Part 2: The Emergence of Truth in Natural Sciences – lecture notes on Prof Gustafsson’s seminar

This piece follows on from Prologue to Provisional Truth The lecture was titled The Emergence of Truth in Natural Sciences.

Prof Bengt Gustafsson was invited to deliver his talk by the Academy of Science South Africa. (Online press release here). Here are the basic takeaways from the talk which Prof Gustafsson structured so beautifully:

Science is both philosophical and sociological, a human activity, designed. The evolution of this thing we do can be thought of as follows:

1) Our five senses, help inform ,through detailed observation, about some kind of pattern/ system/ symmetry/ rhythm in nature around us.  If it just human nature to create the pattern for our own mind or if it actually exists in the universe without our observations validating it, is an existential question which the philosophers can ponder on over a cup of Earl Grey.

2) The initial fellows of ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Persia who observed things in great detail, be it in the sky or in an ant colony, developed instruments to measure what they observed. Tools developed were thermometers for a touch-observed temperature change; scales to measure mass against some set standard mass; pH scales to measure acidity of solutions. Goniometers to measure crystals’ interfacial angles.  You get the idea.

Measurement culture is a field of thought experimentation which I myself know too little about. According to one of my supervisors, a physics lecturer at UCT jostled past her one day, and simply asked something akin to, “Is one a number? Is it whole?”. Measurement culture asks those kinds of questions. For now, we just care that from our sensory observations, humans developed instruments to formalise and organise these observations. Benjamin Thomson was the father of all things measurement and organisation.

3) Humans then applied numbers to these instruments, to serve as levels for measurement. Herein lies the concept of calibrations and the practice of organising our observations, to make them comparable to other early scientists’ data. We scientists assume that measuring something creates truth. We scientists know that measuring something repeatedly creates more truth. The distance between truth and falsehood is ever changing along a continuum. Measurements must be reproducible.

Looking at points 1, 2, and 3, Prof Gustafsson concluded, “The non-triviality of things are shown by the history of which the science follows from.”

Science is philosophical and sociological: A Human Activity

Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic Jesuit priest and astronomer, noticed a central locus for all the vectors of outward-moving bodies in the galaxy. He birthed the idea of the Big Bang theory.

This seminal piece of scientific work, and most other notable ones in history, show a background in speculation – a first step to developing and sustaining a scientific question. Secondly, the works brought about a scientific theory. However, in any piece of scientific work, decisive experiments are paramount. Once they are conducted, we can enter the sociological component of science. Opportunities for this are during group seminars, at a conference. They even exist for you in front of the TV watching a NatGeo documentary.  It’s the time when our colleagues or family members beside us begin to say, “Oh yes….yes that does seem to be true that the big bang existed, or that elephants and dassies are related, etc”. This  dialogue in a word is consensus.

Another example I would like to share of consensus, in the field of geology, is what I like to call Geo-logic.

Person one: Are those right-way-up structures? I sure see those foresets suggesting that.

Person two: Nah, I disagree. This bed has been overturned.

Person three: I see right way up structures and this bed is not overturned. Look at the bedding planes and the foreset tangential to it.

Two out of three is good enough for me but how much consensus is enough to call it geo-truth?

It is great when consensus is reached on a problem. Some provisional truth is proclaimed. In my next post, I’ll finish off on what Prof Gustafsson put to us for mull over, pertaining to how and why we might reach consensus.

Yours in geoscience!

Chelsea

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