The truth and rocket science

The truth isn’t rocket science.  Of course that doesn’t stop rocket scientists from claiming it is.  They tell us that from Galileo and Bacon on down the truth is the only thing they’ve ever been after.  But rocket science isn’t always about truth, nor is truth in any way essentially scientific.  There are times when the truth seems to be much easier than rocket science:  we hold these truths to be self-evident.  Then there are times when the truth is much harder than rocket science.  Let’s start on the easier side.

It doesn’t take much training to stand on a street corner, open a book, and start spouting off some kind of truth.  You don’t need a mentor, though some folks have them, nor do you need to do any specific study.  Can you talk loud?  That’s about all it took in the good old days.  With the internet and all that, you don’t even have to speak or go outside.  The barriers to entry for truth are so absurdly low that some people even think this accounts for the amount of falsehood out there, though this isn’t necessarily true, either.

Rocket science, by contrast, requires years of study at the feet of older rocket scientists and mathematicians, whose slave-driving exploitation of younger rocket scientists weeds out the weaklings and ensures that the world of rocket science is populated only by those who really can do rocket science.  And when you think of all the things we do with rockets – from the first little vinegar-and-baking-soda rocket you made as a kid to Neil Armstrong – you’d have to say that rocket scientists know what they’re talking about.  Then again, next time the world goes aflame in a nuclear holocaust, thank the rocket scientists.

Which brings us back to barriers to entry, for there are those who argue that low barriers to entry for the truth are just what the world needs.  A few years after Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” he wrote freedom of expression into the first amendment to the Constitution, and the Supreme Court has been arguing over it ever since.  In the mid-1800s, the British political theorist, economist, and sometimes politician John Stuart Mill, wrote a whole book to clarify the matter, On Liberty.  Mill argued that only the free exchange of all ideas would result in “the clear perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”  Sounds like quantum mechanics.

And like quantum mechanics, this seems to work some of the time – for example, when a few hundred years of thinking about, practicing, and debating slavery wound up resulting in the finding that it was wrong.  Or the time it took to for the marketplace of ideas to tilt toward the notion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though that information was available all along.

Here’s where low barriers to entry for the truth make it a lot harder than rocket science.  You can look for the truth, but don’t count on the truth to get you to the dance on time.  One of the few things you can just about guarantee when it comes to the truth is that it’ll be too late for someone out there.

The hard part about truth and rocket science is this:  knowing things that are true is no assurance of safety, survival, happiness, or well-being.  We really can’t know where truth or science will get us until we come to the end of our ride.  Along the way we might ride high and mighty for a long time, or we might live the life of Job.

My guess is that the closer you are to Job, the better off you are, unless and until you cross over that line where Job becomes a disgruntled postal worker.  Being Job is harder than rocket science, though the payoff is, arguably, much greater if you can do Job well, as Job himself found out once he realized that some things were out of his control and he would never know the cause or reason why.  The vanity of truth, which is what all good rocket scientists aspire to, won’t do anyone much good on its own.

Credit:  Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion,” about five or six pages in, though Mill himself doesn’t seem to credit Bacon and Galileo.

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Filed under freedom, Job, John Stuart Mill, vanity

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