Two Perspectives on Science and Truth

Two Perspectives on Science and Truth February 20, 2019

Is science motivated by a commitment to truth, or are things a little more complicated than that?

Michela Massimi is a professor of philosophy of science at the University of Edinburgh, and in a recent article in Aeon magazine, she forthrightly declares that “It’s Time for a Robust Philosophical Defense of Truth in Science.” In this overheated screed, Massimi plays the Chicken Little of the not so new millennium. Drawing a picture of the history of modern science so two-dimensional that it would make the science fans hereabouts swoon with delight, she asserts that truth is at the heart of the scientific enterprise and we ignore this fact at our peril.

What’s Wrong With Getting It Right?

According to Massimi, philosophers of science turned away from the ideal of truth for legitimate reasons: the simplistic positivism of Comte and others, she admits, produced a self-serving and Whiggish account of science as continually progressing toward absolute truth. However, she thinks modern philosophers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and trots out Thomas Kuhn as the cartoon tyrant who imposed a relativistic and historicist philosophy of science that obscured the ideal of (and Massimi frequently italicizes this phrase) getting things right.

As magnanimous as she tries to be toward scientific pluralism, Massimi is a debunker at heart. Her obsession with being right right right is the hallmark of the narrow-minded science fundie, and the foundation for her conception of truth is nothing more novel than the old correspondence theory. This isn’t really about truth after all, it’s about authority:

The time for a defence of truth in science has come. It begins with a commitment to get things right, which is at the heart of the realist programme, despite mounting Kuhnian challenges from the history of science, considerations about modelling, and values in contemporary scientific practice. In the simple-minded sense, getting things right means that things are as the relevant scientific theory says that they are. Climate science is true if what it says about CO2 emissions (and their effects on climate change) corresponds to the way that things are in nature. For the sake of powerful economic interests, sociopolitical consequences or simply different economic principles, one can try to discount, mitigate, compensate for, disregard or ignore altogether the way that things are. But doing so is to forgo the normative nature of the realist commitment in science…[A]cknowledging complexity and historical nuances gives no reason (or justification) for forgoing truth altogether; much less for concluding that science trades in falsehoods of some kind. It is part of our social responsibility as philosophers of science to set the record straight on such matters.

Golly. To be fair to Massimi, though, we can’t just point out how trite her pronouncements are. We have to ask whether they’re true. Did she get it right?

In her recent book True Enough, philosopher Catherine Z. Elgin responds to that question with a resounding no.

Felicitous Falsehoods

The thesis of Elgin’s remarkable book focuses on a paradoxical aspect of scientific inquiry that Massimi explicitly denies in the quote above: science, in fact, trades in falsehoods all the time. Far from critiquing science, Elgin is making the case that it’s the epistemic commitment to truth that’s the problem.

Elgin calls Massimi’s brand of truth cheerleading veritism, the idea that truth is the sole relevant factor in inquiry. On the face of it, veritism seems like the ultimate in epistemic responsibility. However, Elgin shows that it’s completely incompatible with scientific inquiry as it truly works. Falsehood is an essential part of the inquiry process.

To retain a commitment to a falsehood merely because it has other epistemically attractive features seems the height of cognitive irresponsibility. Allegations of intellectual dishonesty, wishful thinking, false consciousness, or worse immediately leap to mind. But science routinely transgresses the boundary between truth and falsity. It smooths curves and ignores outliers. it develops and deploys simplified models that diverge, sometimes considerably, from the phenomena they purport to represent. It subjects artificially contrived lab specimens to forces not found in nature. It resorts to thought experiments that defy natural laws. Even the best scientific accounts are not true. Not only are they plagued with anomalies and outstanding problems, but where they are successful, they rely on lawlike statements, models, and idealizations that are known to diverge from the truth…

If truth is mandatory, much of our best science turns out to be epistemologically unacceptable and perhaps intellectually dishonest. Our predicament is this: We can retain the truth requirement and construe science either as cognitively defective or as noncognitive, or we can reject, revise, or relax the truth requirement and remain cognitivists about and devotees of science.

In other words, scientific inquiry involves describing things as they aren’t in order to understand things as they are. The ideal gas law describes no gas that could ever exist. The pendulum in textbooks doesn’t behave like a pendulum on a clock. Scientists work by creating fictions.

The Devil’s In the Big Picture

The very idea that we can judge scientific knowledge true or false in terms of the “facts” that constitute our knowledge is another way Elgin disagrees with Massimi. Elgin isn’t disputing that there’s truth, or that scientific inquiry is a successful enterprise. However, she points out that it’s more accurate to say that the facts only have meaning within the accounts that employ them. Rather than an atomic approach to scientific knowledge, Elgin recommends a holism that recognizes that accounts are complexes that can’t easily be reduced to individual statements.

Another, potentially more promising strategy is to take holism at its word and relax granularity. The atomic sentences that comprise an account cannot be separately justified. Even if the focus of attention is a particular claim, evidence always bears on an account as a whole. Evidence for the claim that a given process is adiabatic is evidence for an entire account of heat transfer, which is tested along with the claim. Evidence that the grooming behavior displays reciprocal altruism is evidence for an entire account of primate behavior, which is tested along with the claim.

Elgin makes a distinction between knowledge and understanding that’s crucial here. Massimi says “That our knowledge is situated and perspectival does not make scientific truths relativised to perspectives,” but Shem at his most relativistic wonders on what authority he’s supposed to accept that claim. It seems as if Massimi wants a weaponized truth that can compel agreement, while Elgin emphasizes the community of epistemic agents in which discussion, debate, and justification takes place. There may be instances, Elgin admits, where disputes involve disagreements about verifiable facts. Much more often, however, disputes arise because of differences about what the facts mean, which take precedence over others, and other matters concerning the various epistemic commitments of the participants.

Let There Be Factoids

And that might be the most shocking implication of Elgin’s thesis: that these science-word slapfights we have in the blogosphere aren’t about understanding at all. The granularity of knowledge can fool us into thinking that factoids are gold bricks in the stairway to debunker heaven. But without depth or context, a slew of data points is just a substitute for understanding.

What do you think? Is science motivated by a commitment to truth? Should it be? Is there a difference between knowledge and understanding?

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  • Raging Bee

    I never thought I’d see a cage-match where two strawmen build each other up and then try to fight each other. This could be even sillier than that recent Rock-em-Sock-em-Robots movie…

  • Chuck Johnson

    . . . science, in fact, trades in falsehoods all the time.

    This is the wrong choice of words.
    Sounds like someone is promoting controversy over understanding.

    “Falsehoods” should be replaced with such concepts as “imperfect knowledge” “imperfect formulas” “limited understandings” and such-like. – – – The language that we use is important.

    Asimov can tell us about the relativity of wrong:

    Here is guidance for open-minded and scientific doubt or confidence:
    No idea, fact or statement should be considered to be zero% true or 100% true, but somewhere between these limits.
    This is to promote open-minded consideration of the universe that we live in.

  • Bruce Gorton

    Funny thing, Shem, you feigned offense when I said your arguments are reminiscent of a climate change denialists, and here is Massimi raising the specific example of climate change in the quote which you characterise thusly:

    Her obsession with being right right right is the hallmark of the narrow-minded science fundie, and the foundation for her conception of truth is nothing more novel than the old correspondence theory. This isn’t really about truth after all, it’s about authority:

    Yeah Shem, you’re still an utter wanker.

  • Shane Pruett

    Exactly. No point using words that suggest we’re outright lying when the truth is we have imperfect understanding of complex events. One of the attractions of a Bayesian statistical framework, which is now very accessible given the increases in computing power, is that we move ever more in a direction of A) estimating parameters of interest (i.e. what is the effect of x on y?), and importantly, B) quantifying explicitly how much uncertainty remains and how it is partitioned. It reframes our question from, “what is the value of x” to what are all the values of x and how probable is each?” This approach starts to directly and honestly address not only how we know what we know, but how much we know, about what we know. Additionally it gives us the ability to incorporate what we know in future studies and to implicitly update our knowledge with more data.

    Ultimately we learn that for most any process we study, there is no objective truth. It’s just too damn complex. So we model reality to try and get the best approximations for truth and admit where we’re limited.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Outright lying would be one conclusion.
    The other conclusion is that scientists don’t have a clue and their work is useless.
    Both perceptions would be wrong.

  • Phil

    Things are true for a given value of true. If you don’t aim for truth what are you going to aim for? It is ok stating that nothing is 100% true but unfortunately there are those that take it to mean it is wrong. Hence Creationists, anti -Vaxxers etc

  • Helen LIpson

    My biggest problem with Elgin is her use of the word “fiction” to describe any departure from the absolute truth. That does happen in science – when
    scientists deliberately make up data or leave certain data out of their analysis or simply lie about what that analysis told them. Much more often, scientists are guilty of bending the truth, to some degree, by leaving outliers out of their analyses, overgeneralizing the results from a limited sample, or talking about differences in TENDENCIES between different populations (e.g,male and female, white and black) as if they were CATEGORICAL differences. (For example, if they tell us that males are better at 3-D spacial relations, rather than that men TEND to be better.) Another problem especially vexing to me. which often comes up in otherwise excellent documentaries on animal behavior, is the substitution of immediate MOTIVE for evolutionary explanation: For example, when they describe rutting males as “seeking to spread their genes” or females as “looking for the best genes for her offspring,” which implies more thought behind their sexual behavior than they ever give it. More likely it’s just a matter of male sex drive and lust for power and females’ hormonal responses to whatever their species looks at as “hot.” But those kinds of departures from absolute truth are very different from the kind of dishonesty or bias that I think Massimi is referring to.

  • Philip Rand

    No idea, fact or statement should be considered to be zero% true or 100% true, but somewhere between these limits.

    Interesting…. so, what you believe is an equivalence of truth rather than truth, right?

    Can you even answer that question truthfully since truth & falsehood form a bi-stable system on you account…. hey! Can you even answer that!

    Where is the transition between what is true and what is false?

    Do you have an head? (true or false)

    The answer is quite interesting actually…. let’s see if you head is “open”?

  • Chuck Johnson

    “Do you have an head? (true or false)”

    Yes, but not like the head of a pin or a head of lettuce.
    No simple word or collection of words will perfectly represent reality.
    Add more words and more explanations to get closer to reality.

  • Philip Rand


  • Is correspondence theory wrong or flawed most or all of the time? Is the ideal gas law so flawed that it cannot and has not ever been used in some way to build any machines?

    In the case of the DNA analysis here, one can see why some folks are inclined to want to squirm away from the data and its interpretation, even if the interpretation is only tentative due to, e.g., limited data. How often is that the case, sometimes, about half the time or most of the time? That would seem to vary with the discipline at issue, the amount and quality of the data and whether competing data interpretations are, or appear to be, about as viable as the most common expert interpretation.

    Is science motivated by a commitment to truth?: Probably mostly most of the time.

    Should it be?: Yes, but allowing for bumps in the road along the way. Humans are not perfect.

    Is there a difference between knowledge and understanding?: Depends on how one defines the terms. They can be defined to mean the same thing or different things. What definitions are in use for this question, i.e., is there a consensus definition for each and they are just synonyms or not?

  • > Is there a difference between knowledge and understanding?

    Absolutely there is. I’d even say there’s knowledge, wisdom and understanding. All three are important. Knowledge and wisdom work together to bring you to understanding which in a very practical sense is what Elgin is ultimately getting at here, even if not making it explicit. The wisdom is in the understanding of what knowledge is and isn’t.

  • Also it’s really good to see you post again – ive been missing them for some reason. That’s two people I adore who “came back” to me this week =)

  • I’ve missed you too, my sibling-from-another-extraterrestrial! Hope all’s well.

  • it’s pretty good. hows things with you?

  • i’d give you a better answer but i’m sleepy lol