From truth to truthy….

Posted on March 14, 2011


Fig 1: Truthy

Jenny: “So Professor, are you saying that  EVERY ‘truth’ has a region of uncertainty surrounding it?  That no truth stands alone, that if you look carefully you’ll find that it’s  supported by a set of assumptions – that it all depends?”

Peter: “I heard that there was an Indian tribe that recognized that – whenever they made a claim – spoke a ‘truth’ – they would add the source of their information or belief. For instance they just wouldn’t say ‘Bigfoot is coming’, instead they’d say: ‘Bigfoot is coming by my eyes… or by my ears… or by my heart.’  So you could judge what kind of ‘truth’ or truthy it was that they were talking about. If the news (the truth) came from Running Spear’s eyes or ears you paid no attention, whereas if  Willow Leaf told you Bigfoot was coming ‘by her ears’  you tended to believe her because usually and soon Bigfoot appeared to your eyes.”

Professsor Wiggly: “Nice example Peter. If you find out which tribe it was let me know, I’d like to have it for my files. In a way scientists attempt to do the same thing. When they publish a paper, a research or a theoretical paper, they try to include the bases of thier claim, so include all the details concerning their experiment. If its a research paper they detail all their measurement and analysis procedures. They try to include enough detail so that another scientist could repeat the experiment to see if he or she get’s the same results. Conscientious researchers recognize that their RESULTS  depend upon the procedures they used to obtain them….. the instruments, the temperature of the lab, the time of day, the particular sample of rats used, their age, their diets, whether they were used to being handled by the lab staff, in some cases whether it was a male or female researcher, etc,. etc.,. ”

Penny: “So when reading about a scientific ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ you have to understand that it’ surrounded by a large region of uncertainty – for instance you don’t know if other researchers would get the same result if they tried to repeat the experiment, you don’t even know whether of not the original author could get the same results, you don’t know if the results would be different if the experiment were conducted at a different time of day or month, in a different part of the world.”

Peter: ” And if you buy Hawking’s  so-called ‘model dependant realism’ or Simon’s ‘no conclusions without assumptions’, you don’t know whether a researcher with a different theory or model would get the same results , or if he’d interpret the results the same way. I suppose if they had a different theory or set of assumptions they wouldn’t even bother to try to repeat an experiment based on a competing theory, or different school of scientific thought.”

Jenny:  ” So when you hear some news, or a ‘fact’ , or a ‘truth’, ideally you should ask how the information was obtained – its source – and the ‘theory, or assumptions, or model of the person who delivered it. We do that to a certain extent when looking at political news, we take into account it’s source, whether it’s being reported by a Republican or a Democratic commentator, whether they’re extremists or moderates. Apparently we should do the same thing with scientific reporters or researchers, or theorists. But…. that would be pretty hard. You’d have to be a scientist to know what  questions to ask, to identify what theory they believed in, we’d have to know some pretty complicated math. … I don’t know how’d we’d be able to judge the truthiness of  scientific news?”

Professor Wiggly: “One way  that helps me judge scientific news – or any news – is to visualize it sitting on top of a tower of ‘ifs’. For  instance if an extreme Republican listens to an Obama speech you can be pretty sure that he or she will conclude that the speech  contains dumb, dangerous or false proposals. Whereas if a moderate Republican listens her or she will likely conclude that  it contains a few wise ideas but  lot of questionable ones. Similarly, if a scientist who strongly  supports theory  or model A  reads a research paper reporting results that challenge theory A and support a competing  theory B, he or she will likely discount or ignore the results. Whereas a scientist supporting Theory  or model B will likely accept the results uncritically and publicize the research in their next paper. That’s what Hawking is getting at when he talks about ‘model dependant realism’. We accept as real or true those conditional research results of truths – truthies – that support or fit our model of reality.”

Peter: ” So you’re saying that science like in  life is a bit like a love affair – you fall in love with your model or theory or cause  and accentuate the positive and discount the negative. The last person to see the limitations – or the warts – of  your true love is you. And you don’t want to hear any negative reports from anyone else.”

Jenny: But if that’s the case how does science correct it’s mistakes? ”

Fig 2: Court

Professor Wiggly: ” It’s not usually the particular scientists who are in love with theory or model A that correct it. Rater it’s scientists who are in love with a competing point of view, who love theory or model B , who criticize theory A, meanwhile uncritically  accumulating evidence supporting there pet theory B. Then there are few scientists who are professional critics, who fall in love with Theory X, the theory that says all theories are full of holes. I guess I’ve had a long love affair with theory X so I don’t spend much time criticizing other peoples theories. As Simon says no conclusions without emotionally anchored assumptions or biases. So scientists, like the rest of us,  can’t be too self-critical,  can’t continuously examine all their assumption, otherwise they never get off their backsides and do research and write papers. So scientists like the rest us must rely on others to effectively criticize their research and theories. In this sense science is like a global courtroom with research findings, theories and models on trial – with opponents of the theory  prosecuting aand with the supporters defending, and with  the judges ( the journal editors and grant givers) deciding who wins.”

Fig 1

Fig 2:


Posted in: Sciencing