erroneous claims, hype their results and sell their souls to Big Pharma and the Pentagon, among other sins.
Morris has written a forthcoming book about Kuhn. I hope it provokes a long-overdue reassessment of Kuhn’s ideas. I’d love to see Morris provide evidence to back up his linkage of Kuhn to Trump. But my bet is that if Structure had never been published, roughly the same number of Americans would reject the theory of evolution, vaccines and climate change, and Trump would still be in the White House.
Postscript: Morris responded to this post by email. See "Filmmaker Errol Morris Clarifies Stance on Kuhn and Trump."