Regarding Scientific Truth

In this age of humanity where work in the natural sciences has seen rapid evolution, there has also been a massive denial of certain scientific matters by people of influence. Namely, a number of American politicians, particularly businessman-turned-president Donald J. Trump, have disregarded the research behind the existence of climate change. And to this effect, the United States is now the only nation in the world to have rejected the Paris Climate Agreement, despite being one of the members of the UNFCCC who originally helped formulate the agreement. Thus, one finds that a quote from the nineteenth-century theoretical physicist Max Planck applies particularly well here.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Historically, this has applied to modern chemistry’s development in the case of Democritus’ idea of atoms, which had not been accepted for about 2000 years. It took the science-interested teacher John Dalton to reintroduce the idea over the preceding reputable Aristotelian thought. He felt that the idea of atoms was legit, and therefore began to teach it, though there weren’t many others (besides his students) who agreed with him. Dalton’s teaching of the idea of atoms allowed for the “truth” to spread with him and his rivals dying off, Dalton’s successors living on to communicate the concept to the world.

This has also borne true in the treatment of non-heteronormative sexual and gender identities, such as being gay or identifying as transgender, which spent quite a bit of time being considered mental illnesses. This had also occurred in the treatment of non-white people due to a tendency towards eugenics, stipulating that there are genetic differences between different ethnic groups that creates “superior” and “inferior” sub-groups in humanity.

In both cases, it was not until the decline in the population of anti-LGBTQ and/or racist medical professionals, and the rise of their more socially-liberal successors really questioned the veracity of such “truths” of their times, due to changing social conditions. Of course, some people continue to view members of both minorities as less-than, but they are not quite the norm in today’s age.

Planck’s concept also has some psychological support behind it. Researchers have found that people are less likely to abandon goals the longer they are committed to them, in what might be referred to as “goal gradients.” The same principle would apply to beliefs when one thinks about the amount of passion we as humans tend to put behind our arguments, often seeking to get others to agree with us. One could also consider the existence of confirmation bias, and our reluctance to change perspectives.

Thus, the combination of persistence in trying to “convert” others, and our own confirmation bias reveals that Planck’s concept does have at least some merit to it. After all, if humans are so committed to their beliefs, it would only make sense that it would require the death of a generational belief to see the rise in something new. Whether if it be influenced by new research developments or social conditions, Max Planck’s statement that “truths” don’t spread by conversion, but rather by the newer generation being taught it as truth does apply even today.