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Scientific Goals: Truth vs. Description | Righting America

by Robert Brecha

Dr. Bob Brecha continues his discussion of Ken Ham’s definition of observational science, considering the ways this definition impacts the everyday work of scientific inquiry.  

Few scientists would, if pressed hard, claim to be investigating “the Truth” in their studies.  The scientific method, mentioned and approved of by Ham, is a never-ending process.  Although often described as a simple linear progression from theorizing to observation and comparison, a better picture is that of a circular or spiraling process.  We begin with an observation of nature, create a model or theory or idea about how to explain that observation, and compare the theory to further observations.

Most crucially, we must also make predictions about what we would expect to happen with the system under certain conditions, and then use that prediction to check our theory against more observations.  Usually – if not always – the agreement is not perfect, so modifications to the theory are made if more precision is desired, or we accept the results as being adequate for our purposes.  

There is no “Truth” in this process, simply because that would be an impossible standard to meet.  How would a scientist ever know if she had a theory good enough to be a “True” answer? To do so she would have to know ahead of time what her final answer is.  Rather, the best that scientists can hope for is a description of nature that becomes better and better over time.

Because science is a continual process, scientific knowledge is cumulative. All science necessarily involves learning from the past, including descriptive observations made centuries ago that can be repeated and improved now as needed.  Those past observations – whether ancient ones from Ptolemy or Euclid, or the modern ones of Copernicus, Brahe and Newton – are well-characterized and form the backbone of current scientific theories.  Through studies of the past we can recognize that the physical properties under discussion have not changed over time.  Newton’s Law of Gravity is still the Law of Gravity of the 21st century, except that Einstein’s General Relativity has improved upon Newton.  

This is why, as I stated previously, re-defining science so that only observations in the present might count as acceptable evidence radically misses the point of scientific inquiry. We cannot search for evidence in the present to confirm “the Truth” that we want; rather, we must continue to build on well-recognized observations of the past to describe nature as accurately as we can, regardless of whether these observations confirm our own beliefs.