Home > Discourse, Science > The Limits of Science: A Story

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.

Categories: Discourse, Science
  1. Rob E.
    April 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I think you can go a step further with your thoughts on “science” and I have a slight disagreement with your definition of what “science” is. You state that science is not something that is true but something that is done. Additionally you state that science is a way of telling a story. While this is loosely true I believe there different ways of viewing “science”.

    One is as you describe it, as a method of testing or attempting to explain the unknown or perhaps a purported truth. We first learn this in grade school as the Scientific Method and all this really boils down to is a systematic routine to test an educated guess about the world we live in.

    The other definition of science that I find more useful deals more with scientific fact. Scientific facts are the theories that were tested by many different sources and through many attempts, have been proven to be true. Some people will not like the word “True” so we can also say that scientific facts have not been disproven. This, I believe, is what Tyson is getting at. These scientific FACTS are true whether or not one or more individuals believes in them simply because they have been SHOWN to be true, often many times over by many separate individuals.

    There are definitely instances in which theories do NOT live up to the scientific method and I believe mythology often falls into this group. Mythology is a story that is frequently decades, centuries, or even millennia in the past and usually, we the modern reader, only gets one point of reference for the information within the myth. For many “Scientists”, this general lack of information is hard to swallow as FACT simply because there is no way to test the truth of what is told. Again, science lies in proof and repeatability of what is able to be tested and if that cannot be reproduced, then it is not “fact”. From a statistical standpoint, one data point does not show any sort of relationship, trend, or pattern so can instantly be disregarded as an incomplete statement.

    Yes, science can tell a story just like mythology and ultimately be wrong assuming a counter example can be found but to Tyson and his statement you shared, I think the insertion of Scientific Fact is more suitable than simply “science” to interpret Tyson’s opinion in regards to mythology or belief.

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