The lessons in the new Einstein results

May 4, 2011: Einstein was right again. There is a space-time vortex around Earth, and its shape precisely matches the predictions of Einstein’s theory of gravity.

One problem for anti-rationalists is that their fields are typically interpretive. They have little experience with empirical science — and even less respect for it.

Ironically, it’s the metaphorical, inexact nature of science that relativism misunderstands. So last week’s reconfirmation of General Relativity provides a welcome example of the nature of scientific truth and of the processes by which it is hypothesized and tested.

For the historians, philosophers, sociologists, information theorists, literary critics, cultural anthropologists, social psychologists and other cadre members whose dissertations were all riffs on the same tune — the death of realism, rationalism, and truth — an understanding of the methodology of the physical sciences can only help, like a good, tall glass of cool water helps after a night of feverish dreams.

The problem for many of these erudite postmodernists is that if there is any physical evidence at all in their fields, it’s merely the jumping off point for speculation and interpretation. Their disciplines are  not about things that exist; rather, they are about how we should view things that exist. They have much the same relationship to real science that medieval priests had to the virginal visions of devout nuns — they have no legitimate means to assess the factual claims which underlie their theoretical explanations.

On the other hand, in the “hard” sciences, when theories are advanced they are subject to direct investigation — if not immediately, as is cases when the theory outstrips the technological capacity to assess it, at least in principle. Deniability, replicability, peer review — these are instruments unavailable to someone using post-Marxist-consequentalist-anticolonial-feminism to guess about the components of the daily lives of vanished peoples and crumbled civilizations.

The results of the Gravity Probe B test are not a counter-theory, a competing paradigm, or a reinterpretation of an ambiguous potsherd. This is hard data, subject of course to the accuracy of our means of measurement, but not for that reason any less real. If I choose to study pond water for some arcane purpose; if I choose an idiosyncratic measuring device; if I explain my results in diagrams instead of mathematical expressions — the pond water is going to have the same chemical composition, the same turbidity, the same temperature, etc., whatever my quirky science. Unlike a cultural artifact, the pond water doesn’t rely on my interaction with it for its existence. If a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it, there’s still a dead tree on the ground.

This kind of specificity doesn’t apply to the literary analysis of Joycean short fiction or to the hermeneutics of eschatology. And I suspect that one of the major reasons that interpretive scholars find it so easy — and so tempting — to dismiss the factual nature of empirical results is that their fields simply don’t afford them sufficient familiarity with rocks, light waves, and gravity sinks.

For this reason, too many anti-rationalists seem unable to grasp that “relativism” means quite different things to them and to empirical scientists. When a postmodern theorist says that meaning is “relative,” that truth is “culture dependent,” she is right, if what she means is that the political structures favoured by A are no more “self-evident” than are the political structures favoured by B; or that the moral values of Culture 1 and Culture 2 have equivalent means of generation and thereby equivalent subjectivity.

However, if she then broadens her view and says about empirical science that its “truths” are just as relative, are contingent in just the same ways as are cultural “truths,” that’s not just her view — she’s wrong. It’s an unfashionable word, “wrong,” but it still has some applications, and this is one of them.

If one culture believes that shrouding women in heavy cloth is The Will of God, and another culture believes that women have the same natural rights as men, the difference is perhaps a clash of cultures, but it’s not a contradiction in fact. However, if a religionist says that a rock can be no more than 6,015 years old, and a geologist says that it’s closer to three billion years old, these factual claims are not “equally valid,” nor is the “truth” of the situation culturally determined.  The rock simply cannot be both 6,000 and three billion years old. There’s nothing here to dispute but fact. Even if we couldn’t measure the age of the rock, or if our means of measurement proved to have been wildly inaccurate, so that no one can be sure whether the rock is 6,000 years old, three billion years old, or a piece of cleverly painted cardboard I glued up yesterday — even then, the rock could not be all three of those things at the same time. It couldn’t be different things according to different “worldviews.” Its age is not culturally determined.

Consider the Gravity-Probe B experiment. Special relativity was proposed as an alternative to Newton’s mechanistic gravity theory. The current experiment was designed to contrast the two theories directly. If Newton’s idea that gravity is a force between objects is right, there will be one kind of result. If Einstein’s idea that gravity is a curving of space-time is right, there will be a different kind of result. Neither result is an opinion, and they can’t both be right (although they can both be wrong). Since the effect being tested is tiny on the relatively small scale of the earth, new technologies and methodologies had to be developed. The results came in, and Einstein was right — not because more people agreed with his theory, or more postdoc fellowships were awarded to his followers, but because the numbers matched his prediction to a remarkable degree of accuracy.

There are practical benefits to even so esoteric an experiment as determining whether or not the earth’s mass causes a truly microscopic alternation in the objects near it. As already mentioned, even to perform an experiment this delicate prompted the development of super-accurate measuring devices, which may lead to technologies we have yet to imagine. Even now, without an awareness of relativity distortion the global GPS system would soon break down, as relativity adjustments are necessary to keep the clocks in the tracking satellites ticking away accurately.

That’s how empirical science works. Yes, it’s true that scientific truth is not true, in the sense that “My name is Ron” is true; but it is the version of truth (a metaphor, a model, a whatever) which best matches the evidence and, crucially, is the best predictor of future behaviour.

As we continue to refine and expand our knowledge of the world, the ways in which we conceptualize our new information change correspondingly. As it turns out, the sun is not a giant ball of fire rolled across the sky by a gigantic dung beetle; nor is it a divine light glued to the inside of a transparent lucite sphere by our Creator. It isn’t a cosmic billiard ball, exuding an unknown force that pushes and pulls other billiard balls. And, despite the new data which prompted this article, it’s not a ball bearing rolling around a slightly underinflated balloon, or a kid bouncing on a trampoline. All of these describers are metaphors, representations of an unseen natural world. I’m pretty confident that when we get better at measuring quantum effects, we’ll find that light is not really a suggestible sufferer of multiple personality disorder, waiting for us to come along and tell it if it’s a particle or a wave function.

In this very real sense, all scientific truth is imprecise and representational, and the postmodernists are right, but not for the reason they think, and not in the way they understand. Things reflect culture, but they’re not artifacts of it. And since our partial, metaphorical models of unseen truth match the world — our planes fly, our cellphones ring, our microwaves heat food — to all intents, and in every way that can possibly be of importance to us, science is “real.”

And that “truth” should be real enough for everyone.


3 thoughts on “The lessons in the new Einstein results

  1. Are truth and fact the same? Though related to some extent, I submit they are not the same. Fact is observed whereas truth is understood. Two facts can appear to contradict and when we see these paradoxes we ask ourselves which is true. What we are asking for is an acceptable understanding based on the facts available.

    For example, your post submitted that a rock cannot be simultaneously 6000 years old and billions of years. A calculated age is just that, calculated. It is calculated based on a measurement made in the present and assumptions about the past, original condition, and processes occurring in the past which are themselves based on observations made in the present. “New” rocks formed in Lava floes measure billions of years old depending on the isotopic method used, yet these rocks solidified within the last two decades. Observed fact conflicts with calculated fact. Which is true? Truth is a matter of understanding independent of individual specific facts. Perhaps the question assumes too much in assuming something cannot be simultaneously two ages. According to relativity theory it would depend on your point of reference and exactly what you’re defining as the subject of interest. Both the point of reference and the subject of study exist in space and time (or space-time). As measured from differing points in space, the age may be different. Both ages may be true even though individual facts conflict with that truth.

    Your final point about science being real is likewise a matter of some contention. You’re right in your much of your reasoning and I appreciate the fresh approach, but this point and your conclusion about it – that this particular “truth” should be real enough for everyone – assumes much and quantifies little. It seems to me that while you point to facts – figments of knowledge which collectively is called science – what you’re really talking about is philosophical, not factual. I find that a humorous contradiction, all the more so because I’m pretty sure that wasn’t your intention.

    My final point is this and it runs afoul of your theme. We observe in the present and with only our own knowledge in play we can only reach a limited range of conclusions. If scripture is right, we have the eye witness testimony of the Creator. This testimony gives us a close approximation of earth’s age along with answers to many questions of vastly greater importance. Do we accept this testimony as truth, or do we instead accept our own interpretations of individual facts as truth? Either way, it becomes an article of faith apart from individual facts or even broader human understanding.

    • So you are still here — I wasn’t sure, since you had let pass without comment seven postings on the origins of morality and three profiles of British accommodationists.

      I’ll ignore as essentially tangential the way in which you’ve brought an extraneous observer into play on the question of measurement. I think that you’ve misapplied the observer bias problem to the present context, but let that be.

      You present your arguments with practiced skill, as always, but I’m not sure that you’re really addressing the point I was trying to make. In particular, you seem to base your objections to words like “truth” and “reality” on a definition which I explicitly denied.

      I’m always happy to amuse, but, in fact, I was making a philosophical point — the notion that scientific reality is conditional, but not in the same ways as non-empirical reality. As I said in the article: “Yes, it’s true that scientific truth is not true, in the sense that “My name is Ron” is true; but it is the version of truth (a metaphor, a model, a whatever) which best matches the evidence and, crucially, is the best predictor of future behaviour.” In a model-dependent conception of reality, we can never achieve absolute truth, whatever that means. What we can — and do — achieve is an ever-improving representation of reality. This sense of “truth” does not contradict the evidence, and it does not err wildly in predicting future events or states of being. If it does the first, it’s not going to replace an existing understanding. If it does the second, it’s going to be replaced by a new understanding. While this process is, in fact, obviously a form of relativism, it’s crucially not the same kind of relativism as that which instructs me that it’s ok to eat pork and you that it’s not ok to eat it.

      So I agree with you — you’re right that there’s a difference between “fact” and “truth.” I don’t dispute that. What I dispute is that there’s no difference between one kind of “truth” and another. We can know that fire burns without knowing anything about oxygen or combustion other than that we should keep our hands out of the flames. Our understanding is limited, and in time it will be displaced by a better story, but the fire doesn’t care how we explain it — and, most important — it isn’t cold or conscious on the authority of our belief that it is — or on the authority of our belief that there’s some entity out there Who makes it so that it is.

      Finally, I certainly don’t accept your central point — and it always has been your central point — that if “my” version of “truth” isn’t absolute, therefore all versions of “truth” are equally matters of faith. Faith is often — and fairly, in my view — defined as “believing without evidence.”

      In contrast, it’s a dedication to evidence that I am advocating.

      • No, I’m not here all the time. I only get to read now and then, so yes, I missed a bunch of your posts. I do appreciate your skill at explaining even if I disagree. In fact, clarity makes disagreements much more meaningful and we can work through those disagreements much more easily when we are clear. I sincerely mean that. I can see your point even though I see the overall issue through different lenses. We only have one word “truth” and we apply different meanings, I think, and that makes it tricky. I really liked what you said about the fire not caring how we describe it, it is still fire. Although God is personal, I think God is sovereign in a similar way. How we describe Him doesn’t change who He is. Truth is truth whether we understand it or however we describe it. I realize that contradicts what I said initially, but here I’m talking about absolute truth, not understood truth. I should have been more clear. I’m still working with whole subject in my mind so I’m glad to think through it with you. Again, thanks.

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