The Science of Truth

Guest post by Tamara Hunter

It might seem odd to invite a scientist to talk about truth and fiction. After all, fiction is seen as the preserve of made up stories and science, you assume, is all about the search for factual certainty.

Not so, says former Australian of the Year and renowned scientist Tim Flannery, who thinks it’s actually the other way around: scientists don’t believe that there is a truth, while the most important truths are to be found in fiction.

Dr Flannery, who has penned groundbreaking tomes on climate change and on man’s influence on his environment (including The Weather Makers and The Future Eaters), says that while there’s a certain amount of truth to be found in the kind of analysis scientists employ to understand the world, at best they can only speak in probabilities.

For example, reductionist scientists study ever smaller bits of the world until they understand it – a method which reveals a certain truth but can never explain the whole story. Meanwhile, holistic scientists build models in the hopes of understanding complex systems. The most complex models are those of the earth’s climate systems.

“We all realise these models will never tell us the truth – they don’t reveal the future or the truth or anything else,” he says. “All they do is give us a probabilistic assessment of how things might work out in the long term. Their principle virtue is really in the fact that we can take any variable in the system, change it and see how that alters the overall outcome.”

He says even though we know the outcomes will be wrong, they’re the best guide we have to how things will work out.

By contrast, fiction tackles some of humankind’s most significant issues –including love, family, equity and the meaning of life.

“To me the closest thing in the world of fiction to a computer model is a piece of drama,” says Dr Flannery.  “We need, in order to understand those very, very complex issues, a simplified model where we can control the individual inputs in that model – and that is exactly what you see on stage.

“You will see an attempt by the dramatist to simplify the system, to put some archetypes in, and then perhaps vary them, so we can see ourselves what the outcomes are of the multitudinous inputs that assail us every day in our lives.”

Novels, he says, follow a similar approach. He points to the work of Jane Austen as an example of fiction’s ability to examine truth.

“Jane Austen’s novels are some of the most precise attempts at modelling the outcomes of human social structures, love and wealth that have ever been attempted,” he says. “They are extraordinarily precise and measured down to the last shilling, the last gram, the last quotient of love or whatever you want to call that.  And in those novels that she generated not only do we find some of the most beautiful language in English, we find some of the most profound truths as well.”

Dr Flannery says while no one would mistake Austen’s view of life in an English village for absolute historical truth, it is possible to see within the models she produced a simulacrum of the world which reveals more about ourselves, our desires and our situations than any single historical truth ever can.

“For me, truth really is in fiction. It is in modelling the world in the way people have intuitively done ever since the first play was put on in some cave who knows where in the world tens of thousands of years ago, and ever since the first novel was written.

“So I celebrate that approach to understanding life. Science is not just about a reductionist approach – it’s about an embracing of life at a much more holistic level than that.

“So truth or fiction? Unlikely. It is much more likely to be truth in fiction.”

Dr Flannery, an often controversial writer, scientist and explorer, was a keynote speaker at the Perth Writers Festival opening event. The session examined the idea of Truth and Fiction. His latest book, ‘Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope’, has been described as a dazzling account of life on our planet and an extraordinary exploration of evolution and sustainability.

More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival >

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