Science and Truth

This year, my school’s chapel theme is truthfulness. Each week, the chapel service focuses somehow on what truth is, and what it means to each of us as individuals. A few of the services were taken over by academic departments and the talks were centered around truth and a particular discipline. Math and truth. Literature and truth. And recently, my colleague Mark Schober and I gave talks on science and truth. Below is what I had to say.

Earlier this year, I had a student say to me, “It’s easier for me to believe that Jesus walked on water than believe that what you’re telling me about electrons is true.” And that student’s not alone. I’ve gotten the sense this year with many of my students that the more they learn about atoms, the less they believe atoms actually exist. And it’s a completely valid way to feel! In Chemistry we study the universe at the smallest level, which means we can’t actually ever see what we’re studying. It’s a discipline almost entirely based on inference. But what I love about Chemistry, actually what I love about science in general, is that you can never just make a claim. You always have to have a reason for making your claim. You have to have evidence. One of the most important questions science asks is how do you know?

As Mr. Schober pointed out this morning, science is about stories. It’s about the stories of the scientists themselves. More importantly, it’s about how science is constantly trying to tell the stories that are true for all of us. Race, gender, and sexual orientation don’t matter when we’re talking about how everything is made of atoms. Although, to be fair, that statement comes from a place of incredible privilege because race, gender and sexual orientation have played and still play a large role in whether you’re allowed to be one of the people learning and teaching about how everything is made of atoms. That’s a part of the story we can’t and shouldn’t ignore.

But still. Science tells the stories that are true for all of us. There are mathematical models that can be used to describe or predict the motion of a ball as it is thrown in an arc, the motion of a cart rolling down an incline, or the motion of the Earth with respect to the sun. We can describe what fundamentally makes us, us, by learning more about DNA, RNA, proteins. And, as science tells us, we are much, much more alike on that level than we are different. You as students can learn all of these things, but your science education wouldn’t be complete without also understanding how we know those things.

How do I know what I know? It’s a question that has driven so much in my life. I ask myself that about the content that I teach. I ask myself that about my students. Did they learn that? How do I know? But also, I really ask myself that question a lot in my daily life. Thinking like a scientist has helped me navigate my daily interactions with other people.

I have lived for 37 years, and in that time I have collected an enormous amount of data. Every observation, every interaction, every experience has at one point or another been catalogued in my mind as evidence. Evidence for how the world works. Evidence for what I should expect to happen in any given situation. It’s in our nature to seek patterns, and we instinctively make predictions for what we think will happen based on what we have seen before. My entire life I have been walking around in my very own science laboratory.

What is easy for me to remember is that I approach every scenario with the data I gathered in my science lab. I have grown to understand that my experiences and my reactions to new scenarios come down to simple cause and effect. What is harder for me to remember is that other people do not have the same data I do. It’s harder to remember that when I disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean that I am right and they are wrong (or that I am wrong and they are right). It means that their data has added up to something different than mine. It means that their truth is different than mine.

You know, there are several people occupying the national stage right now that have…large personalities. Some people agree with them, some people disagree with them, but I think what we can all agree on is they all seem to have the ability to draw a reaction out of people, whether that be by saying something that you believe in strongly or by saying something that you could not disagree with more strongly. I think the argument can be made that the ones who are the most divisive are the ones who seem to believe that their truth is everyone else’s truth as well. They are reasoning as though their science lab is America’s science lab. I’m curious if they have ever paused to wonder, “How do I know what I know?”

Some of our most challenging experiences are when we run up against someone whose data conflicts with ours. But you know, some of our most fulfilling experiences, I believe, are when we find those overlaps in our data with other people, especially if it’s an unexpected connection. I have been singing in choirs since I was 12 years old. I’ve been in a variety of different groups, all filled with people coming from a wide range of backgrounds. Or a wide range of science labs, you could say. We have differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, socioeconomic standing, and political ideologies. Some of these people became my friends outside of the group, some did not. But what is always true is that we all seem to have collected data that has taught us to appreciate expression through music. And so we come together, we work together, and we create something that we all find meaningful. What’s more enriching than that? It’s why I will succeed in my goal of making the other members of the science department form a band with me.

So to wrap up, I want to share with you a few of the conclusions I’ve come to, based on my data:

  • One: Trust yourself. Your instincts are based on your data, and however you feel about something is probably grounded in some experience you’ve had. And if you make a mistake? That’s okay. You’ve just collected more data for next time.
  • Two: Remember that another person’s data is different from yours, and that it’s valid. It’s their experience. They grew up in a different science lab than you did. They hold on to their beliefs just as strongly as you do, and you both have reason for it.
  • Three: Treat other people’s data with the type of respect you’d want them to treat your data with. Be gentle in your disagreements. Give others space to have an opinion while still holding strong to who you are.
  • And finally: You will never stop collecting data, which means you should never stop analyzing that data. Your truth can change.

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