Truth – What is it?

Posted on February 9, 2011


”If you want a guarantee buy a toaster.” Clint Eastwood

Jenny: “Professor, tell me what is ‘truth’? I knew what it was til I started  reading what the experts are saying?”

Peter: “It’s easy. If you want the truth read  only one newspaper or  listen only to one news channel. If you listen to two or more you get confused. I listen to Fox.”

Professor Wiggly: “Not bad Peter… not bad. Most of the  scholars who study the question answer: ‘It all depends.’ What’s reported to be true depends upon who’s looking, and on when and where they’re looking. You know this already – you know that a Republican and Democrats produce different ‘truths’. It’s the same with two scientists who believe in different theories – they typically produce different truths – this drug cures vs this drug is dangerous. Who do you believe? It all depends. If you’ve got the disease and your desperate you believe it works, later you believe it’s dangerous, still later you believe it works under certain conditions and doesn’t under others, still later…?  The truth moves around with time. For a deaf man the truth is that the world is silent. For a blind man a lot of the world is empty. Humans – as a species – are deaf and blind to many signals, to many ‘truths’. We are deaf and blind because we lack the sensory sensitivity to pick up certain signals, and/or we are deaf  and blind because our beliefs and biases get in the way. Furthermore we also create ‘things’  or truths that may not be there – husbands suspect wives, wives suspect husbands, Democrats create Republican hells, and visa versa, scientists create imaginary worlds and cures and start believing that they’re ‘real’. What’s ‘real’, what’s true? It all depends. Simon says: no decisions without emotionally anchored assumptions, Hawkings talks about ‘model dependant realism’ – what’s real at any given time depends on the particular model or picture of reality you have at that time. We’ll never have complete access to what’s out there, so our realities are human inventions. What’s real or true depends upon the beliefs of whoever you’re talking to. If you’re talkiing to someone with the same sensory system you have you’ll agee about certain realities – but if you’re talking to a dog, or a cat or a bat they’ll tell you that you’re missing a lot of signals. If you’re talking to someone with the same political beliefs as you, you’ll agree about certain realities. If  two scientists share the same theory they’ll agree about certain realities. It all depends!”

Jenny: So that means that when we hear about a scientific finding we should take it with a grain of salt, because it depends on which scientist(s) produced it (what was their theoretical theory or bias), what specifically did they observe ( if it was people, how many were observed, how many men, how many women, what ages were they, how many were on medication, which medications, how long were the observed, did they just observe them once or several times,  how many were tired, or hung over, had a cold, did they use special observational instruments, were the batteries new, did someone else check the observations and calculations, etc.) So the results of any observation – scientific or otherwise – all depends on a bunch of things that affect the results?”

Peter: ” So scientists rely on theories to tell them where to look, what to look  for, and how to fill in the gaps and interpret their results. So a theory is like a political bias in that you expect scientists  with different theories to come up with different results, because a theory is like a bias affecting what you look at, how you fill in the gaps and interpret the results. No wonder scientist argue among themselves. There’s never enough observations to be sure of the results so they need their theories to reach their conclusions: like “this drug is safe”. And maybe it was during the time they studied it, for the  particular small sample of patients and the particular symptoms they studied. Whereas other scientists looking at the same patients but at different symptoms and for a longer period of time found negative effects of the drug, including deaths, which the first scientists missed. So now I get it when  you say  ‘it all depends ‘ when you’re trying to evaluate a scientific ‘truth’ or finding. ”

Jenny: ” I  thought of ‘truth’ as something that stood on its own – no if’s, and or buts. Whereas it requires a big preamble, like: ‘if these scientists who support this theory, study these particular symptoms, using these particular instruments, for this length of time, and analysed the results with this statistical package they conclude such and such. Wow – it all depends! I’ll have to get my cat to tell me what I”m missing.”

Posted in: Sciencing