Neil Degrasse Tyson Says Science is True

The Refuted Meme:

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The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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The Refutation

Neil is usually great, but he should know better than to make such statements. Scientific “proof” is patently absurd and any scientist should be embarrassed to make such a statement. Here is the quotation in full context:

Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world,” Tyson told Colbert. “What I’m saying is, when different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.

Claiming science is “true” is disingenuous because science cannot prove something to be true. That is not how science works. Scientists form theories, which can only be proven false. When a particular theory stands up to the test of many experiments and observations, it becomes generally accepted as the best theory, but that still does not make it true. Newton’s law of gravity stood as a generally accepted theory for hundreds of years from 1687 to 1915, when Einstein’s theory of general relativity better explained observations. That is how science works. Theories are formulated and accepted as the best explanation until they are proven false. Skepticism and challenging the validity of old theories when new data becomes available are the very foundations of science.

A much more accurate statement would have been to say: Science is an iterative process that attempts to remove opinion from the dialog by developing and accepting theories that best explain observation and experiment.

Science is constantly seeking the truth, but it can not, by definition, prove anything to be true. Those who have an opinion that a theory is false have the burden of providing observation or experiment to falsify a theory, and the scientific method then demands that a better theory be developed that explains the new observations.

Why Statements Like This Are Dangerous

Statements like this by Neil Degrasse Tyson highlight the danger of when science is mixed with politics and used for propaganda. When someone tells you that science has proven something to be true, you should be very concerned about that person’s motivations. Because real scientists are skeptical by definition, real scientists who know that science can not prove something to be “true” should be very skeptical of the motivations of someone claiming otherwise. What is their motivation in spreading such a claim? What do they have to gain from it? Are there certain theories that are on shaky ground that they personally benefit from that they do not want skeptics and the scientific process to investigate further?

I have not investigated such concerns around Neil Degrasse Tyson, but I think when someone like him makes such a statement, these are reasonable questions to ask. Real journalists who understand what science really is should be asking these questions and reporting on them. The fact that you don’t see that kind of journalism today should make you skeptical of journalism. Now that’s science!


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