Prague, Czech Republic
28 June 2004
Is truth a judgment of society?
"Truth ultimately resides in the collective judgment of people who are committed to consensus and consistency," answers physics professor Alan Cromer in Uncommon Sense, a book about the scientific method. The axiom here is that man can never judge what is true at the macrocosmic level. Macrocosmic data must be reduced to the mesocosmic level. In other words, if we want knowledge of the universe, we have to humble ourselves before society. As Cromer argues, "Science, like democratic politics, is a social activity. " He calls science "an extension of rhetoric. " Only by the democratic exchange of viewpoints through the medium of language can we arrive at a unified understanding of our diverse experiences. Society crowns as the winner the best argument emerging from that exchange. But though the winning argument is crowned "truth," social judgment hardly insures that truth is crowned the winning argument. History repeatedly shows the scientific community handing the crown to an untrue argument. Up until the year 1800, it was the collective judgment of scientists that rocks do not fall from the sky. In 1768, a good number of French villagers witnessed a meteor crash to earth in their locale. Where it landed, there, for all to see, was a rock from sky. But member of the French Academy of Sciences Antoine Lavoisier, having arrived four years later to investigate, argued that the stone was always on the ground, and that the villagers had only witnessed a thunderbolt strike it. The scientific community crowned his argument the winner.
Scientists want to lord it over material nature (to "swallow the universe"). What most commands the attention of a society seeking lordship? Power, not truth. An argument may have winning power simply because it confirms the prejudice of the majority ("rocks can't fall from the sky"). It may have winning power because the opposing arguments are even weaker. It may have winning power due to the ignorance of society, or because of vote-rigging and influence peddling.
Truth dispels ignorance. The scientific community is uncomfortably short of explanations that dispel ignorance. The British science journal Focus (August and September '96) published "one hundred greatest mysteries unanswerable in the world of science. " Among them: Does God exist? What gives human beings their consciousness? What links humans to the cosmos? What is time? What is the universe made of? Where do the galaxies come from? Where do the oceans come from? How did life on earth begin? Why are heavy things hard to push? Exactly how do anaesthetics work? What is the ideal diet? Why does sex exist? Why do humans sleep? What exactly is complexity?
Social truth and social trust
In spite of such lapses in their own knowledge, the scientific community presumes to decide for the rest of the world what is and isn't valid knowledge: evolution is, creationism isn't; reductionism is, vitalism isn't; naturalism is, supernaturalism isn't. Yet the rest of the world isn't buying into scientific "truths" like it used to. For example, while scientists overwhelmingly agree that once a year the earth revolves around the sun, less than fifty percent of the adult population of the United States acknowledges that to be true. Recent books like Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996) evince the dismay of leading scientists at the common man's diminishing respect for so-called scientific facts.
It gets worse: this diminishing respect can be linked to a widespread suspicion that top scientists are involved in some kind of worldwide plot to deceive the public. Hollywood panders to this paranoia with hugely successful films and TV series (The X-Files, Conspiracy Theory, Men in Black). Is it all just showbiz and mass delusion? Well, even scientists testify there's something to worry about. In 1996, a nuclear physicist published a book documenting the existence of MJ-12, a secret council on UFOs formed in 1947 by top US scientists, government experts and military brass. Though the official dogma is that there is no such thing as flying saucers piloted by alien humanoids, MJ-12 may have accumulated physical evidence (even bodies) from UFO crashes. Also in 1996, a microbiologist published a book documenting how the official dogma about AIDS is a lie. There is no proof that the HIV virus causes AIDS; the author argues the HIV virus is blamed because other virus epidemics like polio were stopped by global vaccination--and the development of a vaccine against the virus a frightened global public thinks causes AIDS is sure to earn huge profits. His book also accuses doctors who treat AIDS with the standard drugs--azidothymidine (ATZ), dideoxycytidine (ddC), and dideoxyinosine (ddI)--of poisoning their patients.
It is beside the point how factual such accusations really are. The point is that such accusations are the subject of movies, documentaries, news programs, network specials, newspaper stories, magazine covers, talk shows, seminars, Internet chatter and tabloid fantasies. This proves that society is far from convinced that science--at least the high-level government-funded kind of science--is open, democratic and thus "socially" truthful.
Even if the grand conspiracy theories are questionable, that does not make "normal" science trustworthy. In 1995, the British Library Science Reference and Information Service published a documented review of the social origins of fraud in science. Polls of the scientific community taken by New Scientist magazine (1976 and 1987), the British Medical Journal (1988), the Society of University Surgeons (1989), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1992), American Scientist magazine (1993), and the journal Science, Technology and Human Values (1994) report that cheating (falsification and manipulation of data) and plagiarism are alarmingly common among professionals. Five main causes of fraud were identified: personality factors, the pressure to publish, the academic rat race, commercialism, and pressure from sponsors. Without these five, there surely could be no social activity in science. Yet when asked, scientists admit each breeds ruthlessness, dishonesty and stonewalling.