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Science And Facts, Alternative Or Otherwise

Stuart Kinlough
Getty Images

The world is a mess.

I'm not referring to politics or the state of the society, here. When I tell you the world is a mess, I mean the physical world we apprehend with our senses.

It's a jumbled barrage of sights, sounds, impressions and intuitions. Dealing with that mess is why we established the concept of facts. And dealing with the concept of facts is why we invented science. Since this weekend saw "alternative facts" suddenly added to our vocabulary, it's a good to time to reflect on how we humans came up with the whole science thing for dealing with facts, alternative or otherwise.

For our entire history on the planet, we've been trying mightily to make sense of the messy world around us. We try to make sense of it for our survival ("Hey, is that a hungry lion over there?"). We try to make sense of it for our well-being ("If you eat this plant, will it make your headache better?"). We try to make sense of it because that's just how we roll ("What is the moon made of anyway?")

There are, however, two ways to make sense of the world. First, there is the purely personal level. Everyone has their own experiences and opinions about what they perceive. If you feel like you're in love with that guy with the sleeve tattoos in the service department, who is gonna tell you that you're wrong? For you, it's a fact. It's just not up for debate (well, maybe your parents want to debate, but let's leave that for now).

If, however, you think the guy with the sleeve tattoos in the service department is an alien from another galaxy, that's a different story. His alien origins are not, ultimately, a matter of your private opinion. He either is from Planet Thorax in M33, or he's not. Just as important, we should be able to do something to prove the fact of the matter — one way or the other.

And that's it in a nutshell. It's the "the facts of the matter" that matter. That's why we came up with science.

We needed a way to figure out which facts were truly public. We needed a method to determine which statements about the world were ones we could all agree were, indeed, facts of the matter. And the essence of the method we came up with, the one called science, hinged on something absolutely remarkable in the history of humanity.

It all depended on an agreement.

Over time, and as a society, we decided to agree what the rules of the fact-finding method called science should look like. It went something like this: Public facts will be accepted as public facts, if and only if you can show multiple and independent lines of public evidence to support them.

There are three key points here:

  • Evidence: You can't just yell and stomp your feet. You have to come loaded for bear. You have to come with something to show: photographs; temperature readings; sound recordings; ticket sales. The evidence you need depends on the fact of the matter you're claiming (or refuting). But if you don't have data, you're just blowing smoke.
  • Multiple lines of evidence: The more important the fact, the more kinds of evidence you need to elevate it to the status of public knowledge.
  • Independent lines of evidence: In the age of the Internet, this point is often the one folks forget about. If two people make the same claim about a fact, do they have different pieces of evidence discovered independently? A public fact can only be truly public if lots of people working apart and from different sources all find evidence for that same fact.
  • This, in a nutshell, is how science works. And it has worked pretty damn well. Using this method, we've established a few million libraries worth of public facts. Then, we used those facts to go out and cure diseases and build machines to fly like birds (among other things). That's pretty good proof that the method works.

    But it is all based on agreement. If we hadn't gotten together and said, "OK, this is what we mean by a public fact," none of that flying and disease curing would have been possible.

    Given what contentious, argumentative buggers we are as a species, it's pretty remarkable that we've managed to keep this agreement about public facts together for so long. We even built it into the very foundations of our politics. What could be more public than counting votes?

    But here's the thing about agreements. They can be broken. They can be abandoned. That is a danger of living in a "post-truth" world. The agreement that we'd all play by these rules because they gave us solid ground to stand on is not carved in stone. Instead it's etched in standards of behavior. In that sense, there are no "alternative facts." There is simply breaking the agreement about public behavior, public debate and public facts.

    But it's important to see that there can be alternative evidence. These are data that serve as an argument for or against a fact becoming public knowledge (in what should be a very public debate). But that evidence also has to rise to the same level of public scrutiny. It has to pass muster. There are no alternative facts based just on claims, statements, wishes or personal opinions.

    Now, of course, politics is not science. No one expects it to be. But here's the critical issue. This civilization we created is really complicated — just like the natural world. That means all of us, regardless of how we voted, need all the help we can get to keep it all working. In service of this one cause, we must have public mechanisms to decide on public facts. Without them, we would literally be lost.

    In a functioning democratic, technological society, public facts act as a kind of glue ensuring we're all playing on the same ball field. They help us ensure that our public facts are as close as possible to the true facts of nature and the world — the true facts of the matter.

    Science, with its emphasis on public facts, gives us a model for answering many of the most important questions we face as a society. Given the depth of our needs, tell me, what's the alternative?

    Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.