When I first got interested in astronomy back in grade school I never thought of science as being a quest for truth. For me it had more to do with satisfying a sense of wonder, and my first telescope, small as it was, probably created as much excitement for me as Galileo’s first telescope did for him.
Only much later did I come to understand that truth is the very business of science. It is the stock-in-trade of the profession. Lacking that, a scientist is like a salesman with an empty warehouse. He has nothing to offer.
Science may not be the most popular of professions but it is certainly one of the most honest.
I’m not a scientist but I’ve had the good fortune to know a few who became my mentors. One of them was Dr. Charles Ely, former professor and ornithologist at Fort Hays State University.
Chuck was a great teacher but an even better scientist, and there was nothing he loved more than being out in the field studying birds. If he had the means he would have quit teaching and devoted all his time to it.
Aside from his teaching duties, he managed to accomplish much in the field of ornithology—running census routes, compiling records, writing reports and co-authoring two books on Kansas birds. You could say that Chuck was dedicated to finding out the truth about birds, and he pursued it with a passion.
Scientists have a need to know and they are not likely to contradict that need by faking data and defying the very purpose of their profession. In private scientists are probably no more or less likely to lie than anyone else, but in their professional life they have a special reason to value truth. Those who fiddle with their data are shunned by their colleagues and driven out of the profession.
Scientists support their colleagues. They don’t stand on a podium and hurl invectives at one another. They tend to get along with each other even when they disagree, and they are glad to change their mind when new evidence demands it.
Regardless of race, creed or nationality, all scientists are united in spirit and they speak in one voice. They communicate in the language of science, and they believe in an objective truth.
I find this attitude refreshing in an era of rampant misinformation, “fake news”, “alternate facts” and “weaponized lies”. It has become fashionable today to reject anything you don’t agree with and to make up your own truth.
Science itself has come under attack. Some intellectuals believe that truth is relative to one’s culture, class, ethnicity and social background. They reject the idea of objective truth and that scientific knowledge depends upon empirical evidence.
The disrespect for truth is especially evident in politics. Compromise has become a bad word and facts are no longer relevant. The aim is to defend yourself and the party at all cost, even at the cost of truth. Heaven forbid that a Republican be caught agreeing with a Democrat, or a Democrat with a Republican.
When all the posing and political wrangling get to be too much, I can always find relief in nature. I never met a tree that argued with me or pretended to be anything but what it was.
People who claim there is no objective truth still have to live in the real world. If they happen to slip on the ice they will yield to the law of gravity and fall down, same as everyone, and they will hit the ground with real force, whereupon they will feel real pain.
Science has transformed our knowledge of the universe, and of our place in it. When I look at the stars, I see them not as manifestations of mythical gods but as huge balls of incandescent gas powered by nuclear fusion.
All the elements necessary for life here on earth were synthesized in a star like that, from the iron in our blood to the carbon in our bones. That star exploded billions of years ago scattering parts of it into space, and the cloud containing those vital elements condensed to form our solar system. The truth is, we are literally made of star stuff.
Science has replaced the old myths with a new story that is more fantastic than anything we could ever have imagined.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living near Ellis. He can be reached at email@example.com.