I’m recovering from flu, so I’ve spent more time than usual by myself lately, with odd ideas swirling around in my feverish brain. Recently a bunch of different thoughts--about Thomas Kuhn, AIDS denialism, George Bush, Errol Morris, Trump and of course the coronavirus—clumped together in a way that made me think: blog post!
I'll start with Kuhn. He is the philosopher of science who argued, in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that science can never achieve absolute, objective truth. Reality is unknowable, forever hidden behind the veil of our assumptions, preconceptions and definitions, or “paradigms.” At least that’s what I thought Kuhn argued, but his writings were so murky that I couldn’t be sure. When I interviewed him in 1991, I was determined to discover just how skeptical he really was.
Really, really skeptical, it turned out. We spoke for several hours in Kuhn’s office at MIT, and I found myself sticking up for the idea that science gets some things right. At one point, I told Kuhn that his philosophy applied to fields with a “metaphysical” cast, like quantum mechanics, but not to more straightforward realms, like the study of infectious diseases.
As an example, I brought up AIDS. A few skeptics, notably virologist Peter Duesberg, were questioning whether the so-called human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, actually causes AIDS. These skeptics were either right or wrong, I said, not just right or wrong within the context of a particular social-cultural-linguistic context. Kuhn shook his head vigorously and said:
I would say there are too many grounds for slippage. There’s a whole spectrum of viruses involved. There’s a whole spectrum of conditions of which AIDS is one or several or so forth... I think when this all comes out you’ll say, Boy, I see why [Duesberg] believed that, and he was onto something. I’m not going to tell you he was right, or he was wrong. We don’t believe any of that anymore. But neither do we believe anymore what these guys who said it was the cause believe… The question as to what AIDS is as a clinical condition and what the disease entity is itself is not -- it is subject to adjustment. And so forth. When one learns to think differently about these things, if one does, the question of right and wrong will no longer seem to be the relevant question.
This was typical of how Kuhn spoke. As if to demonstrate his own views on how language obfuscates, he endlessly qualified his own statements. He seemed incapable of saying something in an unambiguous way. But what he was saying was that, even when it came to a question as seemingly straightforward—and vitally important!--as whether HIV causes AIDS, we cannot say what the “truth” is. We can’t escape interpretation, subjectivity, cultural context, and hence we can never say whether a given claim is objectively right or wrong.
I call this perspective extreme postmodernism. I am not an extreme postmodernist. Yes, science is a subjective, culturally contingent enterprise, and language conceals as much as it reveals, yada yada, but sometimes science gets things right. Science discovered elements and galaxies, bacteria and viruses, it didn’t invent them.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, postmodernism was popular with left-wing, counter-culture types, who associated science with capitalism, militarism and other bad isms. But over the past few decades, extreme postmodernism—and especially the idea that all claims reflect the interests of the claimer--has become even more popular among those on the right.
That became apparent early in the administration of George W. Bush, when a senior administration official, in an interview with New York Times reporter Ron Suskind, famously disparaged the “reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” The Bush official continued, “That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
If anything, right-wing postmodernism became even more virulent after Obama’s election in 2008, as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recalls in a recent column. In 2009, after officials at the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies started urging Americans to get vaccinated against swine flu, right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh declared, “I am not going to take [the vaccine], precisely because you're now telling me I must." Glenn Beck (remember him?) chimed in, “If somebody had the swine flu right now, I would have them cough on me. I'd do the exact opposite of what the Homeland Security says.” Donald Trump assured Fox News that the flu is “going to go away” and that “vaccines can be very dangerous.”
60 million Americans were infected by swine flu, 274,000 were hospitalized and 12,469 died, according to the CDC. A study by public-policy analyst Matthew Baum of Harvard found that people in red, Republican states were less likely to get the swine-flu vaccine and hence more likely to die of the flu. And yet now Trump and Limbaugh, for ideological reasons, are downplaying the coronavirus, which Limbaugh compared to “the common cold.” “While right-wing blowhards may infuriate Democrats,” Kristof concludes, “they sometimes pose the greatest danger to their own true believers.”
Filmmaker Errol Morris, who studied under Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s and ended up loathing him, has suggested that Kuhn is partly to blame for the rise of right-wing postmodernism. As I have argued previously, I don’t buy Morris’s hypothesis. I think, rather, that Kuhnian postmodernism and right-wing postmodernism represent cases of convergent evolution. Trump’s contempt toward truth evolved not from fussy philosophical debates but from brutal political tactics utilized by totalitarian strongmen, who decreed that truth is whatever they say it is. We can’t blame Kuhn for Trump’s fake news any more than we can blame him for Hitler’s or Stalin’s propaganda.
What can be done about the problem of right-wing postmodernism? I honestly don’t know. The complaints of liberal pundits like Kristof probably only exacerbate the problem, if they have any effect at all. I suspect right-wingers will reconsider their extreme skepticism only if reality—in the form of a devastating pandemic, drought, flood or fire--rises up and strikes them across the face, as if to say, I refute you thus. Even that will probably be insufficient, or too late.
By the way, Kuhn’s prediction that Duesberg would come to be seen as neither right nor wrong turned out to be, well, wrong. The evidence that HIV causes AIDS is overwhelming, and denial of the HIV/AIDS link is viewed as morally as well as empirically wrong. In part because of Duesberg’s influence, the South African government withheld anti-retroviral medications from its citizens for years, resulting in more than 330,000 unnecessary deaths, according to a 2008 study.
Whatever we may say or think about it, reality has the last word.
What Is Philosophy's Point? Part 1
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