Tag Archives: Patrick Allitt

Our (Flawed) Experiments with Truth

Recently, rereading some personal journals I wrote nearly forty years ago, I came across a reference to the English-language version of a famous autobiography I was then reading, Mohandas Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I’ve since lost my copy, and didn’t journal much of the content. Skimming a current online summary, I learned that Gandhi first published the work in his native language, Gujarati, in weekly installments in his newsletter in India during the latter 1920’s. Then, he was actively engaged in the struggle for Indian independence from Great Britain. In his work, he described the first forty some years of his life, with emphasis on the evolution of his concept of satyagraha, often rendered in English as “non-violent passive resistance.” The book has been translated into 15 regional Indian languages and at least a dozen European ones.

The title of the work has stuck with me. While Gandhi’s definition of “truth” has a strong spiritual component, somewhat different from many Western perspectives, the gist of his argument seems to me to be that one may approach “truth” but cannot codify it or force it into any set system. To a Westerner, his search sounds something like our use (and misuse) of the method of scientific inquiry. My understanding of scientific method is that we can only approximate “whole truth,” never totally pin it down. Nevertheless, we conduct successive experiments to align our understanding more closely with expanding portions of truth. Sometimes old explanations are disproved. No theory or explanation is ever final, but only as good as its ability to describe and predict actual phenomena. 

The current rancor about multiple cultural and political issues seems to me to be partly due to a misguided attempt to force “truth”  to remain static. We watch coverage of the evolving covid-19 pandemic as if there must be one definitive solution to the burgeoning number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. We want to reduce a complex set of public health issues to simple “good guys/bad guys” scenarios. 

“Tell us the answer,” we demand. 

We may frame successive revisions in advice from the CDC or the WHO as evidence of unreliability, rather than as responses to changes in viral variants, levels of contagion and community spread, and mortality/morbidity rates. We may try to assign blame for the initial spread of the virus, as if calling the pandemic the “kung flu” could impact the pandemic’s current global trajectory or destruction. We may try to discount scientists wrestling with a hugely complicated global health challenge as “elitist,” preferring to believe whichever online media pundit best fits our preexisting biases. None of these reductionist ploys coincides with the “truth of covid-19” as we know it so far.

One of my more recent reads touched on the equally divisive issue of climate change. In A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, historian-author Patrick Allitt quoted former climate scientist and member of the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change, Stephen Schneider. Schneider, until his death in 2010, was for many years a professor of biology at Stanford University. An early advocate of reforming public policies to mitigate and adapt to human-induced climate change, Schneider nonetheless recoiled from efforts to pin down exact consequences or remedies or to demonize climate skeptics. Schneider tried to explain, using terms that got and can get quoted out of context to support a variety of views:

“As scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. …This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope this means being both.”  (A lengthier version of Schneider’s views is available online at https://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Mediarology/mediarology.html.) 

As I try to shield myself and my loved ones from the worst impacts of either potentially deadly viruses or equally deadly weather events and climate shifts, I take some solace in imagining Gandhi and Schneider in a vibrant afterlife, sharing insights and learning from each other’s experiments with truth.