Minority Opinions

Not everyone can be mainstream, after all.

Soft-pedaling the Truth

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Where do you get your information?  Given that you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you collect quite a bit of knowledge from the internet.  I also expect that you’re smarter than average, and probably have a technological bent.  You are probably conversant with the major theories of physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy, having learned many of them at school.

Curiously, there are many who refuse to believe some of the things you take for granted.  My own grandfather, for example, despite a subscription to Popular Science, still denies the plausibility of a Big Bang.  Indeed, for centuries, it was thought that the universe was essentially static, with stars circling around each other in perpetuity.  For millennia before that, it was common to think that the Earth was the center of the universe.

Most of that time was before the age of scientific rigor, though; how can people still disbelieve?  A significant part of the answer may lie in a deep flaw of the scientific community: It doesn’t advertise well.

Your average article in a peer-reviewed journal will have a problem statement, the description of an experiment, graphs or tables of the data collected, and conclusions.  The conclusions will be couched in terms like “appear to support the hypothesis,” “seem to be correlated,” or “not statistically significant.”  Strong statements of absolute truth are few and far between, because the authors are staking their reputations on the veracity of the entire article.  If any piece is found to be wrong, their professional lives may very well be ruined.  Spend enough time in that mode of thought, and you too may find yourself mentally censoring any utterance that might possibly be incorrect.

Their peers won’t hesitate to jump on such problems, either.  After all, as Paul Graham says, good scientists “look for places where conventional wisdom is broken, and then try to pry apart the cracks and see what’s underneath. That’s where new theories come from.”  The scientific method at its core only finds truth by disproving falsehoods one by one, so any idea that can be shot down is in some way a step forward.

Sadly, that leaves us with a public perception that the label of “theory” is weak.  To a scientist, it’s a collection of hypotheses that both explain known data and make predictions about the results of future experiments.  To the layman, it’s just another idea waiting to be shot down.  After all, if Newton was so wrong, why couldn’t Einstein be?

Somehow, it gets underplayed that the best theories, the ones that correctly predict numerous results over decades or centuries, don’t get disproven so much as refined.  Einstein’s special theory of relativity looks exactly like Newton’s theory of motion and forces in the limit of low speed, including everything you or I will experience.  The general theory of relativity incorporates both the special theory and Newton’s theory of gravity.  Quantum mechanics looks Newtonian in the limit of large numbers, by which we mean anything visible without an electron microscope.  String theory is so troublesome because it has to incorporate all of the above in some fashion, and we haven’t yet figured out a way to make them cooperate.

How well-supported does a theory need to be before it can get proclaimed as an absolute truth?  Is that bar lower or higher than it takes to get taught in grade school?  Does it make a difference to have a major religion preaching contradictory ideas?  Does the audience make a difference?  If so, is it more important to be assertive or cautious when talking to those who might not believe?

I’ve been as guilty as anyone else of using precisely correct language that downplays the message I’m trying to convey.  On the other hand, I’ve also been guilty of zealous language with obvious weak points to attack.  Just like everything in life, there has got to be a middle ground somewhere.

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Written by eswald

31 Jan 2012 at 10:11 pm

Posted in Lifestyle, Politics

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