Terry O'Connor

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What is truth?


Pilate saith unto him, “What is truth? “ John 18: 38

I don’t often come over all philosophical, let alone religious, but this morning was an exception. A nice little flurry of indignation was building on Twitter, triggered by the excellent Adam Rutherford, familiar to Radio 4 science listeners and sometime Uncaged Monkey (http://adamrutherford.com/), venting his spleen over an article in the Guardian newspaper. In that article, Steve Fuller cherry-picks a few bits from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to argue that “Science has always been a bit ‘post-truth’”.

If I had hackles, they would have risen. Kuhn’s book is essentially irritating, not least for bringing the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ into popular (mis)use, though the differences between his understanding of the knowledge claims made by science and those of Karl Popper makes a useful basis for argument amongst friends on a dark winter evening. What I find more difficult to forgive is Kuhn’s use of George Orwell’s novel 1984 as a metaphor for the way that scientists adopt and discard theoretical viewpoints: “Inevitably those remarks will suggest that the member of a mature scientific community is, like the typical character of Orwell’s 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be.” Poor old scientists, passive victims of the ‘powers that be’, which in Orwell’s book (a novel, I repeat) are dark and sinister political forces seeking to subjugate and misdirect the mass of the people. Or are scientists actually the dark forces? Fuller’s article nails its colours firmly to the mast:
“What makes Kuhn’s account of science ‘post-truth’ is that truth is no longer the arbiter of legitimate power but rather the mask of legitimacy that is worn by everyone in pursuit of power. Truth is just one more – albeit perhaps the most important – resource in a power game without end. In this respect, science differs from politics only in that the masks of its players rarely drop.”


‘Unable to explicate further…’ Cop-out?

No. You’re not getting away with that. Politicians, philosophers and the religionists deal in truth: scientists deal in facts and where those facts lead us. And a fact is not a truth. The authors of the American Declaration of Independence could state “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, but those ‘truths” (“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) have no factual basis. They are the ethical bases to which those authors wanted the new Republic to be held, and which it has conspicuously failed to live up to. To those authors they were ‘truths’, just as the genius of Richard Wagner is a self-evident truth to many people, of whom I am not one.

It is a serious category error to use the term ‘truth’ when discussing the procedures of science. The strength of hypothetico-deductive science is its use of replicable factual observation combined with disposable, testable hypotheses to generate provisional knowledge-claims that have to stand up to subsequent investigation and testing. Those knowledge-claims are not truths and should not be presented as ‘scientists believe’, as they too often are, for the simple reason that ‘belief’ implies faith rather than argument from facts. It is my belief (which I hold to be self-evident) that Richard Wagner was a poisonous human being whose music is tedious and derivative. As it is only a belief, I accept that others will disagree and that any discussion would be entertaining but futile. My dislike of Wagner is not a science-based knowledge-claim, however much I cling to it.


The media tell us that the UK is now ‘post-truth’. That presumably gives some of our media outlets a conveniently free hand to make things up (I’m looking at you, Mail Online), but that confuses post-truth with post-factual. Certain MPs may no longer believe the self-evident ‘truth’ that the Welfare State was a positive achievement of Post-War Britain, but facts such as increased life expectation and decreased rates of serious disease will stand whatever the prevailing political opinion. Politicians, clerics and other opinion-mongers will wear truth’s “mask of legitimacy” for the purpose of steering public opinion towards their particular agenda. Scientists, at least any deserving of that term, will not. A few years back, it was ‘truth’ that the MMR triple-vaccine caused autism in young children: it was never a fact. The consequences of that category error include the serious outbreak of measles in South Wales in 2013 (http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/888/news/29688). Journalists, politicians and other bandwagon-jumpers were believed and the flaky arguments of one doctor were given precedence over a barrow-load of factual evidence. That is what happens when the factual basis of science is viewed through the same lens as the ‘truths’ of philosophy, politics and religion. And it is one of the reasons why scientists get really irritated when evidence is ignored or cherry-picked in order to support some statements about the world that are based on individual or group belief, evidence used in advocacy rather than in order to test an idea or assumption.

The UK, or at least the UK’s media outlets, may have become post-truth but keep scientists out of it. Our concern is to keep things fact-based, and that is a hard enough job, thanks.



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