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Did Thomas Kuhn Kill Truth?

David Kordahl, The New Atlantis

A debate on the nature of truth turns into a squabble over whether the father of the “paradigm shift” threw an ashtray at Errol Morris’s head.

In 2011, the filmmaker and writer Errol Morris published a series of five articles that may rank as the oddest production of his long and varied career. The first began like this:

It was April, 1972. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The home in the 1950s of Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and the father of the paradigm shift, threw an ashtray at my head.

Taken by itself, this sort of flamboyant anecdote seems like pure Morris, consonant with the other series he has published with the New York Times as part of their Opinionator section — series that have explored, among other things, the hagiography of Abraham Lincoln, the perceived credibility of various typefaces, and the contrasts between photographic evidence and photographic art. As the documentarian behind such films as Gates of Heaven (the one about the pet cemetery), The Thin Blue Line (the one that introduced re-enactment into true-crime docs), and The Fog of War (the one with Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara), Morris has been given a wide berth to explore his interests in public.

But the articles about Thomas Kuhn, collectively titled “The Ashtray,” and now reworked into the book The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality), seemed rawer than usual. Morris now seemed not fascinated or amused — his usual registers — but angry. It was as though, after nearly forty years since his run-in with Kuhn at Princeton, the time had come for revenge. But if this was revenge, it was revenge of a strange sort, taking the form of extended diatribes against postmodernism, the historiography of science, and Kuhn’s classic work on scientific revolutions.

Revenge, of course, is sweet. But it can also be hard to get.

The Ashtray” centers on Morris’s brief stint as a graduate student — he lasted a year — in what was then Princeton’s Program in the History and Philosophy of Science. The program was “sort of a consolation prize,” in his defensive version, for being rejected from Harvard’s history of science program. During this time, Morris had the bad fortune to fall in with the physicist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996).

Kuhn’s fame rested on his widely influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued that the history of science was punctuated by occasional “paradigm shifts.” Kuhn held that scientific theories from before and after a scientific revolution cannot be compared in a straightforward way; they are “incommensurable,” because the meanings of familiar terms change in unexpected ways as scientists go from one mode of description to another. One drastic consequence of incommensurability is that there isn’t any such thing as absolute progress from one paradigm to the next — say from before the Copernican Revolution to after, or from classical physics to quantum physics. A new paradigm may be more complete, or simpler, or more useful for answering certain questions compared to the preceding one, but it is not, strictly speaking and on the whole, objectively better.

Kuhn’s skepticism, in Morris’s view, is poisonous, leading to a cultural devaluation of objective truth. Tellingly, Morris only glancingly notices Kuhn the historian, whose The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (1957) and Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 18941912 (1978) are both carefully documented, in apparent contradiction to the recklessness Morris alleges.

A certain theatricality is at play in Morris’s articles on Kuhn — the first article is accompanied by a few seconds of video, an ashtray and cigarettes spewing across a black background — and Kuhn emerges mainly as a personality, not a thinker. Morris’s Kuhn is an imposing man, a tall bully, an “incredible chain-smoker. First Pall Malls and then True Blues…. Alternating. One cigarette lighting another.” He barks at students for “Whiggishness” whenever they incorporate knowledge of the present into talk of the past. When Morris mentions he is interested in hearing the philosopher Saul Kripke, Kuhn commands, “Under no circumstances are you to go to those lectures. Do you hear me?”

In a story recounted in the first article, Morris turns in a thirty-page paper, double-spaced. Kuhn returns a thirty-page response, single-spaced: “No margins. He was angry, really angry.” Morris goes in to confront Kuhn and charges into an argument. If paradigms are incommensurable, young Morris asks, how is the history of science possible? “He’s trying to kill me,” mutters Kuhn, head in hands. When Morris suggests that maybe it’s still possible “for someone who imagines himself to be God,” Kuhn throws an ashtray at him. Soon thereafter, Kuhn has Morris kicked out of Princeton. […]

To understand Morris’s alleged connection, we should pause to revisit in a bit more detail the basic message of Thomas Kuhn. What exactly is Morris fighting?

As many others have noted, Kuhn’s claims about science, history, and knowledge are all snarled. In places, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions reads more like a meta-myth than like straight history. Even converts might admit that its elements could fall apart in isolation. In Structure, Kuhn holds that science changes via two different modes: “normal science,” in which scientists solve puzzles within a given paradigm, and “revolutionary science,” in which scientists, compelled by unexplained anomalies, adopt a new paradigm that can explain them.

These paradigm shifts are not fully rational. That is, according to Kuhn, the reason early adopters sign on to a new paradigm is not that it offers greater truth in any straightforward sense. For instance, early quantum theory was an ad hoc kludge. When Max Planck suggested that light from hot objects was emitted in discrete packets (multiples of a constant rather than values along a continuous spectrum), it wasn’t for any revolutionary purpose, but simply because he found that doing so could help him to fit experimental data. The reigning paradigm, mature classical electromagnetism, had been very successful, and there was little reason to doubt that it could explain the data in terms, say, of the microscopic constituents of ordinary solids. Early quantum adopters needed to be either ignorant or visionary (most were both) to suppose that such an explanation was not possible, and to suppose instead that the data suggested fundamentally new laws of nature.

But once a new paradigm has matured, its ways of looking at problems and methods of solving them become so pervasive among scientists that the successes of prior paradigms are forgotten. Today, educated by quantum theorists and having read textbooks on quantum theory, few scientists are eager to revisit thermal emission in classical electrodynamic terms. “Normal” scientists — those working firmly within an established paradigm — press on using paradigmatic methods, making incremental improvements within an essentially stable conceptual frame.

In all of this, Kuhn can be maddeningly imprecise. Indeed, Kuhn himself admits as much, writing in his postscript to the second edition of Structure that some parts of his “initial formulation” produced “gratuitous difficulties and misunderstandings.” Famously, he proliferates examples of paradigmatic markers — usually textbooks, such as Aristotle’s Physics or Newton’s Opticks — without ever clearly defining what exactly a paradigm is.

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