Pastoral Post 9.13.2019 | Scott Taylor "What Is Truth?"

What is truth?

By Scott Taylor

These are two stories.  They are both true in the sense that they both happened.  I feel they both reveal something true in a larger sense as well.  Though, in all truth, I am not all together sure what I mean by that.  And so, I will tell the stories as truly as I can and not attempt to connect them or discern the meaning for you.  Perhaps we can talk about it.

Story 1: Lift Off

Less than a year ago I boarded a plane from Charlotte to Boston.  I, like many fellow travelers, had my distraction of choice at the ready (for me, it was James Agee’s masterpiece A Death in the Family).  The young man seated next to me began to make conversation before we began to taxi.  By the time the plane was made ready for take-off, one thing about my neighbor was clear: he was terrified of flying.

I’ve written about this singular experience before for this newsletter.  But, I want to revisit it with another question in mind.  A big question.  What makes something true?  Most of the way up to Boston I spent my time just trying to comfort the nervous passenger.  For a while I tried to distract him.  Neither of these approaches seemed to work so I tried a more targeted approach: a more scientific approach.  I told him about Bernoulli.

Daniel Bernoulli was a Swiss mathematician and physicist and by all accounts, a genius.  You likely learned about him in school.  The principle for which he is famous says, essentially, that a change in the flow rate of a fluid (or air) results in a pressure differential.  While Bernoulli never dreamed of airplanes with jet engines, his principal is tested every time one takes off down a runway!  As the air flows over the wing faster and faster, a pressure differential is created (high pressure below the wing, low pressure above the wing) and lift occurs.

So, what did my explanation of Bernoulli’s principle do for the nerves of my aviophobic neighbor?  Absolutely nothing.  His truth was unchanged.  His fear was irrational and the truth as he knew it could not be altered by scientific processes.


Story 2: Vine-ripened

A large number of people still don’t believe in global warming.  I can’t say how many, but various polls from Yale, Pew Research, and even the Weather Channel confirm this to be true.  Contained in all these research reports is a variant of the following question: Why do some people persist in doubting the validity of climate change when the scientific community has spoken so resoundingly clear about the realities of human/industry caused climate change?  Well, I have an idea.

While I tend to trust the scientific community, I have had occasion to doubt their version of the truth (as in the 1967 case of the Sugar Research Foundation’s paying off of Harvard scientists to falsify research in favor of sugar’s health benefits – surprise, there aren’t any!).  My father is one such person who also has had reason not to blindly trust everything the science community has told him over the years, and, in regards to climate change, he was rather skeptical for about a decade.  But then, his thoughts on the matter changed.  Why?  Because he paid attention to his tomatoes.

My family has been growing tomatoes in the Yadkin River Valley for decades.  Around 10 years ago my dad called me one day and said, “I’ve never gotten tomatoes to grow this early!”  He was excited.  Year after year he would call and exclaim that his tomatoes were setting earlier and earlier.  One year, we ate vine-ripened tomatoes on my June 10th birthday.  Finally, he deduced that the climate had changed – and he did so in the same way that all pre-scientific-age agrarians did: by paying attention to signs and wonders of the world!  No ideology, conservative or liberal, could do anything to confirm or deny his experience of the truth.

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