The Ashtray Argument

Image credit: Julian Carvajal (via Flickr)

In the course of researching an essay on the philosophy of science recently I was surprised to come across a series of five blogs on the subject in the New York Times. Running to several thousand words and complete with lengthy footnotes, this was far from being a typical news-driven blog about the latest scientific breakthrough. But if you are famous enough, you get to write about what interests you, and the Academy Award-winning documentary-maker Errol Morris is, it turns out, interested in Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced the idea of paradigm shifts.

Morris has spent a life-time doggedly investigating and tracking down the extraordinary stories that have made his name as a film maker. Several of his films hint at his interest in the nature of knowledge. His influential 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, explored multiple viewpoints in a murder trial. The film invites the viewer to ponder how we know – how human perception is clouded by subjectivity and the slipperiness of historical fact. A few years later, Morris turned his attention to what we can know about the universe in his biography of Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.

But Morris’s interest in the construction of knowledge isn’t just intellectual. It’s personal. In an event worthy of one of his own documentaries, Morris studied philosophy of science under Kuhn until a disagreement culminated in Kuhn throwing an ashtray at Morris’s head and kicking him out of Princeton.

Thirty nine years later in The Ashtray: The Ultimatum, Morris gets his revenge in a critical examination of some of the central tenets of Kuhn’s theories. What follows is part philosophy of science, part personal quest on Morris’s part to understand the man who ‘At the time, I felt … had destroyed my life’.

Aside from the personal angle, what makes this piece so arresting is that its subject matter and approach is in direct contrast with most of the other current offerings of science in the mainstream media.

It’s not without its flaws. As one commentator pointed out, many of the problems with Kuhn’s Structures that Morris cites in his essay have already been highlighted and accepted by modern philosophers.

Nor can you get away from the feeling that Morris has an axe to grind; one wonders if there is a reason why he has come to the subject only after Kuhn’s death, denying his former tutor at least an opportunity to give his side. Some commentators, including Kuhn’s son Nat, have also questioned whether the so-called ashtray argument even took place.

However, these issues do not detract from the overall significance of Morris’s writing. The debate it sparked suggests that in spite of the normal reporting of science in the media, there is an appetite for this type of writing about science.

By ignoring the news values which usually shape the media coverage of science, Morris reminds us that a good story can come from anywhere, even a half-century-old tome about the nature of scientific knowledge.

Flora Malein is an Imperial College student studying for an MSc in Science Communication.

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