What do you do if you see a penguin dancing the tango? And other life questions

A friend of mine wrote a thoughtful blog post on his website “On Pop Theology” that posed a few important questions about the nature of truth.

I’m not an expert on the subject by any stretch, but here I’m just going to outline a framework that’s helped me understand a little better what a nebulous word like truth means.

Below is an excerpt from the blog post, “On Economics and Truth,” in which Ben finds problems with an economist’s statements in the book Griftopia and asks if he can trust the overarching conclusions from a fallacious argument.

How do we define truth in the midst of skepticism? Should I believe Taibbi’s conclusions are correct even if a few of his facts aren’t? … How can we tell what’s true and what’s true…ish?”

We’ll return to this point later, but the first thing to be said is that there is a difference between Truth and facts. Truth, in my mind, is the answer to the big questions, like “what is man’s purpose?” “is there a God?” and “should I eat tacos tonight?” Facts, well… facts can change, because they are our best guesses about the natural world.

Secondly, logic 101 dictates that no, you can’t trust a conclusion with a fallacious proposition. I’m sure this is obvious but bear with me.

Take this example:

All penguins are flightless birds.

No flightless birds dance the tango.

Therefore, no penguins dance the tango.

So what if everyone accepts these statements and assumes the conclusion that no penguins dance the tango? Then one day, some unsuspecting birdwatcher observes a penguin flying. Or observes two emus pulling off a perfect boleo. Question any assumption, and we need to fact-check our propositions once again and rebuild our framework. Our argument contains holes.

But what if the birdwatcher happens upon two penguins dancing the tango? It could, very possibly, be a problem with our assumptions. Or maybe… it’s our entire way of thinking that’s at issue. Talk about disillusioning.

What now?

What now?

Something similar happened to Galileo Galilei’s worldview when he observed craters on the moon in the early 17th century.

According to Church doctrine and the Ptolemaic Model, the universe was unchanging and perfect – only the Earth had been corrupted by original sin. According to the Model, the Earth was at the center, and there were “epicycles” in planets’ orbiting paths where they would go forward then back in little circles in their orbits. There was a layer of “fixed” stars, and a force on the outside that powered it all, the Prime Mover.

Galileo’s observation of the craters (as well as Tycho Brahe’s observation of an exploding star, and many, many more findings of Johannes Kepler), showed that there were significant problems with the Ptolemaic model of the universe. Something wasn’t right, because there wouldn’t be imperfections in space if it was.

At the time, the Church forced Galileo to recant his discoveries. Of course, later they had to swallow their pride and adjust their understanding of the universe when the overwhelming evidence showed that they were wrong.

The fascinating thing to me, though, is not only the historical triumph of science and observation and refining of facts, but the interplay of science and theology. It’s my belief that the Galileo episode not only questioned several propositions in the Ptolemaic model (the universe is perfect with the Earth is at its center), but also showed an even deeper problem — the inherent danger in religion and faith dictating facts.

If facts can change, and the church stakes everything on these facts, then the entire framework of religion comes crashing down the moment some other conclusion turns out to be the reality. *Evolution — cough, cough* There is a difference between tweaking our assumptions and overhauling our entire way of seeing things. 

I’m not saying that faith and science are incompatible. The funny thing is that these scientists’ observations actually helped the Church understand the world, and therefore God, better. In a similar way, faith-based knowledge can inform science, too … the scientists in Jurassic Park, for example, should have known better than to resurrect extinct, dangerous creatures. More seriously, there are ethical repercussions to some of science’s advancements – it’s not so great that we can emit as much carbon dioxide from power plants and cars as we feel like.

This guy gets it

This guy gets it

So in conclusion, I guess this post isn’t much of a resolution to Ben’s questions. But whatever we decide about the nature of truth, all of these examples point to the same reality — that at the end of the day we have to be humble, and admit we just don’t have all the answers.


Credit where credit is due .. a lot of these thoughts, particularly the scientific examples and the differences between truth and fact, originate from my dad, John Mays, a really smart science educator and author. If you’re interested in this stuff you should read his book “Teaching science so that students Learn Science.”


5 thoughts on “What do you do if you see a penguin dancing the tango? And other life questions

  1. Well done, my excellent daughter! You make me proud that you remember the lessons of your youth so well. Just two comments. First, the whole truth-facts thing has now been explained even better in my new book Science for Every Teacher, Volume 1: Physics. The description there is a lot more developed than in Teaching Science. (However, TS costs half as much. So it goes.) My atheist friend and science editor called the new treatment “magnificent.” Second, not to nitpick, but Tycho’s observation of the supernova was in 1572. Galileo started fooling around with telescopes in 1609 or so.

  2. Hey Rebekah, Great post! However, I think you overstated the Church’s response and understated Galileo’s problematic response. It wasn’t that “the Church forced Galileo to recant his discoveries.” What is meant by “the Church”? It was that only a few officials made the mistake of doing what you caution, which was overstepping their bounds and dictated what was fact. The church meaning the magisterium, or any other authoritative document, made no pronouncement at all on the matter, and in fact many officials were in agreement with Galileo. The other issue is that, though Galileo was essentially correct, he was being just as dogmatic and arrogant about his ideas being absolutely true, when some of the ideas either were false (e.g. he thought the orbits were circular, rather than elliptical) or did not have sufficient evidence to be proven true until several decades later. Thus, the other point is that science has to be careful about dictating things too dogmatically, which is also extremely relevant to the issue of evolution, where many within science defend evolution in a very dogmatic, “absolute and unassailable truth” way.

    (one source among many on the topic of the Galileo affair: http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2006/05/galileo-myths-and-facts.html)

    • lol. I’m not sure it’s such a great idea for the Church to defend its treatment of Galileo by saying it was justified because he was arrogant and he wasn’t 100% right. More importantly, as a fellow Catholic, it’s worrisome to see people still trying to defend the Church’s old mistakes. Whether or not the Pope himself came out and said Galileo was a heretic, the Roman Inquisition found him gravely suspect of heresy, and the Inquisition was a product of (and directly answerable) to the Holy See. Therefore the Church bears the responsibility for its treatment. Luckily, even if some people can’t accept that, the Church itself has — Pope John Paul II admitted that the Church had erred in its treatment of Galileo: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/01/world/vatican-science-panel-told-by-pope-galileo-was-right.html. I find it hard to disagree with the Pope when he says that the Church screwed up. That fact doesn’t disturb my faith, the only thing that would disturb it is if the Church couldn’t admit that had messed up. Luckily it doesn’t have that problem.

      • Fellow Catholic, you’ve misunderstood my point. Contrary to your insinuation, none of this affair at all impacts my faith or my opinion of the church; I also never said that Galileo’s behavior justified what church officials had done. I agree that there were ways in which “the church” (i.e. people within the church) did wrong, just as “the church” did grave wrong with the sex scandals, or when “the church” did grave wrong in not listening to its popes’ consistent condemnation of slavery, or a myriad of other things. The church is still filled with fallible sinners. My point was simply to say two things: 1) that the whole Galileo affair was much more nuanced than most people today realize, and 2) there is the question of what is meant by “The Church”, as there are multiple meanings. I was specifically distinguishing two senses: the people within the church and acting as its representatives, and the magisterium making declarations of doctrine. The former erred in the Galileo affair, and the latter did not (specifically, nowhere was Copernicanism declared an official heresy by the magisterium).

        Another source: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0005.html

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