I was talking with a very wise friend of mine last night about topics in the title of this post. You and I will never know, she said, what the other really thinks or feels (but since both know where the bodies are buried, we’re friends forever). But when we come to talk science, its a language where true is not just important, but truth is the language. There is an unspoken contract for honesty in science, and while you can never know what is in another’s heart, you ought damn well be able to figure out what’s in their lab notebook.
<insert obligatory paragraph about cheating, and why we care so much about falsification of data, and how little/how much it happens and who is doing cheating and pressures on people to succeed>
She went on to say that one of the joys of science, is that you leave the bullshit at the door. My columns aren’t interested in whether I’m having a bad day or not, she said. My molecules just do not care about anything but what they are. And one may anthropomorphize all one likes (the data are hiding from me, they are taunting me), but we know that’s not the reality.
Personally, I find this comforting. Which is not to say there is no ambiguity, there is no grey and there are not huge hollering discussions about what is true and what is not. Of course there are. And its not to say that the truth doesn’t change. That’s part of what science is all about – being able to see the truth changing. Admitting being wrong, and most important, a commitment to finding the truth that one’s molecules, cells, or poo-flinging monkeys hold. We respect the truth, but in the complex way that science permits us to see it, test it and yes, change our perception of it.
This is where the founding figures of patriarchy and the separation of church and state enter the discussion. Most of the “original intent” dudes don’t get it. Most of the fervently Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or whatever, but mostly Christian in the US) don’t get it. The founding fathers wanted separation not because they did not have beliefs (although some of them clearly didn’t) in deities. But because they had a sense that, to quote my friend “that the rascals who had a grip on the truth would take the rest for a ride”. There is a huge difference between what the very religious, or the rascals, depending on your perspective, see as truth compared to what scientists do.
It remind me of one of my least favorite bumper stickers from the south: “The bibles says it, I believe, that settles it”. No, honey, it doesn’t. It just makes you a rascal, or a victim of one.