Unsure of the truth? Rely on experience

How can we ever know what’s “true”? Science is supposed to take care of that. Except it doesn’t when the truth may be about non-material things such as God, love, patriotism or values.

Science isn’t always even helpful when dealing with the material world because we depend on scientists to figure things out. And scientists are, well, people. People make mistakes, misinterpret data and, sometimes, even lie. 

Sorry! Lie is a harsh word and it isn’t acceptable to use harsh words anymore, even if those words are the truth. I probably should have called a lie “fake data.” In addition, most of us rely on the media to report what’s happening in science, but all too often the media adds an entire layer of lies — I mean, misunderstandings. 

In other words, most of us rely on other people to tell us what is “true.” There is nothing wrong with that. We can’t all verify everything for ourselves. I believe Africa exists, although I haven’t seen it. My wife tells me what to do all the time, and I am extremely obedient. (She’ll probably edit that out.)  But I do what she says because I trust her. 

Another way of determining truth is by our own experiences. You might say experience is a form of science. Or maybe science is a special form of experience. Either way, I think most people have had experience with people who are not experienced, and it is often not good. That is why employers hire people with experience.

There is an interesting story about learning from experience. The story goes that Archimedes, a mathematician who lived two centuries before Christ, noticed his bathwater would rise when he got into the bathtub. He then realized that the volume of water he displaced with his body had to be the volume of his body. He is supposed to have jumped from his tub shouting “Eureka! Eureka!” as he ran down the street without his clothes on. 

You might assume that he was just another strange scientist to be so excited as to forget his clothes after discovering the displacement of water.

However, his excitement was because he had just discovered how to save King Hiero’s dilemma concerning how to tell the truth. He assumed he would be rewarded royally for his discovery, and that was something to get excited about. 

See, the king had given a large amount of gold to a jeweler named Dionthenes who was to make his crown. After the crown was delivered, it dawned on the king that Dionthenes might have used a baser metal for the interior of the crown, used the gold to plate the outside, and kept the rest of the gold for a profit.

The king couldn’t exactly cut the crown in two to see, so he asked Archimedes how he could determine the truth. Archimedes reasoned that baser metals, like silver, were less dense than gold and would take up more space. Knowing the amount of gold the King had given the jeweler, Archimedes could immerse that same amount of gold in water and note the displacement. Then he could place the crown in water. If the interior of the crown was made of a less dense metal, it would have greater volume and displace more water. 

It turned out that the inside of the crown was made of base metal. History has not recorded what happened to Dionthenes, although we can assume it was not good. However, the word “eureka” was permanently recorded, probably due to the shock Archimedes caused when running around naked. The word “heuristic” was derived from the word eureka and means discerning the truth from experiences. 

Sometimes it’s hard to know the truth. Science is supposed to take care of that. But it seems like I never have all the information I need to guarantee that I know the truth. So I must go with past experience. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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