Scene: Two humans (A and B) meet near the water cooler at work. Or maybe they are just talking on the phone. I don’t know.
A: My parents finally got the vaccine for COVID. Too bad I can’t get it yet.
B: Oh? That’s too bad. Maybe you will get it soon.
A: Are you going to get it this month?
B: Me? Ummm….no way. I’m not putting that thing in my body. No thank you.
A: You don’t want the vaccine? Shouldn’t you get it?
B: Do you know how many people have DIED from the vaccine?
A: I’m pretty sure it’s zero. Zero deaths from the vaccine.
B: OH NO! It’s LOTS OF DEATHS. I read it online. I’m not gonna die.
A: News flash. Over 400 THOUSAND people in USA alone have died so far. I think you should be more concerned about dying from COVID than from the vaccine.
B: Well, no one knows the truth. You believe what you want, and I will believe what I want. I believe that the vaccine is more dangerous than COVID (which might not even be real).
This was not a real conversation. But it’s real. All too real. What is true, what is not true? Is EVERYTHING TRUE?
- Did humans really land on the moon in 1969 or was it actually faked in a studio? Look it up.
- Evolution isn’t real. There’s no way I’m related to a monkey. Just think about it for yourself.
- The average temperature of the Earth is actually DECREASING, not increasing. Anyway, if it was increasing it’s just because of solar activity. Do your research.
- The Earth is flat. Use your common sense.
- Elvis is alive. I saw him.
So, here we are — the age of truth. Every idea is true. But what does this have to do with science?
Truth and the Nature of Science
Part of the problem is that science doesn’t give us the truth. Instead, science is the process of building models. We can never actually know what’s “true”. Indiana Jones said it best:
So, what is a model? Well, how about an example with gravity? If you take introductory physics, you will see that the gravitational force is defined as:
This says the gravitational force is a vector in the same direction as the gravitational field (g) and has a magnitude equal to the product of g and the mass. Oh, the gravitational field has a value of 9.8 Newtons/kilogram.
But wait! That’s not the TRUTH. It’s just a model (a pretty useful model). If you travel to the moon, you would need a different model for the gravitational interaction.
This model has the gravitational force decreasing with distance from a planet (or moon or whatever). It’s a better model, but it’s still not true. Oh, then what about Einsteins Field Equation?
Again, more detailed — but not “true”. These are all just models. They are very good models, but they are just models. So, science can’t prove things to be true.
There is something science CAN do. It can prove things to be wrong. Let’s say something thinks the Earth is flat. If I find a piece of evidence (experimental evidence) that shows the Earth can’t be flat — I am essentially proving that idea wrong.
Take a look at the image at the top of this post. This is looking across a lake at the buildings in New Orleans. Notice that you see the tops of the buildings and not the bottom? Why? Is it because the Earth is curved? Yup. What would happen if the Earth was flat? What would you see?
OK, technically, you could argue that there is some bulge in the lake — but you get the idea.
Communicating Scientific Ideas
Here is the other problem. You can’t really have a scientific idea all by yourself. You need to share ideas and build on others. Yes, the image of a scientist working alone in a lab is not very realistic. Scientists share ideas through publications, conferences, and other meetings.
There is a process of “vetting” ideas. In a peer reviewed journal, a paper is sent out to other experts that look it over to see if it is legit. Yes, it’s possible for this system to fail — but it’s there.
If you give a talk at a conference, it can indeed by a crazy idea (I’ve seen these). But maybe there are just a handful of people in the room.
What about an idea about the “flat Earth”? Would this make it into a peer review journal? It’s doubtful. But it can easily be shared on YouTube or a blog? It’s so simple to post stuff online, even I can do it.
This means that you can find support for any idea that you want. Information is so easy to get that it’s like free candy. So, what’s a human to do? How do you know if something is legit or too legit to quit? Honestly, it’s not so simple. Fortunately we are starting to get sites that verify stories. Take a look at FactCheck.org or Snopes.com or Politifact.com. Heck, even Wikipedia is pretty good about making sure stuff is true.
Hopefully we can get past this age of disinformation. It’s one thing if someone believes the Earth is flat — that doesn’t really effect other people. But if they don’t believe that climate change is true or that COVID is a hoax, it causes problems for all of us.