Truth and Principles

02022-12-21 | Uncategorized | 4 comments

Wednesday 21 December 2022 – The Monocle Minute | Monocle:

In his book Starry Messenger, US astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote, “To deny objective truths is to be scientifically illiterate, not to be ideologically principled.” It is a sentence that also sums up the past few years of political discourse in the West. We live in strange times shaped by our need to broadcast our firmly held beliefs into the world and give equal billing to opinions and facts. Certain politicians, commentators, news anchors and anyone with a social-media account have made a virtue of “plain speaking” and “telling it like it is” instead of evidence-based observation.

An absolute belief in the truth of your position is a barrier to constructive conversation. The triumph of ideology over pragmatism in public discourse has left reason in ruins. People who cling to the mast of their own opinion risk not only drowning but also dragging the entire ship of public discourse into the unedifying depths of ignorance.


  1. JaneParham

    A thought:
    “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of it’s existence.”. – Nikola Tesla

    When I have suggested this idea to most of my scientist friends, they pretty much poo-poo me, resistant! I just now saw the above quote from Tesla, a brilliant scientist and unusual man. He never married. I bet I would have loved him! :-)

    Tesla’s friend, Julian Hawthorne, wrote, “seldom did one meet a scientist or engineer who was also a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink”.

  2. Steve

    DeGrasse-Tyson is being overly reductive. This kind of stuff is not only misleading, it presents a completely false flag for what “science” is.

    “Science” is an iterative procedure. It’s not “a thing.” Science is a kind of recursive algorithm.

    It becomes even more iterative (and prone to error) as well as subject to noisy data when the object of study is human beings. The replication crisis in psychology is an example of this.

    Now, you’d think a guy in DeGrasse-Tyson’s position, with his background, and given that he is supposed to be a “science communicator” would understand and communicate this but in all the books and interviews I have read and listened to he just comes off like a religious fundamentalist.

    Like all procedures (iterative and otherwise) they are implemented by human beings. “The Science” is only as good (or as sound or contains the verisimilitude) as the people executing the procedure. If you booger up the procedure, or fail at some point to account for a hidden variable (c.f., The Leavett Law) “the science” will contain statistically significant uncertainty, but that’s not a fault or defect in science, that’s a defect of the humans executing the procedure(and in the case of The Leavett Law, failing to account for colour and metallicity). A simple omission (you skipped a step) in the procedure produces an error cascade in the results. Do this enough times, and you move from statistically significant uncertainty to being … well, just plain wrong.

    To hear DeGrasse-Tyson tell it though, “the science” is a type of ukase from the scientific gods. And that’s complete buncombe: there are plenty of sources of cognitive bias in the modern scientific apparatus not least being losing tenure, academic standing or grant money by way of unpopular or unfashionable results.

    This is precisely why “the science” ought to be continuously iterated and refined: The truth is contextual, not relativistic: we NEVER ought to ACCEPT the null or alternative hypothesis. We only ought to reject or FAIL TO REJECT the null hypothesis, and always be about the business of proving oneself to be wrong and placing results in the appropriate reference frame with appropriate assumptions in the model being used. That’s the job … and that’s also the rub.

    • ottmar

      I hear what you are saying, Steve, but it is quite possible that your comment and the DeGrasse Tyson quote are both correct. I understood his statement to be a social and political commentary that only references science in passing. For me the meat of the post is the very last sentence, which was not by DeGrasse Tyson, that says:
      “People who cling to the mast of their own opinion risk not only drowning but also dragging the entire ship of public discourse into the unedifying depths of ignorance.”
      Truth matters, facts matter, words matter. To ignore a fact because of a personal belief or opinion is not wise or constructive, as anyone who ever believed they could fly and stepped off their tenth story balcony can attest to.

      • JaneParham

        Hooray, Ottmar!


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