The Limits of Science: A Story
Space– what the late Carl Sagan often referred to as “the cosmos”– probably is one of my longest-held interests. Whether due to my age or another reason, I did not watch Sagan and his “Nova” program going up, although as I came to learn about him, I wish I had.
It was with some excitement, then, that I discovered Neil DeGrassse Tyson, the apparent heir to Sagan’s throne as an astrophysicist with a desire to share his passion for cosmology with the general public. Tyson has appeared on programs like The Daily Show, is active on twitter, and generally has made himself a presence in popular culture.
Whether it reflects Tyson’s own personality or is illustrative of the tone of our general, popular conversation, Tyson’s message began to take on a more aggressive stance in defense and furtherance of “science.” I imagine he, like many, believes that “science” is “under attack” from people such as climate change skeptics and those who want Intelligent Design integrated into school curricula. While there is nothing wrong with this general effort, and the following is not a defense of climate change skepticism or the corporate contrivance that is Intelligent Design, Tyson’s approach sometimes leads him to make neat statements that play well in popular media (and not inconceivably are designed for that purpose), but that merit further examination.
Perhaps the most popular example:
By engaging in a modern political debate, Tyson has misstated the fundamental nature of science. In short, “science” is only “true” to the extent it accurately describes the observed world.
Science is not a collection of unassailable “true facts,” but a set of methods for the processing and categorizing of observations. Science is something that is done, not something that is true. At its base, science is an overtly and expressly technical and communal way of telling a story. Mythology is engaged in the same storytelling endeavor. It simply uses different methods.
There is commonality in the limits of science and mythology as well, and, returning to Tyson’s remark, pictured above, what science tells us about unobserved events in the past is no more “true” than mythology addressing the same topic. Both are telling stories, even if, for many, the story science tells may be more convincing for a number of reasons. Persuasiveness and truth are not the same thing, however.