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Rational thought will always trump lies – and that’s the truth

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Filmmaker Errol Morris is celebrated for groundbreaking documentaries, including a luminous tour de force, The Thin Blue Line (1988), which chronicled a man convicted for a murder he didn't commit. Randall Dale Adams was released a year after the film's debut, a tribute to the power of the medium.

Less well known is Mr. Morris's long-standing beef against the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, with whom he studied at Princeton University. Mr. Morris was not a compliant student. In a confrontation he described in a bizarre series of 2011 New York Times articles, Dr. Kuhn grew so exasperated that he threw a heavy ashtray at the younger man.

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Dr. Kuhn, who died in 1996, was a star in his own right. In 1962, his major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, popularized the idea of "paradigm shift" in science, the way perception of the physical universe can be turned upside down by abrupt changes in world view. Dr. Kuhn's arguments have always been controversial, but few apart from Mr. Morris, a lingering nemesis, attribute the election of Donald Trump to his influence. Mr. Morris has done just that recently, calling Dr. Kuhn a "fraud" and his critique of god's-eye scientific objectivity inaccurate, "repellent" and "despicable."

It's hardly a straight line, but in the age of post-truth politics, factual claims do seem harder to pin down. Did the U.S. President really ask former FBI director James Comey to suspend his investigation of questionable former general Michael Flynn? It depends on who you're willing to believe, who's willing to lie and (apparently) some fine-spun parsing of the word "hope."

This is not new. President Bill Clinton turned semantics inside-out with his riffs on the meaning of "is," and had us believe that fellatio was not a form of sexual relations. As long as people are willing to lie under oath, to their everlasting shame, there will always be he-said/he-said standoffs in political debates, Senate investigations and impeachment proceedings.

So let's stop imagining there's some leftist postmodern conspiracy to undermine truth and reality in the public square. Pundits everywhere: Please quit your lazy blaming of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – two thinkers with completely different intellectual projects – for "postmodern" relativism. The term "postmodern" was actually first popularized by another completely different thinker, Jean-François Lyotard. And none of them, whatever their proclivities, denied the possibility of making sense, or of respecting a norm of truth, properly understood.

Moreover, as science writer John Horgan said in a recent Scientific American article about the Morris/Kuhn tussle, it's hard to credit any philosopher with such practical influence. We just don't enjoy that degree of traction. With all respect to Mr. Morris's fevered imprecations, Dr. Kuhn is not the problem.

But there are two more important points in play here. The first is that the actually successful postmodern turn has been executed by the right, not the left. Speaking to a New York Times magazine reporter in 2004, a George W. Bush functionary (later identified as Karl Rove), offered this frank dismissal of the "reality-based community": "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality, we'll act again. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

This is postmodern right-wing realpolitik and it, far more than any graduate-seminar text, is responsible for the current Twitter-happy nonsense of the administration. Mr. Trump is revealed as an emergent symptom rather than the disease itself, a man rewarded by dark forces he scarcely understands, let alone controls. He is history's buffoon – although clearly still capable of grave damage.

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Hence the second point. There's a reason that Mr. Trump, climate-change deniers, flat-Earthers, creationists and Gwyneth Paltrow fear the power of genuine science. They are right to do so, because even under the most adverse of conditions and contingencies, science marshals methods and results that command rational authority.

Yes, sadly, brute power and lies can sometimes create temporary political realities. But what Dr. Kuhn perceived, and what Mr. Morris and others seem unable to understand, is that science's authority derives from an even higher source: the power of discourse to make sense of the world and get things done. It's never final, and never immune from challenge.

That's the truth. And contrary to current opinion in high places, it's not optional.

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