Truth: Politics and Science Have Very Different Perceptions

October 21, 2009 at 10:18 PM Leave a comment

Written by Lewis D. Eigen

“Whatever people think is!”

This is the famous political summary of the importance of public opinion in a democracy given by Otis Singletary, President Lyndon Johnson’s first appointee as the Director of the United States Job Corps.[1] He was summarizing a basic political reality that has been a basic principle of politics going back thousands of years to the Bhagavad Gita of 200 BC.  Public opinion is the major driver of validity for most politicians.  For some “fundamental principles” come first and then public opinion.  However, to the scientist, neither public opinion or ideological principles have anything to do with truth, veracity or rectitude.  They are in the culture of science, irrelevant.

Take for example, the nature of the universe.  There have been scientific advocates of the view that the universe was expanding.  Others, held that it was static.  And theoretically, a few observed that it might be shrinking.  There were various arguments made over the years and while some of the particular arguments were knocked down by new data or logical contradictions, the debate raged for years.  However, at no time did anyone even think, much less suggest, that the decision should be reached by means of a plebiscite or poll of public opinion.  No one would dare suggest even that a poll of the leading scientists should decide the issue.

In a sense, nothing could be more contradictory than the notion of a democratic society and a scientific one.  In a political democracy, over the long run, the perception and course chosen by the majority is what will and should prevail as the ultimate “truth.”  In contrast, the culture of the scientific community is totally insensitive to majority opinion.  At best it is interesting, but has no more bearing on the truth than flipping a coin might.  Today, we now know that the Universe is expanding, but the weight of evidence was mathematics, logic and experiments—experiments that could and were validated and replicated.  Science historians observe that in all eras of mankind’s existence, the majority view of science issues has always been wrong—even the majority view of the scientists of the era.  At best they had an incomplete understanding of the issue.

One of the common expressions of this in the scientific culture is:

“Other than Aristotle, no one has ever been right in science for more than 100 years.”

In science, we are always learning more and often see where we were in error after observing new data or examining the old data with different tools, or even with different constructs or points of view.  So science is always changing, and the good scientists all realize that.  The politician, in contrast, believes that there are eternal political truths.  While the scientist sees truth as temporary, the politician perceives, his truths to be immutable.  Most scientists expect that 100 years after his death, his truths will be very different and most of his current views will have been proved erroneous.  In contrast, most politicians could not even conceive that most of what the politician advocated as political truth in his lifetime might be erroneous sometime after the politician’s demise.  To the scientist, the overturning of present truth is a very exciting and positive prospect for the future.  To the politician, the same thought would be totally depressing.

It is little wonder that the two groups of professionals have difficulty in communicating and working together.

[1] Lewis D. Eigen, Eigen’s Political & Historical Quotations,, Quotation # 34339, December 12, 2008.

Entry filed under: Politics, Science. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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