Science and truth

21 March, 2016 at 13:07 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

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.


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  1. I would agree with Aumann to the extent that no empirical theory can be known to be true in the naïve sense that many people suppose. I don’t have much difficulty with the notion that ‘all empirical theories are probably false’. At least then we may be motivated to look for better theories. But we should prefer theories that are ‘true to the data’, and among those we should prefer theories that have been well tested.

    I would think that our thoughts and oibservations were not usefully organized if they didn’t relate to data and tests. The problem with some economists seems to me to be simply that what they find useful doesn’t contribute to effective economic policy.

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