June 4, 2017

"[Filmmaker Errol] Morris studied history and philosophy of science under [Thomas] 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.'"

From "Second Thoughts: Did Thomas Kuhn Help Elect Donald Trump?/Scholars debate filmmaker Errol Morris’s attack on Kuhn’s influential philosophy of science," by John Horgan in Scientific American.

Morris's podcast is here:

50 comments:

chuck said...

Ooh, ooh. Karl Rove! Kelly Ann Conway! Donald Trump! Now there is an argument. What I want to know is who was responsible for Hillary?

rhhardin said...

It doesn't start well.

Okay I'm bailing out 7:40. Too idiotic. All feelz no content.

Compare Epstein's early podcast at econtalk.org on the rule of law

http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2009/Epsteinlaw.mp3

the opposite.

Michael K said...

Usual SA claptrap. I quit reading it 30 years ago.

TerriW said...

It's especially funny because that book was required reading my first semester at Evergreen. (Yes, that Evergreen.)

rehajm said...

I used to like Errol Morris. One more infected.

chuck said...

> It's especially funny because that book was required reading my first semester at Evergreen

I always regarded Kuhn as postmodern thinker and man of the left. I thought his work was crap, but because of its anti-intellectualism and the idea that scientific truth is a social construct, the same ideas that dominate the current liberal arts.

Angel-Dyne said...

It gives me the sadz when I reflect on what Scientific American once was. I canceled my subscription ages ago but still, I never dreamed it would degenerate completely into "Salon Science!".

Big Mike said...

Screw Kuhn, screw Morris, and especially screw Horgan. Go read page 74 of "The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex" by Murray Gell-Mann. It's a very readable book that gets to the heart of real science.

Big Mike said...

And I'm including you, Althouse. Go read the book.

rhhardin said...

I've never understood a single article in Scientific American.

The illustrators don't understand the articles either, I can tell you that.

rhhardin said...

Hey you can find me in Scientific American by googling "Topeka beagle buffers"

obscure google fame in the sense of still there.

rcocean said...

Listening to some of the podcast and its some weird, wild, stuff.

For example at 31:52 we get this:

[In the 60s] A left-wing student argued with Kuhn that the 2nd law of thermodynamics should be "stricken from any teaching of a just, democratic Science because it was immoral".

I guess you get enough people like that, and before you know it, you got Climate science.

rcocean said...

Its incredible how little "Science" there is in "Scientific America".

rhhardin said...

The 2nd law of thermodynamics gets your air conditioner its carbon footprint.

rcocean said...

It starts getting good at 35 minute mark, when they start talking about scientific paradigms

rhhardin said...

Carbon actually comes from stars.

mockturtle said...

No 'Trump derangement' tag?

tcrosse said...

So scientific truth is a social construct except for the stuff we really, really believe in.

rcocean said...

"Carbon actually comes from stars."

Really? I thought it came from carbon paper.

n.n said...

Still trapped at the twilight fringe. They don't get it.

As for science, it is understood as the knowledge where accuracy is inversely proportional to space (and perhaps time) offsets from an established frame of reference. Other than the utility sciences, we live in a post-scientific age where conflation of logical domains is routine and flat-Earth consensus (e.g. political, social, expert) is the new normal.

readering said...

I guess I need to read the book to understand the criticism. The podcast too opaque for me on Sunday afternoon.

Bill Peschel said...

Based only on reading Kuhn's wikipedia page, I believe that he's correct in that scientists are wedded to current theory until someone comes along and demonstrates a different way of looking at things. There will be opposition to that new way, but if more studies come along and lend weight to it, the proof will trigger a paradigm shift where the consensus changes (or, more likely, the older scientists die out and are replaced with younguns who find it easier to accept the new path).

That seems to be the path to one Vienna doctor's discovery that docs who washed their hands saw fewer miscarriages (for which his career was destroyed), and the fellow who theorized that gout was caused by a virus (same thing, although he lived long enough -- I think -- to see his theory proved correct and the opening of a new understanding of gut flora).

The problem is that -- like 1984 -- Kuhn's book should be considered a warning, not a how-to manual.

At least, all that is my mostly uninformed take.

Daniel Jackson said...

I truly find it difficult that Kuhn's book could be used to account for anything other than the current malaise in academia and the left. In academia, the model is canon and is applied to cull out opposing opinions from faculty and students alike. You have to fit The New Paradigm or you are out.

Ironically, it was such a paradigm in Germany that created quantum physics--Jews were not allowed laboratory time so they wandered the halls creating statistical thought experiments.

However, in our era, the New Paradigm certainly includes dubious science ranging from dinosaur death by comet to global warming to what have you. Now, if you want to argue that The Donald and the minions of the right are outside of the New Paradigm, perhaps they are part of an Old Paradigm.

But, the only people I heard bandying about his book and extolling its virtues were the lefties throughout my very long gradual school and academic experience. Never mind that much of it is a sloppy stage theory, which in practice is not always the best; but, much of it is wrong as is its first volume on the Copernican Revolution.

If one wants to draw a straight line using Kuhn, it would be the rise and demise of the last administration that was run by an academic professor of law--a true scion of the Kuhnian revolution.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Morris really hates Kuhn. Like many Boomers, there seems to be more than a little generational competition on the part of Morris. Easy to speak ill of the dead, isn't it?
He whines about Kuhn's smoking habit -- at at time when 60% of white men smoked cigarettes.
How can Morris -- a film maker -- effectively criticize Kuhn philosophically? He lacks the skills and education. Morris's criticism of Kuhn's philosophy means no more than any layman's criticism of Kuhn's philosophy.
Morris should realize that his desire for a belief in absolutes -- absolute facts, absolute values -- is religious. He does not. Nor do most liberals.

Seeing Red said...
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readering said...

Always wondered how rumsfeld agreed to have morris film him. Now that I see they are both tigers maybe it's as simple as that.

holdfast said...

I had to read Kuhn in at least two different college courses, and I definitely ended up loathing him.

readering said...

Why? I didn't get it from morris (ashtray and expulsion aside).

Sam L. said...

It's "bad science" all the way down.

rcocean said...

Did you know that Kuhn developed a Mexican resort with Princeton Professor Kahn?

They called it Cancun.

Oh, Mr. Peabody

Jay Elink said...

"That seems to be the path to one Vienna doctor's discovery that docs who washed their hands saw fewer miscarriages (for which his career was destroyed), and the fellow who theorized that gout was caused by a virus (same thing, although he lived long enough -- I think -- to see his theory proved correct and the opening of a new understanding of gut flora)."

***********

I think you're confusing gout with stomach ulcers. Gout is caused by an excess of uric acid in certain joints, brought on by consumption of beer, red wine, and some seafoods containing purines.

http://www.webmd.com/arthritis/tc/gout-cause

Stomach ulcers were long believed to be caused by stress, but two Australian doctors showed it was actually due to a particular bacterium, Helicobacter pylori.

They got a Nobel prize for their work.

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9576387/ns/health-health_care/t/two-australians-win-nobel-prize-medicine/


p.s. The Viennese doctor was Semmelweis.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignaz_Semmelweis

Earnest Prole said...

Once again: No Rashomon tag?

Fernandinande said...

postmodern philosophy

IOW, just a load.

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” -- An ornithologist, or a bird, or neither.

Sebastian said...

He's got it all wrong. Feyerabend led to Conway. Cuz.

Earnest Prole said...

This podcast starts slow and ends strong -- definitely worth a listen. It explores what used to be called the social construct of reality. Only an hour before I listened to a Bloggingheads conversation between your friend Robert Wright and Jay Van Bavel, whose research examines how cognitive biases shape perception itself. As Dylan said,

You're right from your side
I'm right from mine

Lewis Wetzel said...

Blogger Earnest Prole said...
. . . Only an hour before I listened to a Bloggingheads conversation between your friend Robert Wright and Jay Van Bavel, whose research examines how cognitive biases shape perception itself.
It is good that the people who do this research are not affected by cognitive biases! Cuz' if they were, their research would be worthless!

tim maguire said...

How surprising that he can think of only Republican examples of this debasement of truth!

Joan said...

It is really no great insight to claim that people are stubborn, and scientists are people, and so scientists cling stubbornly to what they know until there is a preponderance of evidence, and enough voices clamoring about it, to overturn a working system. Kuhn brought it up at time when the people still viewed scientists as driven purely by the impulse towards knowledge & discovery. It's better that we all realize that scientists have inescapable biases just like the rest of us.

Earnest Prole said...

It is good that the people who do this research are not affected by cognitive biases! Cuz' if they were, their research would be worthless!

By that measure all science is worthless, since all scientists have cognitive biases.

tim maguire said...

It was a good 15 years ago that I read an article in Scientific American arguing that the invention of agriculture 8,000 years ago caused the global warming that pulled us out of the last ice age. That's when I decided to cancel my subscription.

YoungHegelian said...
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YoungHegelian said...

t's unfair to Kuhn to leave the impression that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was his last thoughts on the matter. Best known, maybe, but certainly not last.

I always find it amazing that so many lefties think that post-modernism has somehow worked its infernal magic on the Right, where almost no one claims to be post-modern, while they ignore the fact that the folks who call themselves post-modernists are on the Left.

In any case, it's far too easy in philosophy to come up with some "grand narrative" that explains how your opponent is responsible for great evil (e.g Jakob Bronowski blaming Hegel for Nazism, when the Nazis didn't have much use for Hegel at all). Hells-bells, I even read one Eastern Orthodox thelogian who held the Filioque Clause responsible for the Holocaust.

AReasonableMan said...

I read Kuhn's book 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' a long time ago for no other reason than I was interested. It had no discernible impact. I doubt that he can be reasonably blamed for Karl Rove. I blame bad parenting.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Joan-
The scientific method, as originally described by Francis Bacon, consisted purely of observation. The human observer was supposed to be a kind of soulless machine, observing and recording the evidence of his senses.
The problem with pure observation, hypothesis, and repeatable experiments is that it can't really help with we think of as the most important problems of human existence, especially what is evil and what is good, and our future.
So in the 21st century we have social science, where there are plenty of hypotheses, but our powers of observation are limited and our ability to perform repeated experiments (to isolate the dependent variable) is almost non-existent. We have climate science, which again has plenty of hypotheses, a limited ability to observe, and no ability to repeat experiments. With climate science, our object of interest, the climate of the future, does not even exist.

Angel-Dyne said...

Jay Elink: I think you're confusing gout with stomach ulcers.

And miscarriages with puerperal fever.

Lewis Wetzel said...

I doubt that he can be reasonably blamed for Karl Rove. I blame bad parenting.
ARM, do you suppose the bad parenting came from his gay father or his mentally unstable mother? Be careful not to judge people in your answer! Or hint that a gay father or a mentally challenged mother can not raise a good child!

mandrewa said...

Back in the 70s I used to love Scientific American. I was a teenager and the articles were quite challenging. The way it was written was that every article was about a specific discovery or some topic in science and it was written by one of the men, it was always a man, who had either participated in the discovery or had done research on the topic.

And then to make it accessible to a wider audience the article would be heavily rewritten by someone, whose name would never be acknowledged, at Scientific American. Mostly I think they were simplifying but they tried to keep as much of the complexity of the topic in there as they could. And they assumed a high level of intelligence on the part of the reader but not the background knowledge that someone in the field would have. There's no way it was aimed at the general public. In fact I believe it was appropriate for bright science majors in college.

Now they did not explain the procedure that produced these articles. But at some point I figured it out, because I'd read enough science papers to know that this is not the way scientists write. They write things where the assume the reader knows whatever they do. Which usually means the papers take a great of work to decode.

I was really impressed by the staff of Scientific American. The truth is they were doing the bigger job.

Unfortunately that Scientific American is long gone. The magazine of the same name today seems to be aimed at the same audience that might watch PBS.

I remember thinking that Thomas Kuhn's importance was kind of exaggerated. He was just making observations on how science had developed. I didn't think any of it was really that profound. But then maybe I'm not giving him enough credit because I'd already absorbed his ideas before encountering him.

But as I recall there was quite a lot of thinking about just how science should work. It was far more people writing about the subject than just Kuhn. I kind of do suspect that many people that had that training or taught themselves this, that many of these people are or were dismayed with climate scientists.

Michael Mann is the paradigmatic example. Here's how Michael Mann would prove that when you flip a dime it always comes up heads. Flip a bunch of dimes. Remove all the dimes that came up tails. Voila! You've proved that when you flip a dime it always comes up heads!

Now that's the essence of what he actually did. But it would be buried under a huge amount of obscure statistical math and complicated language that misses describing key steps in what he does. And then you know the subject isn't really flipping dimes because people would recognize that there is something wrong with his conclusion.

Anyway that's horrifying, but what's even worse is that other climate scientists don't call him out on this. Just one example like that is enough to make one doubt the whole field.

Joanne Jacobs said...

We will all be responsible for electing Donald Trump for 15 minutes.

Josephbleau said...



“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” -- An ornithologist, or a bird, or neither.

6/4/17, 7:16 PM

Sure, but Popper did his bit, otherwise we could not limit publication above 0.05. This is at least something.

Newton needed no such fog.

Douglas said...

Wait, what? I think Kuhn's idea of scientific paradigms and how hard it is to change one once it's become ingrained, is rather useful. I don't see anything post-modern about it. He's just describing science as it's actually practiced by all-too-human human beings, with all their flaws, egos and blind spots. His notion that you can't displace a dominant paradigm until you have a new one is particularly interesting. It explains, in large part, why the efficient market hypothesis and capital asset pricing model persist despite all the holes the behavioralists have poked in them - the behavioralists still don't have an overarching theory to explain capital market prices notwithstanding the anomalies they've found. The same is probably true with respect to the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis - it's a grand theory that explains a lot and although the skeptics have found lots of anomalies, there is no widely accepted skeptic theory that comprehensively explains climate changes. So count me a fan.