Is Neil deGrasse Tyson Confused About Objective Truths?

From Twitter:

You don’t need to be a scientist to know Earth’s age or that life evolved. You just need be one who embraces objective truths.

When I read stuff like this, my heart sinks, especially when it comes from a scientist. Isn’t it sad? Despite the fact that the official age of the Earth and practically every scientific “fact” has bowed to new discoveries, here we have a scientist implying that *NOW* we can be sure. The problem is, Neil’s comment suggests he is unaware of the most elementary observation a scientific-minded critical thinker can make: How many “objective” truths of the past are in the scientific dustbin of the present?

I’m with Neil, in a sense: I embrace objective truths. I just think it’s unscientific and irresponsible to imply that today’s “age of the Earth” is among them. Haven’t we learned from the past?

Think critically, people. Question all self-proclaimed experts.

21 Comments

  1. Syllabus says:

    I suspect that he meant the age of the earth remark in a more negative sense, like “the earth is not (for example) less than 10,000 years old”. Twitter’s character limitations being what they are…

    In any case, from what I’ve seen, Tyson is pretty good at being realistic about what science can do and can’t do. Though he may be a little too optimistic about things.

  2. Arch says:

    You are missing the correspondence principle. New scientific theories do not invalidate previous theories in their entirety, nor do they invalidate previous evidence. A new theory *subsumes* a previous theory, ideally reducing it to a special case.

    The classic example is general relativity subsuming Newtonian mechanics. Relativity did not *invalidate* Newtonian mechanics — all the Newtonian laws are retained as special cases of general relativity when the velocities in question are small compared to the speed of light.

    The birth of relativity did not suddenly cause the Newtonian velocity addition formula to be wrong, nor did it invalidate the near infinitude of observations confirming the formula. Relativity merely provides an adjustment to the formula, an adjustment which is negligible for low velocities but significant when the velocities are very high. The Newtonian laws are sufficient to get us to the Moon, but for particle accelerators we need relativity.

    So any new theory of the age on the Earth would have to align with all the evidence heretofore gathered. It wouldn’t upend what has been heretofore observed. Like the velocity addition formula, a new understanding of the Earth’s age might change decimal places, but not orders of magnitude.

  3. cl says:

    Arch,

    The birth of relativity did not suddenly cause the Newtonian velocity addition formula to be wrong,

    I was never under the impression that it did, and I understand your so-called “correspondence principle” just fine. You seem to have assumed I missed something I didn’t. You also seem to have missed the main point of contention in my post: Neal implies that our current state of knowledge regarding the age of the Earth is an objective truth. Would you agree or disagree with him?

    Of course, he also deserves criticism for the loaded use of “life evolved,” but I can let that slide for now.

  4. Arch says:

    The correspondence principle is an important principle in science; it isn’t “so-called” in the sense of being doubtful. In short, it states that any new scientific theory must be consistent with the current evidence.

    My main point is in the last paragraph: So any new theory of the age on the Earth would have to align with all the evidence heretofore gathered. It wouldn’t upend what has been heretofore observed. Like the velocity addition formula, a new understanding of the Earth’s age might change decimal places, but not orders of magnitude.

    Our current knowledge pegs the age the Earth at about 4.54 billion years, give or take 1%. This number will be refined as our understanding grows, but we aren’t going to one day discover that the age of the Earth is instead only 1 million years. Why not? Because that would contradict all previous evidence gathered. It would be like saying the velocity addition formula might eventually turn out to be v’ = 10000(v1 + v2). That is objectively not possible because it would be inconsistent with all our observations. The formula can, however, be refined on a scale smaller than the accuracy of our observations (as relativity refined it).

    When we have multiple independent lines of evidence that converge upon the same answer, and the answer is attested by independent scientists in countries all over the world, and the answer continues to withstand scrutiny over time, then we have in a practical sense an objective truth, even if there remains some wiggle room in the answer. In this respect there is little difference between Newtonian mechanics and the age of the Earth.

  5. cl says:

    I say it is “so-called” not to indicate doubt or derision, but simply because it is “so-called” (called such by some, not necessarily by all).

    My main point is in the last paragraph: So any new theory of the age on the Earth would have to align with all the evidence heretofore gathered. It wouldn’t upend what has been heretofore observed.

    I understood your main point just fine, the first time you articulated it.

    …a new understanding of the Earth’s age might change decimal places, but not orders of magnitude.

    I believe that attitude is inherently unscientific, and in direction contradiction to Sagan’s admonitions about challenging all truths (if you’re unfamiliar with the quote I can dig it up for you).

    Our current knowledge pegs the age the Earth at about 4.54 billion years, give or take 1%. This number will be refined as our understanding grows, but we aren’t going to one day discover that the age of the Earth is instead only 1 million years.

    I don’t share your confidence. Your assertion that such “would contradict all previous evidence gathered” is false, ironically, via the very same “correspondence principle” you allude to. Similarly, the discovery of the electron did not invalidate the existing body of evidence for cathode rays. Rather, the existing body of evidence simply began to be viewed in a new light.

    Also, not “all” evidence suggests the age you tout, so you’re overstating your case. There is, and has been, a growing body evidence which challenges it.

    It’s as simple as this: if you’d like to cast your lot with Neal and pronounce today’s “age of the Earth” as an objective truth, feel free. It’s no skin off my back, but I remain skeptical and open, and no freethinker should scold another for that.

    I’ve seen too many reversals of “objective” fact in my lifetime to share your confidence.

  6. Arch says:

    I don’t think we differ on first principles, but only in our understanding of the evidence.

    If I encountered someone who took pride in being skeptical and open about the velocity addition formula, who told me there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the formula is really v’ = 10000(v1 + v2) instead of (the Newtonian) v’ = v1 + v2, I would have to initially concede that anything’s possible. However I would ultimately reject the claim, not because of an a priori stance of velocity-addition-dogmatism, but because the evidence does not support it. Good science entails being open to new hypotheses as well being willing to abandon hypotheses that are contrary to the evidence, no matter what our personal preferences may be.

    What is the growing body evidence which challenges that the age of the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old?

  7. cl says:

    If I encountered someone who took pride in being skeptical and open about the velocity addition formula…

    The analogy is invalid because it fails to account for the differences between direct observation and inference from fact. There is no blind extrapolation or assumption necessary to adduce the velocity-addition formula.

    Good science entails being open to new hypotheses as well being willing to abandon hypotheses that are contrary to the evidence, no matter what our personal preferences may be.

    I wholeheartedly agree, and I add that good science is also having the wisdom to learn from the past, and the humility to not overstate one’s case: to reserve words like “objective truths” for only that small subset of truths that can truly be labelled objective. That’s where you, Neal and I seem to differ.

    What is the growing body evidence which challenges that the age of the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old?

    Do your own research, I have no care in convincing or enlightening you. Start with Dr. Wile’s many interesting posts on the subject. You can find a link in my blogroll. My main point in bringing it up is to demonstrate that you are overstating your case. You are using the string “all previous evidence” irresponsibly. If scientists suddenly concluded the Earth was less than 4.54 byo it would NOT upend “all previous evidence,” because there is a growing body of evidence already in existence which challenges the currently accepted age. Such would only upend the current consensus, and that happens quite frequently in science.

    Hence my reservation to share you confidence.

  8. Arch says:

    The first google hit for Wile was his paper, “Why I believe in a young Earth”. The first sentence of that paper, in bold, is

    “I do not believe in a young earth because I think Scripture requires it.”

    OK, well, science is rooted in evidence, not in assumptions about holy books. Skipping past the theology in the first section, the next section actually has some checkable claims, the first one being

    “The Amount of Sodium in the Ocean”

    This is an old argument which has been answered at length; see for example http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CD/CD221.html .

    The paper goes on with more tired arguments and old AIG links, all of which have been addressed at talkorigins and elsewhere. Note that I am not treating talkorigins as an authority, but as a repository of links to external references that may be studied and evaluated on their own merits.

    So I am left wondering where this “growing body of evidence already in existence which challenges the currently accepted age” is. Perhaps you could tell me just one piece of evidence that convinces you.

    A good book that covers the basic evidence for why virtually all scientists believe the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old is http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Earth-Skies-Cosmic-Surroundings/dp/0804749337/

  9. cl says:

    So I am left wondering where this “growing body of evidence already in existence which challenges the currently accepted age” is.

    Of course you’re left wondering! You hardly searched. You checked out the first return on a Google search for Dr. Wile. That wasn’t what I suggested. I suggest studying his blog for at least a few weeks, and interacting with him. Ask questions. You know, the stuff truth-seekers and science-minded folk are supposed to do.

    Perhaps you could tell me just one piece of evidence that convinces you.

    I’m not convinced either way. I’ve said it a million times before, and I’ll say it a million times again: I’m agnostic WRT the age of the earth. Not one lick of my faith hinges on the old earth vs. young earth arguments, and I have nothing to gain from “being right” in this matter. It’s a moot point, a long dead equus. Truth be told, I find interesting and compelling arguments on both sides of the question, but it’s not a black-and-white issue for me. You, on the other hand, strike me as a very “hardcore” proponent of the old earth theory (though I anticipate you’ll just respond that you’re a champion of science, logic, reason, evidence… yada yada yada). If you’re open to the idea that you might be wrong, hey, that’s great. If you’re closed, okay, no big deal. None of it matters, ultimately, especially if you are an atheist, and especially since the original post is about the integrity of using words like “objective truths” for “truths” that have proven subjective and changing over time.

    Nonetheless, I know I have a few links to specific posts of his that I found interesting, so I will oblige you by sharing a small subset of them in my next post.

  10. Arch says:

    This comes down to knowledge of the evidence; it’s not really about first principles. An hypothesis may be rejected when there is sufficient evidence which contradicts it. No more philosophizing is needed after that.

    I cited a book which lays out the evidence for an old Earth in detail. It’s up to you to take the initiative and gain some knowledge. If you read that book carefully with an open mind, I think you will be convinced.

    I have examined many young Earth claims and have found them all to be crucially mistaken and sometimes woefully naive. I did not find anything new or interesting in Wile’s paper or on his blog. I still wait to hear whatever evidence you have that causes you to be agnostic about the age of the Earth.

  11. cl says:

    The twin towers came crashing down on 9-11: objective truth. A bullet went through JFK’s head in Dallas, 1963: objective truth. Barack Hussein Obama II is the 44th and current President of the United States: objective truth. Per various evidences, most scientists currently believe the earth is 4.54 billion calendar years old: objective truth. No assumptions or extrapolations are required to assert these truths. 4.54 billion calendar years have passed since earth began to exist: NOT AN OBJECTIVE TRUTH!

    That, in a nutshell, is why I remain agnostic WRT the age of the earth: it’s changed over time, it’s founded on assumptions and extrapolations, and we hardly know squat about this little thing called “time.”

    You know what annoys me about all this? There are several things, but I’ll focus on a few. The first is that you began with unfounded assumptions before you did your homework. Cases in point: your opening quip about the correspondence principle, your assumption that I was “convinced” of a young earth, or your latest assumption that I haven’t seriously considered the “basic evidence” for old earth claims. The second is your flippancy: you spent no more than an afternoon at Dr. Wile’s blog, didn’t address a single thing he said, then came back here and just categorically hand-waved it all away. The third is that you overstate your case (the bit about “all previous evidence”). You display many of the same traits as those pesky YEC’s, only, your confirmation bias is more veiled. It’s the same old, same old, alive and well, but I’m pretty sure you’ll never see any of this, so, I may as well quit wasting our time there.

    I have examined many young Earth claims and have found them all to be crucially mistaken and sometimes woefully naive.

    Yet, before coming here, you hadn’t even heard of Dr. Wile! Young earth arguments have come a long way since salinity and moon-dust advances. The least you could do is stay on top of the game. That’s what any real seeker should do.

    I did not find anything new or interesting in Wile’s paper or on his blog.

    That just proves you didn’t look with any real interest, else we’d at least be having an interesting discussion. What do you make of the various soft tissue finds and muscle preservation—in at least one case outside the bone, exposed to sediment—in fossils purported to be tens of millions of years old? Soft tissue has recently been discovered in fossilized salamander, Mosasaur and Triceratops remains. Chitin has been found in arthropods purported to be hundreds of millions of years old. A microbial biofilm can’t produce retinal melanosomes. Etc. How does the discovery of phytoliths in coprolite challenge your faith in assumptions made from the geological column? Have you ever even heard of Dr. Thomas Seiler? Doesn’t it strike you as worthy of questioning that Dr. Seiler’s program was removed from the 2012 AOGS–AGU conference? If science is all about the open-minded pursuit of truth, why remove data that don’t fit the consensus? This isn’t an isolated case, either. Read here.

    You’ll probably just hand-wave all that away, the same way YEC’s tend to hand-wave away all evidence which doesn’t line up with Bishop Ussher’s proclamations. I find it all very interesting and worthy of thought, myself.

  12. Arch says:

    Dinosaur soft tissue is an old red herring. This was rehydrated material, so it’s not literally soft tissue in the way we think of it. Another common misconception is that “soft tissue” implies DNA. We won’t be getting any DNA from this stuff, whatever it is. Some reports even confuse proteins with DNA. In any case I don’t see how this is supposed to demonstrate a young Earth.

    Re phytoliths, there are other explanations — “They could also be from a plant closely related to grasses.” (http://www.livescience.com/3912-dung-reveals-dinosaurs-ate-grass.html). But even supposing that we have a new date for the evolution of grasses, how is this a strike against an old Earth?

    Scientists would certainly be interested in seeing Thomas Seiler’s evidence first hand, however he has not made it available. There are several explanations, contamination being the most common one. Considering that it contradicts the evidence we have, the likelihood of it being something interesting is very low. But unless the evidence becomes available we’ll never know.

    I am relieved that you at least accept that some objective facts of history can be known.

    Suppose 200 years from now someone believes that JFK was not assassinated. He has a meager amount of evidence — say, a picture of him dated after his “purported” death, and a few other things. His peers implore him to look at the video footage, the newspaper articles, the news reports, the government documents, the death certificate — the evidence! Well he doesn’t really look at the evidence. He accuses his interlocutors of being closed-minded. He prides himself on being open and skeptical. How do they convince him that they’re not being closed-minded? That they are simply aware of the evidence?

    The analogy is even too skewed in favor of the JFK-denier. Video, newspapers, government documents, etc. can all be fabricated, but the behavior of matter and energy cannot be.

    I hope you will put aside your animosity and endeavor to become educated about the evidence. The book I mentioned is a great start (http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Earth-Skies-Cosmic-Surroundings/dp/0804749337/).

  13. cl says:

    Dinosaur soft tissue is an old red herring. This was rehydrated material, so it’s not literally soft tissue in the way we think of it. Another common misconception is that “soft tissue” implies DNA. We won’t be getting any DNA from this stuff, whatever it is. Some reports even confuse proteins with DNA.

    Nice! Vague denials without counter-evidence, whatsoever, along with the indication that you completely missed the point of those articles.

    As with the die-hard YEC, there’s no hope for fruitful discourse with people like you. I’m aware of your evidence, it’s all old hat. I’ve been looking into this for 20 years, yet, you keep telling me to read your book. If you want to convince yourself that I haven’t looked objectively at the evidence, there’s nothing I can do about that. If you’re comfortable swallowing the assumptions and extrapolations your evidence is inherently founded upon, that’s your deal.

    Like I said, the age of the Earth is a moot point, one that’s changed several times as science advances. If you want to cast your lot in with the consensus that’s en vogue today and pretend that can’t ever change, hey, whatever floats your boat. You espouse the very same rigidity as those who denied the possibility of QM. As for me, I don’t take such a rigid approach, because I know better. If you want to criticize or belittle me for not lining up with your estimation of “the evidence” that’s fine… it just solidifies my intuitions about you that much more.

    Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?

  14. Arch says:

    You misunderstand at least two important important points.

    What I said was not a denial of the dinosaur finding; it was simply a statement of what it is. There is no indication at all that this is some sort of challenge for an ancient Earth. The discoverer, Schweitzer, does not think so in the least. Indeed she is annoyed by creationists who manipulate her data.

    Are you going to tell me exactly why you think this is evidence for a young Earth? If you want a fruitful discussion then you have to show your cards. Vaguely pointing in the direction of Wile’s confused post in not enough. You have to tell me what you find compelling and why.

    Your second misunderstanding centers around the first point I made regarding the correspondence principle. If you think that scientific answers “can’t ever change” then you haven’t understood the point. Rather, the answers are ever-changing. However when they do change, they do so in a way that does not contradict what has been previously observed. It is with great irony that you mention QM because the correspondence principle originally referred to QM. In the limit of large quantum numbers, QM becomes classical physics. It *has* to, otherwise QM would contradict what has been previously observed. The old answers we had (classical physics) were not suddenly wrong when QM appeared. Rather, they were modified to include a new domain (small distances, small energies). Likewise relativity modified them for large velocities. In both cases our knowledge was extended, not upended.

    By contrast, a young Earth would upend our vast accumulated knowledge on the age of the Earth. That does not mean a young Earth is ruled out a priori, but such a theory must be accompanied with an appropriate modification to the existing theory that results in convergence upon the new answer. Since there are multiple independent lines of evidence, that is a tall order indeed.

    Perhaps you can explain why you think the established evidence is in question. No, not that you think you have some other evidence which contradicts it. I want to know how the existing evidence could be wrong — what explains the evidence we have in light a young Earth. And no more hiding your cards — let’s see what you have.

  15. cl says:

    You misunderstand at least two important important points.

    Wrong. It’s you who still misunderstand my position, despite the fact that I laid it out plainly for you. Again: I am not arguing for any young Earth hypothesis. I am trying to explain to you, with various examples, why I throw my hat in with neither party, why I remain agnostic about how many calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist. So why do you keep asking me why I think these things are “evidence for a young Earth?” Are you still mistakenly assuming I’m a YEC? Is your brain that polarized, like everyone else’s, where you can’t think outside the box? Just because somebody isn’t an Old Earther doesn’t mean they’re a YEC. That’s called a false dichotomy.

    Your second misunderstanding centers around the first point I made regarding the correspondence principle.

    Wrong again. Allow me to demonstrate:

    If you think that scientific answers “can’t ever change” then you haven’t understood the point.

    Uh, I’m saying I’m skeptical precisely because science changes all the time, on issue after issue. The following is wrong, too (or half-wrong, I should say):

    However when they do change, they do so in a way that does not contradict what has been previously observed.

    That is true sometimes—as with QM, where our knowledge was extended—and false other times—as with the static universe, where our knowledge was upended.

    Perhaps you can explain why you think the established evidence is in question.

    I explained why *I* question it, and you completely ignored it, just like you completely ignored the above. So what should I do? Keep repeating myself to you in hopes that you’ll finally listen? Sorry, but I’ve got better things to do! If you really want to get somewhere, then you need to do one of two things (or both): you need to specify which bit of evidence you’re alluding to (as there are several lines of evidence for the current age), and you need to respond to the reason I’ve already given for my skepticism (#13).

    And no more hiding your cards — let’s see what you have.

    I’m not hiding any cards. Address what’s been said or quit wasting our time.

    Oh, by the way: you still haven’t shown that you know what an objective truth is, which is the original point of the post. So maybe you can actually answer that for me: do you think the claim, “4.54 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist” is an objective truth? Yes or no.

  16. Arch says:

    Yes I understand that you are “agnostic”. I asked, “I still wait to hear whatever evidence you have that causes you to be agnostic about the age of the Earth.” I am still waiting. You told me about dinosaur soft tissue, but you won’t say why you find that important. You thought I “denied” something, but like I said I only stated the facts. I don’t know what you think I was denying. I don’t even know what your argument is. If it the same as Wile’s then it’s incoherent and I still don’t know. I don’t have time to rebut Wile’s entire blog, but if you want to pick something that you find compelling then we can discuss that. However if you refuse to engage again then I can’t bother.

    “That is true sometimes–as with QM, where our knowledge was extended–and false other times–as with the static universe, where our knowledge was upended.”

    You still don’t understand the correspondence principle. There weren’t any observations that contradicted the hypothesis of an expanding universe. You’re confusing theory and evidence. It’s a tautology to say that a new theory is different — sometimes radically — than the old one. However the new theory must align with all the old evidence. A theory of a young Earth must somehow account for all the evidence we have for an old Earth.

    Since you accept that “JFK was assassinated” is an objective truth, you should have no problem with the age of the Earth being an objective truth — provided that you understand the evidence for it. Both rely on historical evidence, and 200 years from now they will still be objective truths. And like I said: videos, newspapers, government documents, etc. can all be fabricated, but the behavior of matter and energy cannot be.

    You say that you understand the evidence, but what you’ve said here suggests otherwise. I would implore again you to drop the animosity, the contempt, and the ego games. Put aside your habit of personalizing everything and approach the subject with curiosity and good faith.

  17. cl says:

    Yes I understand that you are “agnostic”. I asked, “I still wait to hear whatever evidence you have that causes you to be agnostic about the age of the Earth.” I am still waiting.

    In my last comment, I directed you to a specific comment and you haven’t addressed that. What else can I do?

    You told me about dinosaur soft tissue, but you won’t say why you find that important.

    The various posts at Wile’s blog each provide reason to be skeptical of the contemporary evolutionary timetable.

    However if you refuse to engage again then I can’t bother.

    I’m not refusing to engage. I got bored and annoyed because you seem to think that I haven’t given “the evidence” a good look, for no other reason than that I don’t throw my hat in with Old Earthers.

    You still don’t understand the correspondence principle.

    Why do you say that? Here’s the relevant snippet I was responding to:

    Your second misunderstanding centers around the first point I made regarding the correspondence principle. If you think that scientific answers “can’t ever change” then you haven’t understood the point. Rather, the answers are ever-changing. However when they do change, they do so in a way that does not contradict what has been previously observed.

    …to which I replied,

    That is true sometimes—as with QM, where our knowledge was extended—and false other times—as with the static universe, where our knowledge was upended.

    The subject here is scientific answers. I agree that scientific answers are ever-changing; in fact, that’s part of the reason for my skepticism on the age of earth. However, it’s false to make the blanket statement that, “when they do change, they do so in a way that does not contradict what has been previously observed.” That is not true of scientific answers in general.

    Since you accept that “JFK was assassinated” is an objective truth, you should have no problem with the age of the Earth being an objective truth

    You don’t understand what an objective truth is. An objective truth is one that CANNOT change over time, for example, the twin towers fell on 9/11. Has the scientific consensus on the age of the earth changed over time? Since the answer is an unequivocal “yes” then how is this “truth” objective?

  18. Vivek narain says:

    Reality can be quite deceptive,what seems objective can very easily be suajective,scientific results are often not worked out but gifted by divinity. Cynics may deliberately close their eyes when having a faceoff with divinity. Jfk and other events destined to happen. Wolf larsen might be a triumph of life but the fact is in non fictional life it’s the attitude that triumphs.

  19. cl says:

    Cynics may deliberately close their eyes when having a faceoff with divinity.

    Well said.

  20. Mike says:

    There is no way that evolution is going to be in the dustbin of the future. At most we may learn something new about how it works, but macroevolution is a fact that’s here to stay.

  21. cl says:

    There is no way that evolution is going to be in the dustbin of the future.

    Sure, if by “evolution” you simply mean variation amongst species, but that’s not what I’m talking about when I suggest that today’s ideas about evolution and the origin of life may very well be in the dustbin of the future. I’m talking about the inferred narrative, not the observable processes.

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