An article on science reporting on the BBC has me thinking about truth. Again. Truth is, of course, a philosophical concept. What it means is a matter of debate, and always has been. The way that it’s used, however, is reflected in the debate-oriented situation in the story. According to IFL Science’s Lisa Winter, the BBC has been tasked with tightening up its science programs to avoid the dilemma posed by the “two sides to every story approach.” While not denying that debate is the lifeblood of science, assessing the strength of the debate is essential. For example, there is a true scientific consensus about global warming. Those who deny it are generally backed by either corporate or religious causes that motivate them to claim the truth lies elsewhere. Truth is a very slippery term. And anybody can use it and claim it. In philosophy there’s no answer key in the back of the book.
Science, which I’ve admired from my earliest years, has a really, really strong track record of describing the physical universe accurately. Truly enormous paradigm shifts are rare in science and must be accompanied by stringent evidence. Sometimes critics grow frustrated at the slowness of science to accept something that seems obvious, but scientific thinking is nothing if not careful. Enter religion. The claims of most religions lay far beyond the reach of science. And yet, religion too has a really, really good track record—not of describing the physical universe (at which it often does abysmally poorly), but of providing meaning to human lives. Scientists have actually studied this. Religion, like it or not, does help. When it makes a claim on truth, however, a religion often comes into conflict with science. And the problem is that policies based on faulty scientific outlooks can have catastrophic consequences.
So what is truth? If we define it as what really, physically describes the material universe, science is onto it. In fact, science has the best chance of giving us an intellectually honest answer. If we define truth as what a certain deity declared law about a particular aspect of human life, science can’t help. Science doesn’t concern itself with gods or their putative decrees. Religion, however, does. And a vast part of the population votes for leadership based on religious beliefs rather than on scientific principles. And most have not taken too many classes in philosophy. In a democracy we both benefit and suffer under the weight of public opinion. And right now, it seems, public opinion considers philosophy as waste of time and would prefer the truth shrink-wrapped and ready for easy consumption.