14 November 2020

1.1. Pursue the truth.

Scientists learn early to abide by the words of Thomas Jefferson (1820), that "we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

This rule is easy to follow in the sciences because in general the scientist has no stake where the destination lies. (Although this may be true for the natural sciences more often than for the social sciences.) In fact, the very purpose of scientists is to have a group of people paid for not holding preconceived notions.

The non-scientific world is burdened by more complicated goals.

Philosophers and theologians have an endless capacity to argue about the nature of truth. For most of us the definition is simple: 

Truth is an observable phenomenon that can be independently verified. Not more, not less. In science, truth is always provisional, based on the weight of the available evidence. Truth and fact are synonyms. An observation that is accepted as a scientific truth or a scientific fact today may be modified or discarded tomorrow (National Center for Science Education 2016).

The opposite of truth is a falsehood. If a falsehood is spread with the knowledge that it is a falsehood, it becomes a lie.

Between truth and falsehood lies the indeterminant, a phenomenon that has not been or cannot be declared a truth or a falsehood.

"Joe Biden won the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections." (a fact)
"Earth revolves around the sun." (a fact)

("Earth rotates around its own axis." is a fact. Note however that when you examine your experience with day and night, you find that you observe the sun moving and not the earth rotating. In fact, we express this observation in everyday language: "The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.")

"Unicorns exist." (an indeterminant)
"There is a heaven." (an indeterminant)

"The earth is 4,004 years old." (a falsehood)
"The song "Edelweiss" is the national anthem of Austria." (a falsehood)

"Alfred Dreyfus sold military secrets to Germany." (a lie)
"President Barack Obama was born outside the United States." (a lie)

Someone may believe false information to be true. If she spreads this information, she is misinforming others. Someone may know false information to be false. If he spreads this information, he is disinforming others.

And always remember the proverb: "He who speaks the truth will need a fast horse."