alan_alda's picture
Actor; Writer; Director; Host, PBS program Brains on Trial; Author, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
Things Are Either True Or False

The idea that things are either true or false should possibly take a rest.

I'm not a scientist, just a lover of science, so I might be speaking out of turn—but like all lovers I think about my beloved a lot. I want her to be free and productive, and not misunderstood.

For me, the trouble with truth is that not only is the notion of eternal, universal truth highly questionable, but simple, local truths are subject to refinement as well. Up is up and down is down, of course. Except under special circumstances. Is the North Pole up and the South Pole down? Is someone standing at one of the poles right-side up or upside-down? Kind of depends on your perspective.

When I studied how to think in school I was taught that the first rule of logic was that a thing can not both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. That last note, "in the same respect," says a lot. As soon as you change the frame of reference, you've changed the truthiness of a once immutable fact.   

Death seems pretty definite. The body is just a lump. Life is gone. But if you step back a bit, the body is actually in a transitional phase while it slowly turns into compost—capable of living in another way.  

This is not to say that nothing is true or that everything is possible—just that it might not be so helpful for things to be known as true for all time, without a disclaimer. At the moment, the way it's presented to us, astrology is highly unlikely to be true. But if it turns out that organic stuff once bounced off Mars and hit earth with a dose of life, we might have to revise some statements that planets do not influence our lives here on earth.

I wonder, and this is just a modest proposal, if scientific truth should be identified in a way that acknowledges that it's something we know and understand for now and in a certain way.

One of the major ways the public comes to mistrust science is when they feel that scientists can't make up their minds. One says red wine is good for you, and another says even in small amounts it can be harmful. In turn, some people think science is just another belief system.

Scientists and science writers make a real effort to deal with this all the time. The phrase, "Current research suggests…" warns us that it's not a fact yet. But, from time to time the full blown factualness of something is declared, even though further work could place it within a new frame of reference. And then the public might wonder if the scientists are just arguing for their pet ideas.

Facts, it seems to me are workable units, useful in a given frame or context. They should be as exact and irrefutable as possible, tested by experiment to the fullest extent. When the frame changes, they don't need to be discarded as untrue, but respected as still useful within their domain.  I think most people who work with facts accept this, but I don't think the public fully gets it.

That's why I hope for more wariness about implying we know something to be true or false for all time and for everywhere in the cosmos.

Especially, if we happen to be upside down when we say it.