Science, Hawking, Colbert & truthiness …

Posted on March 23, 2011


Warning! Cracks appearing in the foundations of science….

Fig 1 Hawking

First, our most famous living scientist – Stephen Hawking – admits that science isn’t  about REALITY – it can’t reach that far. The best we can do is construct stories or ‘models’ of what we think reality looks like. We build those stories or theories or models out of  tiny bits and pieces of experience delivered by our limited senses and scientific instruments. So our scientific findings or theories aren’t models of REALITY, they’re models of  the tiny bits and pieces of experience accessible to us via our fallible senses. That’s why Hawking doesn’t talk about REALITY, he talks about ‘model dependant realism‘ , about models or constructions of what we think reality is like, based on our limited senses, based on our fallible, human observations. Now you can understand why scientists disagree. It’s like different people working on a jig saw puzzle that’s missing most of the pieces, they can easily disagree about what the completed or REAL puzzle would look like. But it’s often more complicated than that, not only do scientists work with puzzles with many missing pieces, but  some of the pieces keep changing. So scientists don’t discover the truth, they construct TRUTHINESS.

Fig 2 Colbert

Stephen Colbert rediscovered and popularized the word ‘truthiness’ . It refers to stuff that passes as the truth but consists of selected observations held together by beliefs and biases. It’s the kind of ‘truth’ you encounter around the dinner table, at bars and during political debates. The difference between political and scientific debates is that more scientists are starting to buy into the sort of  thing that Stephen Hawking is saying about science, and about the fallibility of their observations and theories or models.  Science is also dealing with truthiness, with pictures or models of reality based on jig saw puzzles with missing, fuzzy, changing pieces. And although, understandably,  scientists disagree and get lost in the complexity of it all, they also produce some magnificent models of reality, and some observations that rattle our human senses, that capture and hold our attention – ranging  from space flights to atom bombs. And with the help of Hawking and his colleague Mlodinow an increasing number of scientists may start appreciating that it’s not only their theoretical opponents who construct their ‘reality’ – their truthiness – out of fallible bits and pieces of experience and pet theories, but that they too are playing the truthiness game.

I doubt that Stephen Colbert, or any of his right-wing targets will admit to such heresy. Like me, I see truthiness in others, rarely in myself. I’m in touch with real reality – yes I am. But don’t ask my wife or friends.

Fig 1 Hawking

Fig 2 Colbert:

Posted in: Sciencing