Truth, information, science

by Neil Rickert

Philosophers of science tend to want to see scientific theories as true. I sometimes point out that Boyle’s law is false. Some time ago, I wrote an earlier post saying that Kepler’s laws are false. In this post, I want to paint a picture of where truth and information fit into science.

The stopped clock

You have probably heard the saying, “a stopped clock is right twice per day”. And, along the same lines, we can say that a clock which is 1 minute slow is always wrong. However, you would probably prefer to have a clock that is 1 minute slow, than to have a stopped clock.

“Right” and “wrong” here are references to truth. The example of the stopped clock suggests that there is more to science than truth.

We can, instead, look at it in terms of information. The clock that is 1 minute slow is actually giving pretty good information about time. It isn’t perfect information, but it is good enough to be useful for many purposes. The stopped clock, by contrast, does not provide any useful information. Yes, twice per day it has the correct information. But that stopped clock cannot tell us whether this happens to be the time of day when it is correct. Since it does not tell us that, we cannot trust the time as reported by the stopped clock. It is, at best, useless information.

The Gas laws

The laws, such as Boyle’s law, are usually referred to as “the ideal gas laws”. This is because they are true only for an imagined ideal gas, but are false for real gasses. For a real gas, the gas laws do give a very good approximation.

The gas laws also fail to provide information about the real world. However, they can be used to get information. If we apply measurements of pressure and volume, then we can use Boyle’s law to predict what the volume would be under a different pressure. And a good prediction is useful information.

Because the gas laws do not provide direct information, they cannot themselves be descriptions of the world. This is why I usually see scientific theories as neither true nor false. But they can be said to be descriptive in the a broader sense, in that they are part of the methods that scientists use to provide useful information (or descriptions) of the world.

Kepler’s laws

We can say something similar about Kepler’s laws. They are not true, though they do provide good approximations. Kepler’s laws do not directly give us information about the world (or the solar system). But, when used in conjunction with earlier observations, they do provide very good predictions. And such predictions are useful information.

Once again, it is best to see Kepler’s laws as neither true nor false. They are not themselves descriptive of the world, but they are part of a system of methods that astronomers use to describe our solar system.

Other laws

When we look at other scientific theories, we often see the same thing. The theories are not important as descriptions of the world. Rather, their role is to describe the methods that scientists use to investigate and describe the world.

In particular, I see it as a mistake to say that scientific laws are beliefs and that science is a belief system. Believing the laws doesn’t do anything. What matter is carrying out the methods that the laws give. Science is more a behavior system than a belief system.

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