The Real Failure of Brian Williams

Brian Williams’ instances of journalistic failure present us with an opportunity to review the significance of commitments made by journalists, historians, scientists and all other professionals who engage in disciplined inquiry. An example of what is at stake is provided in the work of the famous historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, whose fiftieth anniversary edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 2012. In it, Kuhn presented the idea of a paradigm shift, an expression still in use today. In that book, he makes the following significant statement:

One of the strongest, if still unwritten, rules of scientific life is the prohibition of appeals to heads of state or to the populace at large in matters scientific. Recognition of the existence of a uniquely competent professional group and acceptance of its role as the exclusive arbiter of professional achievement has further implications. The group’s members, as individuals and by virtue of their shared training and experience, must be seen as the sole possessors of the rules of the game or of some equivalent basis for unequivocal judgments. To doubt that they shared some such basis for evaluations would be to admit the existence of incompatible standards of scientific achievement. That admission would inevitably raise the question whether truth in the sciences can be one.

However historians and philosophers evaluate Kuhn’s view of science, or the idea of paradigms in science, it is clear that his reference is to what is known as a collective commitment of those in the game, to the rules of the game. It is this commitment that gives rise to science and the other academic disciplines – and to the integrity by which they are sustained.

In the last two sentences of this famous book, Kuhn says, “Scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all. To understand it we shall need to know the special characteristics of the groups that create and use it.” Language is a social reality created by our commitment to its rules. In other words, language exists in the promissory relationship shared by its users.

An example of a violation of this commitment, widely discussed at the time, occurred in 1974. A biological researcher was focused on the problem of transplanting tissue in rats, but the approach had been unsuccessful. In desperation, he marked an experimental rat with a dark marker to show that the darker tissue had been successfully transplanted. The attempt was readily discovered and the researcher was disgraced. He had published numerous papers, all of which were retracted. Any paper that cited his work was placed in doubt as well. This unfortunate act broke the commitment upon which, as Kuhn describes, scientific inquiry is based. While this exemplifies human frailty, it also shows us that by a commitment to the shared rules of the game, great achievements are possible, beyond what any one person could produce.

From what is reported, Brian Williams failed to respect and embrace the rules of the game, thereby calling into doubt instances of his other reporting. The pursuit of self is stronger for some than their commitment to the shared promissory relationships that make achievement in a profession or discipline possible. The failure of a respected reporter is an opportunity for us all to refresh our appreciation for those men and women of the professions and areas of inquiry who refine, and adhere to, the rules by which they play, therein advancing the credibility of their professions and the experiences of us all.

(Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press. (p. 168). For a discussion of how we create social realities, see John R. Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2010)