Truth in science advertising

I’ve run across this chestnut from NdGT before, but this time it struck me as both untrue and misleading. Of course in a crude sense it’s true. When you get on an airplane, it flies thanks to Bernoulli’s principle whether you believe in or even know of Bernoulli’s principle.

But in a deeper sense it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of science. The good thing about science is not that it’s true–it’s that it’s open to revision. Science’s truths are constantly in flux. As John McPhee said, “science erases what was formerly true.” It’s time to abandon the science cheerleaders’ trope that science is about finding the truth about nature. Every scientific fact ever discovered, every scientific theory ever put forward, is eventually rejected, revised, or limited. The beauty of science isn’t that it’s right–it’s that it can be proven wrong.

The statement is misleading because it is actually more true of religion than science. In his essay “Science and Theology as Art Forms” (Possible Worlds, 1928), JBS Haldane made the point about Christianity, although it holds for certain other religions as well: its gravest problem is its view that it is only true if you believe in it. Hinduism, Buddhism, and many, many others do not hold this view. They hold that their beliefs are true whether you believe in them or not. Karma, for example, just is. It doesn’t matter to a Hindu whether you believe in karma–the wheel will turn on you just the same.

The good thing about good science popularization is that it’s true, period. At a time when science is under fire from fundamentalists, we need to make sure that what we say about rational inquiry into nature is accurate.

NdGT quote

3 thoughts on “Truth in science advertising”

  1. On the contrary, the claim above isn’t true about Christianity.

    Christianity regards itself as true regardless of whether or not anyone believes in it.

    It repeatedly claims itself to be the truth throughout the entire text, and points out the importance of sharing this truth with others, so as to make it clear the seriousness of one’s eternal fate.

    As for JBS Haldane, who claimed that Christianity’s view of truth is subjective (I.E. that its truth depends on whether or not one believes in it), well… that guy never read the Bible, which clearly presents the truth as something inherently self-consistent. (Considering the policy of Old Testament law requiring multiple witnesses for any sort of capital punishment to take place, and considering that contradictions made it clear that someone was lying. Also considering that in the New Testament, many of the claims of the so-called “witnesses” that put Jesus on trial all ultimately wildly contradicted each-other, making it clear that the “witnesses” were liars.)

    In short, JBS Haldane, by claiming that “truth is relative” with regards to Christianity, is a flat out liar.

    By the way, /any/ view that considers truth to be subjective (I.E. dependent on what one believes in) is automatically self-refuting.

    • Haldane was a little vague in his formulation and I propagated that vagueness rather than clarifying. He was an immensely well-educated man with deep knowledge of Christianity and Hinduism (much more than I), so it’s unwise to accuse him of a simplistic theological error.

      Of course Christian scripture maintains its truth. What’s it going to say, “I might be the way, I’m probably the truth, and, yea, very likely the life”? “You guys really might want to consider following me, if you don’t find something else more attractive, given your personal tastes”? The Bible may be full of factual inconsistencies, but it is, as far as my reading allows me to say, philosophically internally consistent as any major religion or philosophy must be.

      Haldane was referring, I’m sure, to Christianity’s tenet that if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior, you will go to hell. Hence deathbed confessions, no atheists in foxholes, etc., etc.

      The automatic self-refutation of truth is also obvious and only itself true in an uninteresting way. But that’s a digression from the point of the piece, which is about science’s truth claims.

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