They say that we have found ourselves in a world lost to emotion, irrationality, and a weakening grasp on reality. That lies don’t faze us, and knowledge doesn’t impress us. That we are post-truth, post-fact. But, is this actually a bad thing?
I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.
We think of a fact as an irrefutable truth. According to the Oxford dictionary, a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” And where does proof come from? Science?
Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity. But at no point have we proved anything.
Don’t get me wrong. The scientific method is totally awesome. It is unparalleled in its ability to get answers that can help us extend life, optimize output, and understand our own brains.
Scientists slowly break down the illusions created by our biased human perception, revealing what the universe actually looks like. In an incremental progress, each study adds a tiny bit of insight to our understanding.
But while the magic of science should make our eyes twinkle with excitement, we can still argue that the findings from every scientific experiment ever conducted are wrong, almost by necessity. They are just a bit more right (hopefully) than preceding studies.
That’s the beauty of science. It’s inherently self-critical and self-correcting. The status quo is never good enough. Scientists want to know more, always. And, lucky for them, there is always more to know.
You need just to look back through history to see the different iterations of facts to make this insight seem obvious. Aristotle thought that the heart was the home of intelligence, and believed that the brain was a cooling mechanism for it. Of course now this seems ridiculous, but give it time and I’m sure some of our facts today will seem equally misinformed.
Our understanding can always be improved upon. Even if it is wrong, it doesn’t make a preceding insight bad, it is often the necessary intermediary step to get our insight to where it is today.
So, it’s ok that society is post-fact. Facts are so last century.
But let’s make it our job as a society to encourage each other to find replicable and falsifiable evidence to support our views, and to logically argue our positions. In the process, please stop saying “because, science” to justify your argument, and using “FACT” as a preface to your statements. These are just the grown-up versions of “because I said so.” We need to remind each other to stay on our toes and to actually backup our claims.
Knowledge is like Schrödinger’s cat. Simultaneously reality and delusion. Truth and lie. The role of scientists is to slowly break into the box, listen to it, study it, so maybe, one day, we’ll find out whether our insights are dead or alive.