The Natural Sciences and the Definition of Truth

On November 9, 2014, renowned American physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted the following.

This statement by deGrasse Tyson intrigues me. Although he is a physicist and therefore calls the natural sciences home, and I am an historian and call the liberal arts my home, there are a number of scientific principles shared by all scholars. These principles concern, for example, the terms “truth” and “theory.” However, the above tweet would indicate that deGrasse Tyson doesn’t adhere to these principles. So, let’s unpack his statement.

By making a statement about the truth of scientific theories on Twitter, deGrasse Tyson does himself a disservice. Tweets are limited to 140 characters including blank spaces. Therefore, I would argue that Twitter might not be the best forum for making statements that require certain nuance and contextualization. What deGrasse Tyson did by choosing Twitter is that he put himself forward as a scientist who believes that scientific results equal truth, which is inaccurate and, in fact, bad science. I believe this to be an unfortunate consequence of the limitations imposed by the tweet format, because I have come to regard deGrasse Tyson as a scientist well deserving of his good reputation.

Let’s return to the actual tweet.

deGrasse Tyson states that five scientific theories are true, whether or not people choose to believe in them. As I have stated before on The Boomerang, there is no such thing as “truth” in research. Instead, research results are judged based on their “validity.”

In historical research, the reason why it’s not possible to speak of “truth” is because as soon as a moment has passed, the truth of that moment is lost. All we can do is try and recreate that moment to the best of our ability through research. Or, as French historian Marc Bloch once stated—the past doesn’t change, but our knowledge of it does.

With a minor modification, Bloch’s statement can be applied to the natural sciences. The universe doesn’t change, but our knowledge of it does. Therefore, whenever a new discovery is made about the universe, we discover something about the world we live in that we didn’t know before. But does that mean that we have revealed the truth about our world? No. If we knew the truth about our world, there would be no need for science and both deGrasse Tyson and I would be out of a job.

Historical science and physics base their research on established methodologies and theories. In historical science, the theories applied to historical documents are, for example, theories of structuralization; theories of social networks; or theories of urbanization. None of these theories are considered to harbor any kind of truth. Theories in historical research are used because they provide a plausible framework within which to analyze the process of human activities in retrospect so that valid research results can be presented.

The Andromeda Galaxy, Milky Way's next-door neighbor.

The Andromeda Galaxy, Milky Way’s next-door neighbor.

The same goes for theories in the natural sciences. The theories used in natural sciences provide plausible frameworks in which to analyze, for example, the origin of the species on Earth or the Creation of the Universe. The theories themselves do not provide the conclusions; they help contextualize the data and make them valid. These valid data are then presented as research results. They are not presented as truth, because as soon as another discovery is made, the results are likely to change.

Moreover, as stated by Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, theories in physics are used to make predictions about the universe through mathematical calculations. For example, the theory of hyperspace states that our world consists of ten dimensions. However, we as humans are only able to experience four of those dimensions. Mathematical calculations are used to make predictions about the other six.

So, if there is no such thing as “truth” in scientific research, only valid results that are likely to change, how can we claim to know what we know?

My answer to that question is that when the valid results are analyzed together, they present a picture of our world that is plausible based on our experiences as human beings living in this universe. Therefore I am a believer in the theories mentioned by deGrasse Tyson. But I don’t believe in them because they are true. I believe in them because they are the most valid.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources
March Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)
Stephen Hawking A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998)
Michio Kaku Hyperspace. A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension (Anchor Books, 1995)

Note
Image of the Andromeda Galaxy has been downloaded from Wikipedia.

 

 

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Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain and the Importance of Research Pt. 2

[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS]

The Strain is a trilogy written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It tells the story of the end of the world as we know it through the spread of a vampire virus. Throughout the novels we follow the CDC medical experts Ephraim Goodweather and Nora Martinez, vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, professional exterminator Vasiliy Fet, and gang member Augustin “Gus” Elizalde in their fight against The Master, the vampire mastermind behind the outbreak.

The first part of the trilogy, The Strain, comes across as a well-researched novel, where detailed descriptions add extra layers to the narrative. However, as I discussed in a previous post on The Boomerang, when taking a closer look at the information provided by the authors, some of the details are either incorrect or presented in a slanted manner.

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In the second part of the trilogy, The Fall, we follow the continued adventures of our group of survivors as they struggle to fight back against the vampires who have taken over the world. As in the case of The Strain, The Fall contains passages based on seemingly thoroughly performed research. However, just as in the case of the trilogy’s part one, some of the statements made in part two crumble when picked apart.

Let’s take a closer look at The Fall.

 

1) Dinosaurs in amber
The Fall begins with a diary entry written by Ephraim Goodweather. The entry is a brief recapitulation of the events that passed between the end of The Strain and the beginning of The Fall. Ephraim ends his diary entry on a philosophical note.

The dinosaurs left behind almost no trace of themselves. A few bones preserved in amber, the contents of their stomachs, their waste. I only hope that we may leave behind something more than they did. (p. 3)

There are several problems with this statement. Yes, it is true that the dinosaurs have left few traces of themselves, some of them found in amber. However, the dinosaur remains found in amber are not bones, but microscopic traces of feathers. So far, dinosaur bones have exclusively been found as fossils. Regarding stomach contents and waste, these too have only been found as fossils, not preserved in amber. Moreover, admittedly few in number, there are more dinosaur bones that have been discovered than stomach contents and waste.

2) Occido Lumen
The McGuffin of the story in The Fall is an ancient book called Occido Lumen. This book contains the secrets to the destruction of The Master. The book is first introduced when Abraham Setrakian reads its entry in the Sotheby’s auction catalog.

Occido Lumen (1667)—A compleat [sic] account of the first rise of the Strigoi and full confutation of all arguments produced against their existence, translated by the late Rabbi Avigdor Levy. Private collection. Illuminated manuscript, original binding. In view upon appointment. Estimated $15–$25M (p. 14)

What this entry tells us is that the Occido Lumen is an illustrated manuscript from 1667. An illustrated manuscript is a book with pages made from parchment and bound by wooden boards. Illuminated manuscripts were mostly produced during the Middle Ages. In other words, an illuminated manuscript from 1667 is a very late example of this kind of book.

Add. 27210, f. 2
Haggadah title page (Additional 27210 f. 2, British British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).

So far the description of Occido Lumen is straightforward and in line with what could be referred to as alternate history. The big problem occurs on pages 248 and 249 of The Fall.

Let’s first take a look at page 248. Here, Setrakian and Fet have been given access to Occido Lumen at Sotheby’s. The following description of the book is provided,

The old book rested on an ornate viewing stand of white oak. It was 12 x 8 x 1.8 inches, 489 folios, handwritten in parchment [sic], with twenty illuminated pages, bound in leather and faced with pure-silver plates on the front and rear covers and the spine. The pages themselves were also edged in silver. (p. 248)

From this detailed and vivid description we understand that Occido Lumen is an impressive illuminated manuscript, handwritten on parchment.

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Left image: Man with Dragon (Sloane 1975, f. 13, British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).
Right image: Manticore (Royal 12 C XIXm f. 29v, British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts).

On page 249, Setrakian and Fet leave Sotheby’s. The vampire hunter proceeds to explain to the exterminator what he found when examining the book.

Setrakian said, “The pages are watermarked. Only a trained eye can see it. Mine can.”

“Watermarked? You mean, like currency?”

Setrakian nodded. “All the pages in the book. It was a common practice in some grimoires and alchemical treatises. [—] There is text printed on the pages, but a second layer underneath. Watermarked directly into the paper at the time of its pressing. That is the real knowledge.” (p. 249)

Above it was stated that Occido Lumen is an illuminated manuscript handwritten on parchment. Here, Setrakian is talking about the book consisting of printed paper pages. What is going on?

I believe that the confusion stems from the fact that the word “parchment” can mean two things. The most common meaning of the word is prepared animal hides used for writing before the introduction of printing. But there is a second meaning of the word, namely a crude type of paper. The mistake that seems to have been made here is that the word “parchment” is used referring to a type of paper while the Occido Lumen itself is called an illuminated manuscript. An illuminated manuscript is a medieval literary and visual art form that is produced exclusively on parchment made from animal hides. Still, this doesn’t explain why the authors seemingly can’t decide whether the book is handwritten or printed.

In addition to the issues raised here, The Fall contains several instances of inconsistencies, repetitions, and cliched dialogue. When I read the book, I kept asking myself if the editor and fact-checker went for a liquid lunch and then forgot to finish the job.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Fall (Harper Fiction, 2011)
Sid Perkins, “Dinofuzz found in Canadian Amber,” Science.
Brian Switek, “Stomach Contents Preserve Sinocalliopteryx Snacks,” Smithsonian Magazine.
Christina Reed, “A Dinosaur’s Wasted Legacy,” Geotimes.
Britannica.com Illuminated manuscripts
Britannica.com Western painting
Britannica.com Parchment

 

 

Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History

In his essay “Farther Away”, Jonathan Franzen discusses how he, during his life as a writer, has come to experience his own life as a story. The way he expresses his relationship to his own story made me think about how we, as human beings, relate to history. It made me ask the question: When does history begin?

Franzen writes as follows:

Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the old ones – selected, clarified – in retrospect. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

What Franzen discusses is his relationship to the past, in this case his own past. For him to relate to his past, Franzen states that a certain time has to pass before stories can be told based on his life experiences. Franzen’s relationship to his past is similar to the relationship of the historian to history.

Simply put, history consists of all events that have occurred in the past. However, although the terms “history” and “past” are used more or less interchangeably, they do not refer to the same thing. The past consists of events that have already taken place. History is the interpretation of those events.

If history and the past are different things, the consequence of such a statement would be that only sections of the past are included in history.

History is the academic research discipline that interprets and organizes the past with the purpose of increasing our understanding of it.  Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson has called history “retrospective process analysis”, which indicates that for history to be written, a course of events in the past needs to have been finalized so that the process as a whole can be interpreted. In the words of Franzen: “[…] selected, clarified – in retrospect.” Put together, the statements of Nilsson and Franzen would indicate that the answer to the question when history begins would be that a period of time needs to have passed between the present and the completion of the process of which the event was a part.

In other words, history seems to begin in the near past. However, such a conclusion can only be reached if one writes history backwards. Here on this blog I have argued for the necessity of writing history forwards. Consequently, the search for the beginning of history needs to be undertaken at a different place in time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Rune stone at Botkyrka Church, Diocese of Stockholm, Botkyrka kommun.
Source: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa)

The academic discipline of history interprets and organizes the past using written documents. Therefore, the beginning of history is connected to the introduction of writing, but the introduction of writing is not equal to the beginning of history. For history to happen, society needs to be literate. In other words, society needs writing to function. Furthermore, enough written material needs to have survived to the present day for the historian to be able to perform a systematic analysis of its contents. This is the reason why the Scandinavian Viking Age with its runic scripture is not considered part of history. Viking society was based on an oral culture and the writings that have been left behind for us to read are mostly short statements, for example on rune stones or weapons. These messages tell us about the people who inhabited Scandinavia during the seventh through tenth centuries, but they do not convey enough information for a process analysis to take place. Consequently, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, when literacy is introduced through the conversion of the region to Christianity.

600px-Chinese_-_Scroll_for_Zhang_Datong_-_Google_Art_Project
Scroll for Zhang Dong (c.1100).
Current location: Princeton University Art Museum

If history begins when a society can be said to have become literate, it would mean that history begins at different points in time in different parts of the world. As stated above regarding the Scandinavian Viking Age, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, in this case dated to the middle of the eleventh century. Compared to, for example, China, Scandinavian history is short, due to the fact that China has been a literate society for so much longer.

In conclusion, history can be said to begin both in the distant past and in the near past. It begins in the distant past when a society turns to literacy to function. It begins in the near past because for a process to be interpreted, that process, or at least parts of it, needs to have reached some kind of conclusion. Or as Franzen said:

[…] I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it […]. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Jonathan Franzen Farther Away (Picador, 2012)
Göran B Nilsson “Historia som vetskap”, Historisk Tidskrift 2 (2005) pp. 189–207

Note:
Images of the Botkyrka run stone and the scroll for Zhang Dong have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Historical Truth vs. Historical Validity

Science is political. There are no two ways about it. One of the most political of all sciences is historical science. The reason for this is that historical science deals with human activities in the past. Depending on how societies relate to their past actions, those activities are either applauded, derided, revised or embellished.

In our relationship to history and the past, a wish to find out the truth about a certain event is often expressed. Therefore, we, the historians, attempt to recreate the event, as if we were crime scene investigators. We gather the evidence and through the use of historical methodology and theories reach conclusions based on what the evidence tells us. Almost by default, the evidence is scanty, contradictory and tainted. Consequently, the question inevitably arises: Is there such a thing as historical truth?

Merriam-Webster defines truth as

the state of being the case; FACT;

or

the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality

These definitions make it difficult for an historian to speak of historical truth. Once a moment has come and gone, there is no way of knowing exactly what happened. The truth has dissipated with the moment and the evidence left behind – be it a written document or an eye-witness report – only represents one perspective, often flawed or incomplete, of what has just occurred.

However, Merriam-Webster also defines truth as

a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true

This definition is closer to what the historian deals with, but still does not address the complexity of recreating an historical event.

An historical event consists of the actions of a human individual that has been left behind in writing for the after world. However, the written account that has survived to our time is tainted by the perspective and intentions of the writer. Moreover, when the text is read and interpreted it becomes further tainted by the prejudices and preconceived notions of the reader. So how can we even claim that an event has taken place? And how can we claim to know the course of that event?

Instead of historical truth, historians speak of historical validity. The reason for this is that although the past itself does not change, our knowledge of it does. Historical validity is based in the historian’s interpretation of extant written texts through the application of tools and methods developed by professional historians and by interpreting the texts in relation to other texts. Depending on the results of this type of textual analysis, historical validity, and consequently the knowledge of the past, is subject to change. The possibility for change in what is considered valid is what makes some people suspicious of historical science. More importantly, this possibility is what makes some people revise history to suit their own purposes. For example, it is through the abuse of historical validity that Holocaust deniers have found themselves a quasi-scientific niche.

As humans we have the need to organize, compartmentalize and categorize our surroundings. It is easier to live in a world that can be divided into truths and untruths. However, our world is much more complicated than that, and so is our past.  Therefore, historians speak of historical validity rather than historical truth.

Sources:
Merriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/truth
March Bloch The Historian’s Craft (Manchester University Press, 1954)
Rolf Torstendahl “Metod och forskningsmoral. Reflektioner med anledning av Simon Larssons avhandling”, Historisk tidskrift 132:1 (2012)
Maria Ågren “Synlighet, vikt, trovärdighet – och självkritik: några synpunkter på källkritikens roll i dagens historieforskning”, Historisk tidskrift 125:2 (2005)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.