Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson posted the following on Twitter.
I don’t follow him, but this was brought to my attention by a frozen meat company who did, as usual, an excellent job of invalidating his premise, and I do follow them. As someone who loves science, the idea that it equates to truth has bothered me so much that I wanted to put down some of my thoughts. Now NGT has over 14 million followers and I have about three readers so I understand that this represents extreme navel-gazing, but there is so much wrong with this tweet I had to say something and it won’t fit into 280 characters.
One of the most formative experiences in my life was that I was able to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for my last two years of high school. I had a number of influential instructors, and high on the list was Dr. John Kolena. He would never say something like “Science is Truth” but might have said that science is the constant pursuit of truth.
I can remember my first real physics class with Doc John, where he stood at the front of the room and stated “everything I’m going to teach you this semestre is wrong”. He was referring to Newtonian physics, which for the longest time was considered “the truth” until it was replaced with Einsteinian physics. Newton’s theories resulted in the ability to predict amazing things, until they didn’t. Einstein’s theories both matched Newton’s predictions and extended them, being able to correctly predict things that Newton couldn’t, but even now scientists believe Einstein’s work is incomplete.
So how is this “truth”? NGT doubled down with a tweet pointing to a post of his from 2016 where he states:
Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false. We will not be revisiting the question of whether Earth is round; whether the sun is hot; whether humans and chimps share more than 98 percent identical DNA; or whether the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen.
Without devolving into solipsism, I find it amusing that he illustrates “objective truth” with a list of “subjective” examples. Yes, the Earth is round, but compared to what? The ideal of “roundness” is a sphere but the Earth is definitely not that. The sun is hot compared to the surface of the Earth but it is downright chilly compared to blue stars and nearly frozen compared to quasars. The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen but is that 78.0% or 78.5%?
Now, more than ever, we need to get people to understand that science comes with a healthy dose of doubt, but that is normal and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. The power of science is not in its exactness but in its ability to predict, and to get things done.
We obviously don’t fully understand how sub-atomic particles work, but that doesn’t prevent us from making electronics that allow me to type this blog post. With the recent pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine in the US due to the potential for blood clots doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get the shot. Science is working to understand “the truth” and sometimes this takes time.
I had a friend who was a nuclear physicist and he pointed out that in the 1940s it was considered “safe” for workers to be exposed to 25,000 millrems of radiation per year. That was the “objective truth” as determined by the science at the time. This “truth” was corrected to 15,000 millirems per year in the 1950s, and in 1957 was lowered even farther to 5,000 millirems, where it remains today.
All of these “truths” are approximations, and what I love about science is that real scientists not only know this, they embrace it. The beauty of science, the science I love, is the quest for truth and not this smug, elitist attitude that we’ve found it.