Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Truth and Facts

In my Science Methods class today, we spent much of our time discussing the difference between "facts" and "truth." This feels so germane to so many issues in culture today that it was really something I wanted to talk about--and, serendipitously, it was on the syllabus for today anyway.

I'm using a text by John Mays entitled Teaching Science so that Students Learn Science, and chapter 2 of the book is entitled "Truth and Facts." In this chapter, Mays is really talking about science as a way of knowing about the world. And there are definitely different ways of knowing! Mays emphasizes that science is about developing an empirical understanding of the world--the facts, we might say.

Here are his working definitions for "truth" and "facts": (from p. 17 of the book)

Truth: A proposition that is true for all times, all places, and all people. Truths never change. We know truths by revelation or first hand testimony.
Fact: A proposition that is supported by substantial experimental or observational evidence (data), and which is correct as far as we know. Facts can change as new data and information become known. We know facts by observation and experiment, or by making inferences from our observations and experimental results.

How does that sound to you? Are these helpful definitions?

After discussing this a bit, we played a game of "Fact? or Truth?" I gave students a series of statements, and based on these definitions, we tried to determine whether they are facts or truths. Some were easier for them to determine, such as "All living things are made of cells." (A fact, even though I can't really prove it to you.) Or perhaps one like, "We are saved by grace through faith." (A truth that I believe!) Others were a little trickier for them to discern, such as "Dinosaurs once roamed the Earth." Given the definitions above, I argued that this is a fact--it is inferred based on our observations. A few students pushed back on this though, wanting to argue that this requires a particular frame of reference or worldview to argue for the factuality of that statement. I gently suggested that this is really what "science" is all about: discerning a reasonable explantation based on observations and experiments. Science is good for answering some kinds of questions. Religion is good for answering others. Sometimes the facts and the truth are easily viewed as one and the same. Sometimes we might want to think they are different from each other.

I'm thinking a lot about this right now, because I've been reading lately about how we now live in a "post-truth" society, and about whether "alternative facts" are in actuality a reality. I don't have this all figured out just yet, honestly. I have more thinking to do.

But one thing I do know: The official Twitter account of the Badlands National Park tweeted some facts about climate change, and there was a crackdown from the Executive branch. The tweets have since been deleted, but some folks had grabbed screenshots, which were retweeted and retweeted:

[I should note that I don't know Brian Klaas at all. One of my Twitterfriends retweeted this today. But I also *did* see the original tweet yeserday. I did not think to grab a screenshot of it then. I didn't realize I might need to do so...]

What should we think about this? Is the scientific fact of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere today something to discount? What is the truth here?

To say that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than in the past is a scientific fact. It is the best explanation for the current state, and it is based on careful observation. I should also say that inferences about the causes for this increase in carbon dioxide are also part of careful scientific methodology. To dismiss this reality as "alternative facts in a post-truth society" is to misunderstand what science is all about. Deleting a tweet about this fact does not dissolve it's factuality.


As a science teacher, I'm concerned about scientific illiteracy. As a society, we need to understand the nature of science, and the limitations of science. We should be skeptical--in the most positive sense possible, meaning not just accepting what people say without evidence to support the claim. We should demand evidence and want to see the data to support the claims people make, because the truth is, scientific knowledge does change over time as more data is collected and better explanations are thus possible.

But we should also recognize that a well-developed theory of climate change is based on factually-accurate scientific observations. Denying this is akin to denying a well-developed theory of gravity that is based on factually-accurate scientific observations.

And nobody goes around saying, "Yeah...gravity? That's just a theory..."

But gravity IS "just a theory." It's based on countless observations, and it both explains the phenomena we observe as well as allowing us to make predictions about how things will behave. That's what theories do.

The theory that all living things are made of cells is also "just a theory."

The theory that pathogens (germs) cause you to get sick is also "just a theory."

The theory that all the matter in the universe is made up atoms is also "just a theory."

The theory that magnets can induce an electrical current in a wire is also "just a theory."

The theory that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around is also "just a theory."

In all of these cases and so many more, a scientific theory is based on facts that are determined by observation and experimentation and inference. That is what science does. Science isn't about "proving" anything. It's about explaining the way the world works.

And the fact is that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than there has been in a long, long time, based on the evidence that has been carefully collected.


My students left class today feeling a little discombobulated, I think. I don't think I clarified things for them; actually, I think I muddied the waters for them. Hopefully, this will keep them thinking. Hopefully, introducing them to the facts of what science is and isn't will help them to be wise consumers of information...and hopefully we'll be able to discern the truth of "science as a way of knowing" as the semester continues to unfold.

1 comment:

  1. It is a fundamental truth that God created the world in six days not 6 aeon.