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Science and truth

from Lars Syll

28mptoothfairy_jpg_1771152eIn my view, scientific theories are not to be considered ‘true’ or ‘false.’ In constructing such a theory, we are not
trying to get at the truth, or even to approximate to it: rather, we are trying to organize our thoughts and observations in a useful manner.

Robert Aumann


What a handy view of science.

How reassuring for all of you who have always thought that believing in the tooth fairy make you understand what happens to kids’ teeth. Now a ‘Nobel prize’ winning economist tells you that if there are such things as tooth fairies or not doesn’t really matter. Scientific theories are not about what is true or false, but whether ‘they enable us to organize and understand our observations’ …

Mirabile dictu!

What Aumann and other defenders of scientific storytelling ‘forgets’ is that potential explanatory power achieved in thought experimental models is not enough for attaining real explanations. Model explanations are at best conjectures, and whether they do or do not explain things in the real world is something we have to test. To just believe that you understand or explain things better with thought experiments is not enough. Without a warranted export certificate to the real world, model explanations are pretty worthless. Proving things in models is not enough. Truth is an important concept in real science.


  1. Jamie
    March 22, 2016 at 11:19 am

    More accurately the process of justification is important (one aspect of which is that the whole is constructed as a truth claim, but raising the issue of what is truth?)

  2. Sig Laser - Canada
    March 22, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    This recent piece by Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein might be on interest re. this topic: https://www.edge.org/conversation/rebecca_newberger_goldstein-the-mattering-instinct

    • antireifier
      March 22, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks Sig for the link to this article. Brilliant. Long but worthwhile.

  3. antireifier
    March 22, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Rather a bizarre statement. If he is referring to hypothesis development so that we can test out a theory, there may be some validity to the statement because then it is “useful” but that is the ONLY value in organizing our thoughts as he suggests. Economics has a long history of organizing thoughts into models, reifying them and then ignoring totally the feedback from the real world — namely the observations. Indeed the only observations then allowed by most economists are those that support the theory. The others are not counted.

  4. David Chester
    March 22, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    I too, can’t agree with Robert Aumann. Scientific knowledge is our human way of getting as close to reality as possible, and consequently it is truthful as far as it goes. The science of macroeconomics is no different to this, except that due to a lot of political influences it has not managed very well to explain how our social system works. My new book on theoretical macroeconomics is the latest effort here and it does allow us to improve on what we already know about this somewhat vague subject.

    • Michael Kowalik
      March 24, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      The notion of ‘usefulness’ presupposes a commitment to what is valuable, a goal towards which one strives, and therefore something valuable to the one who pursues usefulness. But if a valuation is contingent, subjective rather than universal, then what Aumann is talking about is not science in the classical sense of the term but a kind of ideologically motivated, epistemic sophistry. I prefer to substitute ‘uselfullness’ with ‘coherence’, meaning coherence with everything I think I know, with the world I perceive, in adherence to the laws of indentity, excluded middle and non-contradiction (a one law really). And in that sense systemic coherence can indeed approach the classical notion of (objective) truth, as long as it can be shown that all actions and attitudes imply affirmation, performative or implicit, of the law of identity.

  5. March 22, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    I have recently written a paper of the foundations of probability which rejects both frequentist and subjectivist views, and offers and alternative view of probability as a metaphor. This view is in line with Aumann’s ideas. See:

  6. Paul Schächterle
    March 22, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    I find Aumann’s approach very fitting for an “economist”.

    If you are not looking for truth but looking for systems that “work”, then the judgement of the systems depend on your goals.

    So you might be happy with an ideology designed to fool and distract the public and to promote the interests of the few. That ideology contains models and theorems that are totally untrue. But it works so well.

  7. March 23, 2016 at 2:30 am

    Science prescribes a worthy way to deal with such issues. You progress from postulate, to theorem to finally becoming a law. Each step is well defined in terms of what must be done to achieve the status and progress to the next step. Economics has many postulates and perhaps a few theorems but I am not convinced a law has ever been established in economics in the manner prescribed by science.

  8. March 23, 2016 at 3:28 am

    Let’s simplify. Science is not that complex, and certainly not complicated. The objects of study may be complicated. And certainly some of the methods used may get a bit difficult to track. But overall science is quite simple. Richard Feynman sums it up well in a speech before the 1966 meeting of the National Science Teachers Association,

    “When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly.
    Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, “Science has
    shown such and such,” you might ask, “How does science show it? How did the scientists find
    out? How? What? Where?’
    “It should not be “science has shown’ but ‘this experiment, this effect, has shown.’ And you
    have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments–but be patient and
    listen to all the evidence–to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.”

    Scientists do this all day, every day. The hard parts of science are the observations (thousands of them sometimes) and the decisions about “is this a sensible conclusion” based on those observations.

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