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.

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)

Image of the Andromeda Galaxy has been downloaded from Wikipedia.



Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

There are some books that are eye-openers. They hold the promise of a good read and then they end up being so much more.

My previous blog post was on the topic of historical science in science fiction. The books that made me realize the possibilities, and relevance, of connecting the two were those included in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy where the science of psychohistory plays a vital part.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was born in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of three. He pursued a career of a university professor of biochemistry while he simultaneously was a highly prolific science fiction author. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics and in 1966 received the Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series for Foundation.

The plot in the Foundation-trilogy centers around so-called Seldon Crises. A Seldon Crisis is a crisis in society which has been mathematically predicted by Hari Seldon within a scientific discipline called psychohistory. Asimov’s psychohistory is not the same thing as can be found in historical biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective, utilizing methodologies and theories as brought forward by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Instead, Asimov defines psychohistory as follows.

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a billiard ball. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation and Empire (2010) p. 205)


Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Second Foundation (2010) p. 411)

What these quotes demonstrate is that psychohistory in Foundation is quantitative methodology and historical determinism taken to its extreme. Let me explain.

To explain certain developments in society, historical science uses what is called quantitative methods, most often in the form of statistics. When doing so, the main subject of historical research, the human being, is reduced to a number that can be used in mathematical calculations. By using statistics the historian can explain patterns of, for example, mortality and nativity and how these patterns changed throughout history. The peak of quantitative methods within historical science came in the 1970s and 1980s when seemingly everything could be explained through statistics. For example, the role played by the development of the US Postal Service in the emergence of towns and cities in North America during the 18th century was explained through the use of quantitative methods.

Historical determinism means that history is set on a predetermined course that was decided at the outset of the development of human society. This determined course of development cannot be changed. For example, Marxism, created by Karl Marx (1818–1883), is a historically based theory which is deterministic. According to Marxism, society develops in predictable stages where the slave societies of Rome and Greece by necessity were replaced by the feudalism of the Middle Ages which by necessity was replaced by industrial capitalism of the modern era which by necessity will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in other words Communism. That a parallel can be drawn between Marxism and Seldon Crises is not a coincidence. Asimov took the totalitarian ideologies of his time – Communism, Fascism, and Nazism – and extrapolated them into space.

Asimov’s psychohistory also leads one to think of the theory of structures, which divides human actions in two categories: subject versus object, with emphasis on object. In psychohistory, it is not the individual human being, the subject, that is of interest but the masses of human beings. When human beings are referred to as masses, all the individuals that constitute the human masses become objects. Objects lack free will and their behavior can be predicted by analyzing the structures that uphold human society.

What is interesting about Asimov’s psychohistory and its mathematically predicted Seldon Crises, is that it indicates that time is both linear and absolute. History can only develop in one direction, namely forward. And there is only one chronology that is possible, namely a clock ticking from one Seldon Crisis to the next. Asimov wrote the first Foundation short-story in 1941. By that time the Theory of Relativity was established among scholars and the ideas of a linear and absolute time, which had permeated the natural sciences for centuries, had been abandoned.

After he had finished writing Foundation, Asimov continued to keep an eye on history and how human beings related to it. This fact can be demonstrated by a quote from his book And the Gods Themselves…

[…] there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.
(Asimov, The Gods Themselves ([1972] 1990) p. 292)

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation Foundation and Empire Second Foundation
(Everyman’s Library, 2010).
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (Doubleday/Bantam Books, 1990).
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984).
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998).
Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information. The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

This post has also been published at Suvudu Universe.