I was less than entirely honest in a previous post about filmmaker Errol Morris and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. In this post I’ll set the record straight and add colleagues’ comments on the Morris/Kuhn spat.

Morris studied history and philosophy of science under Kuhn at Princeton in the early 1970s and ended up loathing him. Morris suggests in a recent podcast that Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has contributed to “the debasement of truth” and even the election of Donald Trump. Morris states: “I see a line from Kuhn to Karl Rove and Kelly Ann Conway and Donald Trump.”

I disagreed with Morris’s suggestion that Kuhn’s postmodern philosophy has had insidious social consequences. I argued 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.”

But in the past I've expressed concerns like Morris’s. For years, I’ve bickered about Kuhn with a colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology, eminent but curmudgeonly historian of science James McClellan. Like Morris, McClellan studied under Kuhn at Princeton in the 1970s (and in fact McClellan remembers Morris). Rather than rejecting Kuhn’s views of science, McClellan embraced them and became a full-fledged postmodernist.

As part of an aborted book project, I once recorded a lunch-time conversation between me and McClellan, in which we hashed out our differences on Kuhn and scientific truth. I turned the conversation into a piece of “faction,” a term coined by postmodern anthropologist Clifford Geertz to describe imaginative writing about real events. Here is an edited excerpt, with especially relevant sections in bold:

Me: "Jim, you're a scholar! Professor! Esteemed historian of science! And yet you don’t really believe science is capable of producing truth."

Jim: "Science is stories we tell about nature. And some stories are better than other stories. And you can compare stories to each other on all kinds of grounds, but you have no access to"—he pauses for dramatic effect—"The Truth. Or any mode of knowing outside of your own story-telling capabilities, which include rationality, experiment, explanatory scope and the whole thing. I would love to have some means of making knowledge about the world that would allow us to say, 'This is really it. There really are goddamn electrons.'" He whacks the table.

Me: "What about elements! You can't be sure elements are real? The discovery of elements is just another story?"

Jim: "Yeah, it’s a story, because what do you mean by an element? In 1880 you mean one thing by an element. Post-Einstein you mean something else by an element. And post, uh, post-Higgs boson you have another view. There's no one thing: element. It’s a set of sentences that we make and say, 'That's an element.'"

Me: "Was it Kuhn who made you this way? Did he brainwash you when you were his grad student?"

Jim: "Absolutely."

Me: "So here's the problem I have with your theory."

Jim: "It's not a theory."

Me: "Yeah, you're right. Theory gives you too much credit. I mean your… view. Your attitude. Your"—sneering—"opinion."

Jim: "Ha ha ha."

Me: "There are areas of science where progress is very rapid. Even postmodernists have to grant that physicists in the first half of the 20th century were doing experiments that produced completely novel and unexpected results, leading to rapid advances in theory, which then led to more predictions and confirmations and so on."

Jim: "Like The Bomb."

Me: "Exactly! Talk about a confirmation of your paradigm. Then you have fields like psychology. There are all these books now on neuroscience and psychology that say meditation is probably the best thing you can do for mental problems like depression and anxiety. Meditation! Proposed by Buddha 2,500 years ago!"

Jim: "What's wrong with that?"

Me: "That would be like physicists at the Large Hadron Collider saying, 'You know what? We just discovered that Aristotle was right after all! There are only four elements: Earth, Wind, Fire and...' Shit, what's the fourth element? I always forget."

Jim: "Water. And it's Air, not Wind. You're thinking of the old rock group. Okay, let me give you the Kuhnian answer to what you just said. In psychology there's no paradigm or frame of reference that all researchers are going to agree upon, which gives you the problems you are going to research, the techniques you are going to use. It's possible that you will have paradigmatic research at some point, just not yet. But whether scientists agree on a paradigm or not is no test of the success or truth-value of any of these sets of claims. We can't use these different degrees of maturity of these different inquiries as the basis to say something about their truth value."

Me: "You’ve already granted there are ways of judging the relative merits of different theories. If it's possible to make those sorts of comparisons, then you've got some kind of transcendent standard of truth."

Jim: "No, you don't. You have a comparison of apples and oranges."

Me: "What!? No, come on. Surely you're not saying that."

Jim: "Of course I am! That's exactly what I'm saying. Some stories are better than others and you determine that…"

Me: "Yeah, but apples and oranges means it’s just a matter of taste."

Jim: "No. That, I don’t mean. There are criteria that can help you make judgments. Explanatory scope, applicability, evidence of one sort or another. It would be those things that would allow you to say theory A is better than theory B. But you can't say theory A is true and theory B is false. They're different. Apples and oranges."

Me, getting huffy: "This is actually a political and moral issue for me. Let's say we're talking about projections of global warming and whether they are strong enough to merit various aggressive countermeasures. Or the challenges of creationists to evolution. I think—I know—that postmodernism undermines the ability of scientists to prevail in these debates."

Jim: "This seems like a phony argument. So scholars have developed these very sophisticated views of what is knowledge, how do we create knowledge, how do we express knowledge, what is communication, what is language, what are words. I don't see how all this undermines a liberal, progressive, morally sensitive set of arguments about the issues that we face today. Postmodernism, all this stuff we've been talking about, is completely irrelevant to politics."

Me: "You're wrong. If you're the kind of postmodernist who says all truth claims serve the purposes of the group that’s making them, that undercuts the whole point of arguing on the basis of facts and evidence. My job as a science journalist is to say, 'I think this is bullshit. This makes sense to me, and here's the evidence.' And if some professor, some smart person like you…"

Jim, laughing: "Smart ass!"

Me: "You're saying, 'Well, this is a good story. Some people like this story, but, hey! This is a good story too!' That’s a huge problem."

Jim, serious again: "Okay, let's even grant that. But it doesn't seem to me that you want to then become a naïve realist, and think there are no issues here about how knowledge is constructed."

Me: "I realize there are certain arbitrary, cultural, constructed aspects of our knowledge. But when it comes to elements and electrons and atoms, after a while we can forget about all that Kuhnian postmodern stuff, because the evidence is so overwhelming. When we look at psychology or behavioral genetics, and scientists are saying there's a warrior gene, which explains why certain ethnic groups are more violent than others, then you need to think about the role of racism and politics and all those sorts of things."

Jim: "You can enlist postmodernism in your campaign! If you think there is a gene for criminality, or homosexuality, you could say, 'Well, look at the social construction of knowledge. Look at the egregious claims made by really qualified scientists about intelligence or whatnot.'"

Me: "I do that all the time. But that skeptical, postmodern treatment is justified if you're talking about behavioral genetics, because it has produced one outrageously crappy claim after another that has failed to hold up. Like the schizophrenia gene, and the gay gene, and the high-IQ gene. But that's not true of fields like nuclear physics, where you get real progress."

Jim: "Well, I wouldn't use the word progress. There are some things that we know more reliably, that are less impacted by social and political factors in the community constructing this knowledge. You can see that in physics. But Newton's world, his physics, his science, is nothing like the world of modern physics. Space and time are different. Mass is convertible to energy for Einstein, not for Newton. The whole schmagoogle. It's a different world!"

Me: "Schmagoogle?"

Jim: "Schmagoogle. A good Yiddish term. Look, some things are more, uh, foundational than others. Thermodynamics is foundational. It's going to take a lot to overturn thermodynamics. Biological evolution is another one. So you're going to be hard-pressed to have a worldview that doesn’t have some version of those."

Me: "So you grant that some paradigms are so effective that you might as well call them true."

Jim, laughing: "I like that! 'You might as well call it truth!' Fine!"

See also my 2013 Q&A with McClellan, “Cantankerous Historian of Science Questions Whether Science Can Achieve ‘Truth.’" After my original post on Morris and Kuhn was published, sociologist Steve Fuller, whom I’ve written about here and here, sent me several provocative essays he’s written on Kuhn and another postmodernist, Bruno Latour. See this, this and this.

In addition several colleagues at Stevens Institute of Technology, including McClellan, with whom I had the argument above, and who always has to have the last word, sent me comments on the Morris/Kuhn spat. Here they are, starting with McClellan:

McClellan: I think it needs to be emphasized that Kuhn thought that some stories are better than other stories. (The terminology is mine, but the thought is his.) Heliocentrism beats geocentrism, oxidation-reduction chemistry beats phlogiston, Einstein over Newton, plate tectonics, etc. We might offer such sequences as another example of "progress" (with and without the scare quotes), but with regard to Errol Morris and Kuhn's nefariousness in the making of the modern world, I think his notion that not all stories/paradigms are of equal standing is the main point. I also think that the weakest point of Kuhn's position is how exactly one formulation succeeds its predecessor. I vaguely remember something in Structure (or perhaps it was his Black Body book) that data or evidence itself will not in and of themselves account for the acceptance or rejection of a new scientific framework.

Alex Wellerstein, historian of technology:

Perhaps Jim has in mind this part of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition, p. 77: "No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification by direct comparison with nature. That remark does not mean that scientists do not reject scientific theories, or that experience and experiment are not essential to the process in which they do so. But it does mean—what will ultimately be a central point—that the act of judgment that leads scientists to reject a previously accepted theory is always based upon more than a comparison of that theory with the world. The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other."

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: For someone to believe that academic philosophers are behind the broader social phenomena of deconstruction of scientific facts, and disputation of scientific authority, must mean that they have not met many lawyers. This is not a new game. It is flattering to science studies to believe we are so influential, but if you follow the money, it doesn't lead to humanities departments (for better or worse). Also, just to defend Kuhn for a second (even though I am not much of a Kuhnian), just because a distinction may be "metaphysical" in the sense that it is not easily resolvable who is "correct," it doesn't mean it is meaningless or can't be acted upon.

Even if we had no information that would allow us to distinguish between climate change deniers and climate change proponents, we could still distinguish between which of those positions would lead to policies that would benefit the most people, would have the healthiest respect for human error, would lead to better worlds, would potentially avoid the worst case scenarios, etc. It is kind of a scientists' fallacy that the only way to resolve a complicated dispute is to have all of the facts about the natural world 100% nailed down, and it actually plays into the hands of those who would muddy the waters by appealing to uncertainty (which is always going to be present). 

Lee Vinsel, historian of technology: I agree with Alex. In my dissertation I argued that, if science and technology scholars and other postmodernists thought they invented "social construction" in the 1980s, they should have talked to lawyers working for the automakers and fighting federal regulation in the 1960s: the lawyers argued that everything was "constructed" and thus arbitrary. I highly doubt they were reading Kuhn.

Further Reading:

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

Science, History and Truth at the Faculty Club

Cantankerous Historian of Science Questions Whether Science Can Achieve "Truth"

Dear "Skeptics," Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More

A Dig Through Old Files Reminds Me Why I’m So Critical of Science.

Everyone, Even Jenny McCarthy, Has the Right to Challenge “Scientific Experts.”

Was I Wrong about “The End of Science”?

Advice to Young Science Writers: Ask “What Would Chomsky Think?