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Different kinds of truth: religion, science and fiction

Truth is provisional, shifting, temporary and subjective, and the quest for elucidation is forever incomplete and wholly narrative. Fiction gives scientists a chance to explore reality in a way the day job doesn’t allow

Henry Gee, Friday 31 August 2012  guardian.co.uk

Event display of a Higgs Boson 2e2mu

The announcement earlier this year of the ‘discovery’ of the Higgs boson was framed as a quantification of doubt. Photograph: Cern

One of the mistakes that people – and I include scientists and journalists in my definition of "people", because, well, I’m charitable like that – is that they think science is all about discovering the "truth". Scientist David Sloan-Wilson went so far as characterising science as a religion that had truth as its God.

But science is nothing of the kind. "Truth" is a concept that is best left to theologians and philosophers. Science, on the other hand, is better characterised not as a religion, but as a rational process, in which the goal is not the attainment of truth, but the quantification of doubt.

You will recall, I am sure, the recent fuss about the Higgs boson. Scientists didn’t "discover" the elusive and misnamed "God Particle" behind my sofa (goodness knows, it’s got to be there among the dust, discarded dog chews and odd socks) and say "Aha!" No, the process was framed as a quantification of doubt, in which observations were slowly collated to such a degree that the probability of the Higgs’s existence being a fluke was reduced to no more than five furlongs per fortnight. "Truth", you see, is as elusive as that perishing pentasigma’ed particle.

Whatever one’s views about God, scientists are (believe it or not) only human, and, being human, never have quite enough data on which to rest conclusions that will be true for all values of x time. Scientific results are provisional, always subject to being modified or even overturned by subsequent events. Today’s left-field idea will be tomorrow’s fashionable new idea will be next week’s orthodoxy will be next year’s wisdom so well-received that it barely rates a mention. If one were to write this as a story, one couldn’t do better than this belle-lettre by João Ramalho-Santos.

Science, then, is a human activity, and there is merit in describing the scientific process in human terms, as my fellow Occam’s Typist Dr J R of Rotherhithe has explored in two novels and a thriving website devoted to "LabLit", the depiction of scientists in literature, not as white-coated drones who talk to one another in formulae, but as real people.

And as for science, so for science writers. For several decades, even centuries, I have been a science writer, and I have written several nonfiction books of a scientific bent. But long ago I felt that I couldn’t really call myself a writer if I didn’t at least try some fiction, and so Christmas 2005 found me starting a novel. My novel was science fiction – which in its purest form is a literature of ideas, in which ordinary people are placed in extraordinary circumstances and are thereby transformed. My ordinary people were scientists, who are, pace The Big Bang Theory, ordinary people like anyone else, who have to make sense of the wonders and horrors that parade before them by the always inadequate measure of their own knowledge. Some of my people were, in fact, far from ordinary – aliens, with incredible power – but still plagued by self-doubt. Even gods, you see, suffer from Imposter Syndrome.

I finished the draft on Easter Monday, 2006 – after which it was cut, expanded, revised, primped, preened, relected, refracted, convected, binned, recycled and turned into a trilogy – of three books, noch. A publisher liked it, and if you’re interested, the first third is out as an eBook today (Friday 31 August) and in print sometime next week, from ReAnimus Press.


Siege of Stars, by Henry Gee

As I was writing the first draft, I heard a programme on the radio in which a seasoned science journalist and author said that he couldn’t possibly write fiction, as there were so many free parameters – points of view, tense, characterisation, all the sorts of things that nonfiction authors don’t have to bother with. Was I rushing in where more experienced feet feared to tread?

I think not. The best non-fiction, the best documentary, is presented as a narrative with all the conventions of fiction. Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem wasn’t so much about maths as about a lone scholar fighting a solitary battle against the odds. Dava Sobel’s book Longitude wasn’t so much about horology as about … er … a lone scholar fighting a solitary battle against the odds. The film Creation, a biopic of Charles Darwin, was about a lone scholar fighting … well, you get the picture. Much like Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins.

In any case, the reader of any nonfiction has only the word of the author that what they’ve written is "true". But fiction has its own truth – while you are reading a story, you’ll believe for the duration that dragons, wizards, aliens and hobbits "exist" – because if you didn’t then the story would be no fun at all. But what is truth? It is provisional, shifting, temporary and subjective, that’s what it is, and the quest for its elucidation is forever incomplete and wholly narrative.

Now, about my own story. It’s about a lone scholar fighting a solitary battle against the … but wait! I’m telling you the plot!

By day, Henry Gee is a senior editor of the science journal Nature. By night he is a blogger and author. Siege of Stars, the first volume of his science fiction trilogy The Sigil, is published on Friday by ReAnimus Press



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