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The truth, and “the truth”

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve just come across a superb pair of quotes in the (largely appalling) reader comments beneath Richard Dawkins’s latest article in The Times Online (which is an extract from his forthcoming book). To quote first Bertrand Russell and then Richard Dawkins:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Dawkins says:

The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

I thought that was worth recording. However, I still think Richard makes his same old mistake in this article when he says:

Influential philosophers tell us we can’t prove anything in science. Mathematicians can prove things — according to one strict view, they are the only people who can — but the best that scientists can do is fail to disprove things while pointing to how hard they tried. Even the undisputed theory that the Moon is smaller than the Sun cannot, to the satisfaction of a certain kind of philosopher, be proved in the way that, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem can be proved. But massive accretions of evidence support it so strongly that to deny it the status of “fact” seems ridiculous to all but pedants. The same is true of evolution. Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the northern hemisphere. Though logic-choppers rule the town, some theories are beyond sensible doubt, and we call them facts. The more energetically and thoroughly you try to disprove a theory, if it survives the assault, the more closely it approaches what common sense happily calls a fact.

Once upon a time, as we well know, it was ridiculous to deny that the Sun and the stars went around the Earth, but enough evidence was then gained to overthrow that theory. The one theory that still stands – against any test – is that the Earth goes around the Sun. That’s doesn’t make it True. Giving it that label would be to say to future scientists who discover, maybe, that we are after all in a nine-dimensional universe where the notion of ‘orbiting around’ something is a quaintly naive one that should be remembered with a slightly embarrassed chuckle.

No, it makes that a theory – a bloody good one, that stands against all the tests we can throw at it, including all the evidence we can amass, and all the predictions we can make – but still a proposition that can fail at any time that we discover something that contradicts it.

And this is the proper nature of science: hold to the best theory until such time as it’s untenable, and then relent in the face of a better one. Now just because challenging evidence or a better theory has not come along for heliocentrism or evolution, or natural selection, it doesn’t mean that those theories are True – it just means what it’s supposed to mean: that they are the best yet. They are true with a small ‘t’.

That is incredibly important, and one of the only things that separates scientific statements from evangelical or faith-based ones. Scientists are always prepared to abandon a theory that is contradicted by clear and unambiguous evidence against it, and adopt a better theory, whereas faith adherents never are. Scientists are humble and honest.

What Richard is doing here is just appearing to be no different from some priest. I know he doesn’t mean to – and he knows it’s the last thing that a scientist should be doing – but nevertheless, he keeps baying that This is True, and That is True, and those statements are antithetical to an honest scientist’s humble standpoint. It is not just a matter of pedantry to insist that we get this right, because recognition of the types of claims that people make is absolutely central to their understanding their content.

We aren’t going to beat creationists by playing them at their own game, and shouting from raised towers with the biggest megaphone. Sure, we may get the attention of the public, and that’s certainly very important, as Richard himself admits when he says that it’s a ‘consciousness raising’ effort. People looking up at the towers will just think “Hey, those truth-heads are shouting at each other again!” and just ignore both of us, thinking that it’s just a battle for supremacy on some power scale. They don’t realise that the two approaches to knowledge are completely different, that the scales are not the same scale, and no wonder if both parties appear to be doing the same thing, whatever their intentions.

What will win the battle is for Richard to use downright honesty in how he helps people distinguish scientific claims from faith-based ones, and this notion of Truth is, I think, the only way to do it. He is clearly an honest and passionate man, but he’s unwittingly making himself look like his enemy, which is defeating his purpose of explaining why the kinds of answers that science gives are different from every other attempt to explain the natural world.

He even relented at the end there, saying that something ‘approaches’ a fact, and that’s the phraseology he must stick to if he wants to highlight the difference clearly and effectively.

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