Who owns the truth?

Is it morally reprehensible for scientists to advocate or even communicate their work?

At the crux of this issue is the concept of truth.  Truth should not be confused with fact: as filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “fact creates norms, and truth illumination.”  Scientists seek truth, but can only provide the world with facts.  We have to believe that over time the facts science produces get closer and closer to the truth, because otherwise science itself would be moot.  The truth is as tantalizing as the limit of a curve approaching an asymptote: it will never be completely reached.

At any given time, what society believes to be “the truth” is really just an assemblage of facts that may or may not be hitting the mark.  Given that the truth is rather like a nebulous cloud of thoughts built on centuries of human consensus, it is an awfully powerful thing.

So why should scientists have the power to dictate “truth” for society?  They don’t.  There is nothing so special about scientists that make their ideas or knowledge more truthful than others’.  However, they may be better equipped to convey the facts that science produce, given that they understand them better than the average person.  The definition of a scientific law is “a statement based on repeated experimental observations that describes some aspect of the world.”  At the time that it is made, no exception has been found to a law.  According to this definition, miracles cannot occur.  As a character in Christopher Paolini’s Eldest aptly states, “Many events have defied our ability to explain, but we are convinced that we failed because we are still woefully ignorant about the universe.”  That objectivity and truth are the scientific gold standards means scientists can communicate the most objective, truest truths to society.

Scientists advocating for certain actions or causes can be problematic when scientists’ opinions are 1) confused as facts or 2) elevated above others’.  However, these issues stem not from scientists themselves but from society’s perspective on scientists.  Scientists simply communicating their work can also be problematic because the emphasis the media places on different news items can give people a skewed version of what is considered valid or important in the scientific world.  When this happens, a few dissenting voices can sometimes even reduce the impact of a scientific consensus – as is the case with the public perception of a scientific “debate” on climate change, when in reality none exists.

To solve this, scientists, journalists, and the public must hold each other accountable.  The peer-reviewed system is designed so that scientists hold each other accountable every day and expect to be held accountable in turn.  Scientists should have the right to disseminate facts backed by repeated experimental evidence, and should feel obligated to do so, being better equipped for this task than most.  Ultimately, we must believe that as we collectively muddle our way on this journey towards truth, under the influence of the wisdom of the crowd, truth will out.

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4 thoughts on “Who owns the truth?

  1. I think it would be useful to include your definition of truth somewhere in the beginning – truth, I think, is not very straightforward term with many meanings and I would probably be clearer on what exactly do you mean by it if you just define it.
    Did you mean something like universal truth..? Because honestly, I do not think that scientists present themselves as ‘telling the truth’. And if yes, then just everyone does it.
    Anyway, just wanted to give you some useful feedback perhaps?
    Nice article overall 🙂

    • Good point! Without getting too philosophical, by truth I simply mean in accord with reality. Even if scientists do not present themselves as “telling the truth,” I would hope that scientists are trying to find it! Presumably, scientists miss the mark many times and only hit it once in a while, but the whole point of science is to get as close to the truth as possible. I can say that personally, I hope to become a scientist, and this is my understanding of what it means to be a scientist!

      Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      • Thank you!! I know nothing of philosophy but might take a class in it next semester…there are some interesting classes at Brown on time and morality and other abstract things that I find fascinating. Thinking and writing about things like “truth” and “reality” has peaked my interest 🙂

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