Friday, July 28, 2023

The Brutal Truth

In science, literal truth is enshrined as the ultimate good. We like to imagine that we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth at all times. But most scientists, and all science writers and educators, realize that this will not work on a daily basis. We have to modulate the truth to accommodate those who listen to us.

The main way we do this is by offering our readers and listeners more hope than there might actually be any reason to have. This is especially true, as I wrote on Earth Day (see previous essay) of environmental issues. Probably nothing short of collapse will keep us from destroying the Earth. (Collapse, not extinction.) It is safe to say that nobody would read a book or blog essay in which this brutal truth is the conclusion. Writers like me grab at any little tatter of hope to leave our readers with the motivation to make the world a better place, even if it is only a little better.

But it happens all the time, not just in our major writings. I keep thinking of one example from a recent walk I took along a trail outside of Tulsa. It was a beautiful day in early spring. I was closely watching the buds open. Each kind of tree and bush and vine has its own schedule for opening its buds, some early, some later, so budburst is more like a symphony than an event. I was also noticing the animals. In particular, the rising air currents moved vultures in effortless circles. We find vultures disgusting, even though on days like this they can be beautiful, and we are certainly happy that they help clean up the dead meat.

A young woman was walking toward me on the trail. She looked up into the sky where the vultures had been and smiled grandly. I asked her what she was looking at. She told me she had seen eagles.

Had I been dedicated to brutal truth, I would have corrected her. It was vultures, not eagles, that she saw. I could even have told her how to tell the difference. But I am a retired educator and a science writer. When I see someone enjoying the beauty of nature, I will do what I can to encourage that enjoyment. So I just told her that it was nice that she had seen them. I wanted to leave her with a good feeling that would make it more likely for her to keep coming back to the trail.

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