Martha and Mary

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”

Luke‬ ‭10:38-42‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

For centuries this story has been read as two women quarrelling over the housework or food preparation. And it rather puts women in a no-win situation: it comes out clearly that Mary is better for sitting and listening and yet every woman knows the housework still needs doing, especially when visitors come round. 

I was thinking of this when I was watching someone’s post on Facebook of a video of a rather smug mother showing off about what a better mother she was than other people. She was talking about how she was bringing up her children to be respectful while other mothers clearly didn’t care. And realising full well the irony of telling myself a story about her to understand why she was telling herself stories about others, I couldn’t help noticing her expensive sports clothes, immaculate kitchen and other things that suggested she was rich, not working in a paid job and privileged. And I thought that she probably had no idea what the lives of the women she was criticising were like. We women can be really horrid and judgemental to each other. As in my post on defensiveness, I wonder whether this judgemental accusation is hiding our own weak ego, needing the reassurance that we aren’t wrong. 

So back to the Martha and Mary story, which for so long has frustrated me because it made me feel guilty about being so overwhelmed with my busyness that I don’t make time to sit still. I felt doubly got at: first I do more than my share of work and then I’m told that I’m wrong to do so! (See how I’d personalised it?!) The story pits the two sisters against each other and doubly seems to punish the hardworking one who is already exhausted. 

So I was fascinated to read a book by Mary Stromer Hanson which told the story differently. She pointed out that the King James translation has an extra word “also” in verse 39:

“And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” KJV Luke 10:39.

This goes back to the Greek but has been missed out in modern translations. The implication is that both Mary and Martha “sat at Jesus’s feet” (which is likely to be an idiomatic phrase describing their roles as his disciples – and therefore, as an aside, taking on a role that was clearly not just for men).

It goes on:

“But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭10:40‬ ‭KJV‬‬

There is no indication here that the “serving” is in the kitchen. It could equally be some other type of service, perhaps in a community, or even “ministry”. 

Jesus answers, and we have always read this as a rebuke, but try reading it again in a comforting voice, reassuring her that he has heard her worries and sympathises, but wants to remind her that the type of service Mary is doing (one which has led her to leave home and Martha, perhaps?), is good for Mary. 

“And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

‭‭Luke‬ ‭10:41-42‬ ‭KJV‬‬

Now, is this new reading more “right”? I don’t know, and from how I interpret spiritual truth (see earlier blogs on religious Truth), it doesn’t matter too much [any atheist reading this far who thinks this shows how you can read anything into the Bible and therefore it’s meaningless is missing my point as much as any Bible-literalist who thinks I’m wrong because I’ve looked at it differently from how they were taught…]  The point is, that how we read Jesus’s reply depends a lot on the story we’ve told ourselves about who Mary and Martha are. 

And maybe how we read other people’s parenting stories on Facebook depends a lot on the stories we tell ourselves about them. 

So let’s return to what Jesus might be saying here: Mary’s way (the type of work she does) is good (for her). You have your own burdens, Martha, and I sympathise, but you don’t solve those by stopping her following her path. 

So, whether we are mums or not, whether we work outside the home or with our families, whatever we do, let us not attack each other!

But one final contradictory word (because I like living on the contradictory edge) – when I do stop my busyness and just sit, I always benefit and know it is good. 


“Why are the youth of today so defensive?” Someone asked me this question this week and although it was rhetorical, I’ve been pondering it. I’ve struggled with some hot tempers at work this week too – people stressed before a deadline getting wound up with each other. I’ve felt those emotions too and noticed my own defensiveness. 

As part of my study of conflict I want to explore this question. Defensiveness is a response to perceived or real threat and often causes statements that threatens others, making them in turn defensive. I’ll split the question into three parts: why are people defensive? Why are youths defensive? And are the youth of today more defensive?

Why are people defensive?

The first reason for defensiveness is attribution bias, our tendency to explain away our own mistakes as caused by external and temporary factors (a bad day, someone’s interference) and to blame other people’s mistakes on their character (being insensitive, being lazy). We often tell ourselves stories about other people and their motivations for a certain behaviour: “he’s selfish and uncaring and didn’t acknowledge my work in the meeting because he doesn’t value me” and tell ourselves stories that are more flattering version “she’s so overreacting (typical!). I’ve had a tough week and put that presentation together in a rush, I just made a mistake, why is she so sensitive?!” Before long we talk to these pictures of each other that are in our heads and get angry that the other person’s picture of us is so wrong without recognising that so is our picture of them (from their perspective). The “unfair” attack on us makes us defensive. Their defensiveness makes us frustrated and unfairly criticised for our criticism. 

An outsider can often see the stupid pettiness of these arguments. The people involved are too blinded by emotion and their pictures of each other to see that pettiness. 

To reduce our own and other people’s defensiveness we need to change our pictures of each other. We need to be curious rather than jumping to conclusions. In their book series “Crucial conversations” and “crucial accountability” the Vitalsmarts team encourage you to go into a conversation that could be emotional having prepared by thinking “why might a well meaning, intelligent and considerate person have done that?”  The aim is to answer that in multiple ways, to realise that we are telling ourselves a story about the other person which may not be the only explanation of the facts. 

Why are youths defensive?

Attribution bias is one contributing factor of defensiveness, but it is not the only one. The other main factor is a sensitive ego. There are, I think, three stages in the development of the ego: in the first stage we build the ego up – we build up our sense of self. At this stage our ego is very vulnerable and easily slighted by other people’s comments. We may be boastful or showing off, we care deeply about what other people think of us (even if we try to kid ourselves we don’t!) and we are easily hurt. At this stage we are often defensive in an emotional way. 

In the second stage we have a strong ego and have built a lot of confidence. People in this stage are often “thicker skinned” than those in the first stage: They are less likely to be defensive and hurt by other people’s feelings about them, but also less sensitive to other people’s ego needs. There is often a sense of having achieved a maturity: emotionally and in terms of professional skills and with this a willingness to judge as inferior those who haven’t achieved that. 

There is a third stage, one that Richard Rohr describes eloquently in his book “Falling Upward“, in which we consciously and freely let go of our ego needs, in which we choose to accept criticism not in stoic martyrdom or with bitten-tongue resentment, but in Love. In this stage we can even accept that we don’t have to like ourselves: we accept our flaws simply, patiently and as God does. 

Richard Rohr describes two parts to our lives, one in which we build up our fragile egos and a second part where we let go of our strong one. My experience is that it is more circular than that. As I let go of an old model of myself, a new one arises that is initially vulnerable. In its early vulnerability I am easily hurt and very defensive. Eventually I become more confident and the defensiveness diminishes, but my judgements of other people increases. At some point I realise I can let go that label, that need to be right, and as I do so I accept both myself and others. That opens my eyes to a deeper truth, and being human, I personalise that truth in a new model of myself and the cycle repeats. My moments in the third stage are fleeting and all too temporary, but they are also sufficiently real for me to know they are true. 

(If that was all too spiritual, I also have a more prosaic model – I started as a physicist and initially went through a defensive stage about my physics ability, then I got more confident (less defensive but more arrogant), and eventually sufficiently confident not to worry about criticisms, at which point I was promoted into management and I went through a defensive stage about my management ability and the cycle repeated until I let go of needing to be right, at which point I was promoted to being a leader…)

Despite this circle, there is a component of age. The young have been through this cycle less often and less consciously than the old. It is probably not just the youth of today who are extremely defensive, but the youth of any age. 

Why are people today more sensitive?

I started this blog with the question I was asked rhetorically about why the youth of today are so defensive. I’ve suggested so far that it is a combination of attribution bias making anyone defensive and the specific ego needs of the young making youths defensive. 

And yet, the questioner had also noticed something about today. We see a lot of open defensiveness. Part of this is our new medium of communication: the comments threads on Facebook or newspaper articles do not bring out the best in people and so many of us spend hours every day reading them. Does that tone spill into our more human interactions too?

But my observation of the defensiveness at work this week (including my own) showed another modern malaise: stress. Far too many of us are overwhelmed by busyness, by a continuous stream of things to do, by information overload, by overflowing email inboxes. We are all running at the edge of our ability to cope and it takes only the slightest trigger for that stress to flip over the edge to the point where it comes out in our interactions with other people. Maybe we are more defensive nowadays because it is a stress response. 

So, to conclude, if we want to break down conflicts caused by defensiveness we need to acknowledge the stories we are telling ourselves that make us purer and them nastier than we really are. We need to build a strong enough ego and then freely release it. We need to insulate ourselves from the aggressive patterns of Internet comments threads, probably by limiting our time on them and we need to let go of our busyness and stress. 

None of those steps is easy. We will all stumble at some point in that. So we should also learn to forgive ourselves and each other for the defensiveness that remains. 

Not trusting experts

Probably the defining quote of the Brexit campaign was when Michael Gove said “Britain has had enough of experts.” That sentence either swung the poll in itself or was an incredibly astute observation from someone whose political reputation at that point was disastrous. It showed up the main difference between how Remain campaigned and how Leave campaigned. 

The university-educated middle classes, especially those in the “London-bubble” and who tended to vote Remain and made up the majority of the Remain campaigners, were using the kinds of arguments that convinced them: apparently rational arguments based on the views of economic (and other) experts. The campaigners spoke to different expert groups in turn and produced clear predictions of the difficulties: economic, legal, practical. The people who listened were themselves experts and they were convinced by other experts. 

The Leave campaign focused on more emotional arguments – appealing to national pride, fear of immigrants, the desire to “take back control”. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have thought-through expert plans on what these ideas mean. 

Now, while I was (and am) staunchly pro-EU, the point of this blog is not to discuss those arguments. It is to consider why “Britain has had enough of experts” was so successful.

I think there are two reasons. The first is a sense of anger from a large part of the community who feels unheard, ignored and arrogantly patronised by the “elites”.  There is an isolation between London and the regions, between the wealthy and the poor. And this isolation has increased over recent years and while neither side really understands the lifestyle, challenges and pressures of the other, the power balance is very uneven. 

During the Brexit campaigning I joined a group on Facebook called “Scientists for the EU”. When anyone came on that forum and said anything pro Leave, the response (early on – the moderators stopped this eventually) was a barrage of insults about their lack of education, which amounted to “your opinion is worthless if you don’t have a PhD”. The arrogance and rudeness was awful. It’s hardly surprising that people wanted to annoy people who had treated them with such disdain by doing the opposite of what they said. 

That alone couldn’t fully explain the success of the slogan, though. Recently I understood a bigger reason. I was debating climate change on Facebook and I asked someone why she didn’t trust experts. This was her reply:

Another person expanded on this. They have noticed that Al Gore, who in the USA at least is the face of saying climate change is real, is a politician whose political views they disagreed with, and who now owns shares in carbon trading companies, so he will make a personal fortune if carbon trading is fully introduced. 

And without having distinguished scientific truth from other types of truth (see earlier blogs), because they disagree with (and are suspicious of) his suggested solution to climate change, they also don’t trust him saying climate change is real. 

Different types of truth part 4: politics, economics, social

My last three blogs have been about scientific and religious truth – subjects where I have personal experience and, in the case of science, professional experience. In other fields I am ignorant and therefore I don’t feel qualified to provide a meaningful analysis. However, I can’t leave this initial overview of “truth” without discussing political, economic and social truths. What I provide instead is some observations from the outside. 

We are a social species and we live in communities. In the modern world we live in extremely complex communities at all sorts of scales: from the family, to the neighbourhood, to the town or borough, to the city or region, to the nation, to the continent or trading block to the world. We have other communities too: our work colleagues and collaborators, people who share our imterests or hobbies, our faith communities, and so on. As a society we develop systems and ways to organise outselves, to share, to support each other at times of need or ill health, to deal with offenders who break the rules our society has chosen and so on. 

In a modern western world this is achieved through a political democracy (differently implemented in different countries), social welfare systems (very differently implemented in different countries), economic processes, legal frameworks, civil servants, markets, schools, courts and prisons, hospitals, churches, synagogues and mosques, employment laws and company procedures. 

All these structures, organisations and processes are run and organised by experts, people who have studied and understood their methods. They have rules that govern them and those rules can be studied like science. 

Economical models, which model how the stock market works are even based on the same mathematical formulation as physics and many of my fellow physics students went on to apply quantum mechanics equations to stock market fluctuations. Like using the quantum mechanics equations for physics, these models are not the stock market, but models that point towards what the stock market does. Unlike quantum mechanics, however, they are not modelling something that has a reality independently of humans. Their work affects the stock market. It also is based on the stock market continuing to exist in a framework our society operates. We can all imagine human societies where there is no stock market (indeed there are many that exist!); but, there is no meaningful concept of a universe where the rules quantum mechanics point towards don’t exist (note I’m distinguishing our model from the scientific truth it points towards, see previous blogs).

The second way in which these types of disciplines borrow and benefit from scientific methods is in “Evidence-based policy making”, a buzz word in the UK that is used for scientific investigations on, for example, which educational intervention technique leads to higher scores on the end-of-year standardised exam, or which advert encourages more people to do exercise, or which prison programme leads to the lowest reoffending rates. 

Here the methods are robustly scientific. In the best examples the methods of blind tests, placebos and null hypotheses are taken from the medical sciences. But the questions they answer are very specific and care must be taken not to over interpret them. If a evidence-based policy study concludes that a particular method of teaching produces better results on school exams, it does not necessarily mean it produces “better educated children”, because we can recognise that “higher score on the standardised exam” is a quantitative concept, but “better educated” is qualitative. Different viewpoints lead to different interpretations on what “better educated” means. Such debates are absolutely essential for a working society, but cannot be answered by scientific methods searching scientific truth. 

This is where we must distinguish the questions where science is the right way to answer and those where it isn’t. “How is the climate warming as a result of human CO2 emission?” Is a question for scientific investigation and analysis and should be argued using scientific methods of argument. “How do we reduce our worldwide CO2 emissions?” Is a question that needs other disciplines, other methods to answer and which is argued in the way those disciplines debate. 

Finally I want to talk briefly about politics. Political debate is our society’s method for dealing with the fact that different communities benefit differently from different policies. Any policy that makes one group richer, healthier or better educated (however we’ve defined that!) tends to make another group poorer, less healthy or more poorly educated. Traditionally, the political parties have represented the different vested interests, with different parties championing the cause of their own group. Occasionally in the past, and perhaps more commonly in recent years, there have also been parties of people championing the cause of others (for example upper middle classes supporting Labour?, which has perhaps introduced tensions in some of those parties…). 

Almost by definition such a system will divide people into “them and us”, “insiders and outsiders” and create groupthink within the party. That is ok, if politics as a whole is an open, balanced conversation between these groups where they listen to each other, thrash it out and compromise. I think it starts to go wrong when the balance goes and too much power is in one group. A group that doesn’t feel heard will become resentful and angry. A group that doesn’t listen will polarise into its own groupthink. 

All these types of discussion involve experts developing models that point to their truth. But these truths are not like religious Truth (pointing towards something beyond us which is by definition paradoxical and “edgy”) nor like scientific truth (pointing towards something that has an impersonal reality and can be tested independently). These political and economical and social truths depend on how the question is phrased, depend on the viewpoints, depend on the structures society has chosen. 

Different types of truth, part 3: scientific and religious truth

In my last two blogs I have discussed scientific truth and religious truth (sorry, haven’t worked out how to link back yet). I’ve used the analogy of a scientific model to explain how I was able to accept my growing faith intellectually as well as spiritually. The idea of a model is so central to my worldview as a scientist that it created a natural analogy for faith. The analogy works because their are similarities between these different ways of approaching things. But I do not want to give the impression that they are the same. In this blog I discuss the difference. 

Many of the arguments between science and religion seem, to me, to come from a lack of recognition of the difference between scientific truth and religious Truth (I add the capital not to imply a superiority of religious Truth, but to make a distinction and following the tradition of capitalising God). They are compounded by us not recognising that our scientific theories are models of scientific truth and our religious beliefs and practices are models of religious Truth. When we test religious models as though they were scientific truth or treat scientific models as though they were religious Truth we will never understand why we disagree with each other. 

First, and most obviously, they are searches for a very different set of questions. Science (particularly physics, my discipline) asks questions about the nature of the physical universe. It uses a scientific method of experimentation and observation, of developing theoretical models and using them to make predictions which can be tested. Science, at its best and ideal, is impersonal, independent of observer and is working towards agreement. 

Of course it is practised by human beings who can get emotional, personally involved and make mistakes. But the end aim is to get past that. That is achieved by scientific consensus – by bringing in more tests, more reviews, more theories. Now non-scientists often don’t get scientific consensus. It is assumed that that would imply nothing ever changes and because we know worldviews do shift (nobody believed plate techtonics or quantum physics when they were first proposed and now they are standard textbook stuff), the assumption is that scientific consensus has no more value than a religious truth.

When that assumption is made, it is fair to provide all points of view, to listen to the small number who disagree equally to the large number who agree. Anything else seems like invalidating the minority view or risking missing the genius.

Most scientists don’t understand that and get upset and frustrated by non-scientists going on about it. We know that scientific views do evolve over time. We know that there are step changes when someone sees things differently and gives others evidence they come to understand. Sometimes we will as imperfect people resist those changes, but I know many examples from my own career when I’ve argued with someone for months or years and then at some point we both “get it” and one of us admits we were wrong or we find a third way of looking at it. After that there is no more argument. Not because our beliefs have changed, but because we fundamentally recognise that one model is closer to scientific truth than the other. That’s because “is this model closer to scientific truth than that one?” is a question with a single answer for all people. We expect to reach consensus, even if we fight like mad on the way. 

Religious Truth does not have a single answer in the same way. That is because it’s not asking about how the universe works, but about how our relationships are with God and with each other. It is therefore as unique as each individual. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t patterns, or even a fundamental Truth that we are searching for, but all great religious thinkers from all traditions I’m aware of, seem to come back to words of Mystery, of accepting paradox and living at the edge, of Surrender (the Arabic word for Surrender is Islam, by the way), of emptying ourselves, of relationship, of Love. These are not ideas to explore using scientific methods. 

There have been attempts at making intellectually and philosophically robust theologies (which could be considered akin to treating models of religious Truth as models of scientific truth), but these, in my experience rarely in and of themselves bring people to that greater Love, to, from a Christian perspective, becoming more like Jesus in how he lived. When we treat religious Truth as scientific Truth we get arguments between Bible-literalists and atheists about the contradictions in the Bible or whether the Earth is billions or thousands of years old. Those arguments go round in circles, with no one persuading anyone and views becoming more polarised, more narrowly defined. 

We can investigate “falling in love” scientifically – it tells us why it helps the species, it tells us about people’s brain changes, hormonal changes and the behaviour changes (increased risk taking) these create. But it doesn’t really tell us what it feels like or what it means to those in love. For that we read a Shakespeare sonnet, or hear a great song.  (My love is not like a red rose. Human beings are animals and roses are plants and these diverged genetically billions of years ago!)

I am a physicist and I hate it when people think that whether climate change is real or not is a matter for discussion in the same way as what we should do about it is. But I also recognise that the people who do think it is have not seen the difference between scientific truth and other truths. 

I am a Quaker Christian. And I hate it when people reduce my faith to the limited questions that can be answered by the scientific method. But I also recognise that people who do think it is have not seen the difference between religious Truth and other truths. 

I’m not sure I’ve explained the difference well here, but it’s a start!

Different types of truth part 2: religious truth

I know God exists. I also believe, to paraphrase that science t-shirt (see previous blog), that the nice thing about God is that He exists whether or not you believe in Him. (I use Her and Him to refer to God and get different value from both, by the way).

Now, scientists reading this will be horrified by what I’ve just written. They intuitively understand that these are very different types of truth. Even other scientists who have a faith similar to mine will probably have a wry smile, recognising the point I’m making and recognising why it will horrify other scientists. 

I guess that many non-scientists, particularly those with religious faith, won’t understand what the problem is. And this, I think, is where seeming conflicts between science and religion start. 

Sometimes I see religious posters on public transport. These often give the message that “the Bible is right because it says it is”. Sometimes they are that explicit, sometimes they imply this by quoting Bible phrases at you. I don’t know who these adverts are aimed at, but my guess is that they are not very successful with converting an atheist. The people who create such posters are genuine and find this message helpful and convincing to them, they are likely not to understand what is wrong with the first paragraph. 

But I also think that scientists can become very blinkered in their own way. By prioritising scientific truth over all other kinds of truth, they risk both missing something valuable and alienating nonscientists. I want to build bridges and keep the dialogue open. 

When I realised I was becoming a Christian, I struggled intellectually as well as spiritually. What I want to describe is how I reconciled my faith and my intellect. I don’t do so to convince others, but simply to show one way of bridging that divide. I know that this makes no sense to either the atheist or those who believe there is only one true way to God. In later blogs I might explore their arguments (these initial posts are about setting the basis of my own thoughts, providing my axioms, if you like).

My faith starts with my experience. In worship I feel myself come spiritually into resonance with something beyond and within me, which I call God. In everyday life I can also sense myself in, or out, of that resonance. It is hard to describe in words what it feels like, but it is a combination of physical feeling and a sense of rightness. It has a lot in common with feeling “in love” – an experience most of us have and which science can explain in terms of evolutionary need and chemical changes in our hormones, but somehow we all know has some reality in and of itself beyond those explanations. Indeed, feeling in spiritual resonance with God feels like being in Love and always leads to Love, in its broadest, most open sense. 

When I stay in that resonance I am changed, transformed. I widen my understanding, encompass a fuller truth, learn to forgive and be forgiven. When I read the Bible I hear stories of people who have had similar experiences. I recognise in those stories my own struggles, failures and steps into becoming more than I was. When I read about Jesus I recognise a man who was in such perfect resonance with God that the Love of God flowed out of him and was seen by those who met him and either entranced them or made them fight it. (I have also developed a theology around the specific details, but this isn’t the time to share that).

Now, one of the key things for me in spiritual understanding is to think in duality, not dualism. In other words to hold mutually contradictory things in tension and live at that dissonance. It was physics that first taught me to do that. I found a way to handle wave particle duality that was absurdly simple: a photon is not a wave and not a particle. It’s a photon and it behaves as photons behave. We, with our limited intellect, need models to explain the photon. So when it is travelling through space we find the model of a wave helpful and we think of it as a wave. When it interacts with matter (say a detector!) we find a particle model more helpful. We must never forget that these are our models to deal with our intellectual limitations, because the photon goes on being a photon. 

Now, when it comes to God we are not just intellectually limited, we are spiritually limited, too. So here, too, we create models. Some are intellectual models (theology), some are spiritual models (practices, mysticism) and many are parables, stories that give us glimpses of some aspect. Different people, developing this in different communities, came up with different descriptive models and therefore you have different religions. When we treat the religion as Truth, rather than as a model pointing to Truth, we can get hung up on the differences, consider ourselves right and them wrong (religious people) or delight in pointing out the inconsistencies between different models in use in the same religion as proof that they are wrong (atheists).

I choose to follow a single set of models (a Quaker Christianity) exclusively. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognise truth in the other models, but so far I have not reached a spiritual limit of the models I have (consider Einsteinian gravity expanding Newtonian). And by sticking to one set, rather than mixing up those of different faiths, I find it harder to avoid the uncomfortable bits which lead to me being transformed! I know enough of myself to know that I could make this an intellectual exploration of different faiths, picking nice bits from each. Sticking to one forces me to follow its path through the uncomfortable. 

Different types of truth part 1: Scientific truth

What is truth? This is a question for philosophy, science and religion, or rather these words provide different questions to philosophy, science and religion. I feel that one thing that is missing from many arguments is a clear understanding of what is, and what isn’t possible to argue about. 

There is a difference between arguing about whether greenhouse gases cause a warning planet, about whether solar cycle effects are increasing or decreasing that warming, about what we should do about it. There’s a difference between arguing about whether God exists, or whether a homosexual can be a Christian, or whether gun restrictions should be introduced. And these differences are because they are asking for a different kind of truth. 

 I know people who enjoy philosophy and will ask questions about whether mathematics is discovered or invented, about whether “2+2=4” is fundamentally true or axiomatic, about whether there is anything true except “I think therefore I am”. I am not writing this blog for those people. Their definition of “truth” is very narrow and will not encompass scientific truth. That the Earth goes round the sun is, for them a “theory”. If we argue at this level it will take us too long to understand the difference between the questions “what causes climate change?” and “what shall we do about it?”. I am a scientist, not a philosopher and while I acknowledge the questions exist, I do not propose to discuss them further here. And there is a reason for this. If you hear those arguments without having heard their context you will get confused. I think this is part of what leads to arguments about the “theory of evolution” or the “greenhouse effect theory”. 

Consider gravitational theory (Newton’s and Einstein’s). This is not true in the sense that 2+2=4, or in the sense that “this blog’s name is scientificquaker”. But it is effectively true. We can use it to make predictions, it is tested to the limits of our experimental and observational capability, we have underpinning theoretical explanations of “how it works” which can, themselves, make predictions we can test. 

I have heard it said that “Einstein proved Newton wrong” and this used as an argument for why scientists may also be wrong on climate change. But Einstein didn’t prove Newton wrong – and we still use Newtonian mechanics to launch a rocket. But we use Einsteinian mechanics to consider the workings of the clocks in the GPS satellites. What we must understand is that both Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics are our models which explain, as far as they can, the physical workings of the universe. They aren’t the workings of the universe but they are models which help us understand what we otherwise can’t understand. We also know – because we’ve tested it – how far those models can go and where we don’t know. Einstein’s theory includes Newton’s theory. It didn’t correct it, but extended it to where it didn’t apply. Most of the time Newton’s theory works well and when it doesn’t we can use Einstein’s extension. We also know how deeply we’ve tested Einstein’s theory (and we continue to probe beyond those borders (

Scientific truth therefore is something where we have a working model that has an underlying theoretical basis (we can explain why), is backed by observation/experiment and which makes meaningful predictions we can test by observation/experiment. We generally expect scientific truth to expand with time, that the new theory encompasses the old and expands its remit or the level of detail. It is rare for a new theory to contradict an old one. 

It is not that individual scientists aren’t biased, don’t make mistakes, but when there is scientific consensus, the ideas have been thoroughly tested. (I am talking about the physical sciences here – what I know about – I think some aspects of biological science and many aspects of social science need a more nuanced argument). 

When there isn’t scientific consensus we realise there are aspects we don’t understand. Those different viewpoints are helping us explore different aspects. Scientists may debate for years, even decades, but there is a recognition that we are all chasing a single, as yet unknown truth. Most scientists know when we haven’t and when we have reached it, though being human can be upset when their way of understanding is superseded. Some discussions are debated for thirty years – until the last generation has retired off…

Maybe it’s because such debates look, from the outside, so similar to debates about whether God exists or whether socialism or capitalism is better for society (blogs to come!) that nonscientists don’t understand the difference. 

There’s a t-shirt slogan that says “the nice thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”. Scientists love it – and it tries to express what I’ve discussed here, which scientists find baffling to understand why everyone else doesn’t get this intuitively. They often go on to assume it’s because everyone else is stupid. And that’s why I don’t like the slogan. 

Understanding others

We live in what appears to be an increasingly polarised world, polarised into “us and them”, “right and wrong”. Maybe it has always been so, but the internet makes us more aware of it, or maybe the internet is actually increasing the polarisation. As a social species, we form groups and those groups work by creating insiders and outsiders, by developing a group think. There is plenty of evidence (reference needed) that, over time, the views of a group polarise as they reinforce each other in one direction and criticise thoughts in the other direction. 

I’ve been fascinated by experiments in confirmation bias. They took a group of people and asked them how much they opposed capital punishment on a scale of 0 to 10 (I realise I should put a reference here, but will have to go back to edit this for that). They took the people who chose 3 (moderately in favour) and 7 (moderately against) and showed them all the same set of facts, presented emotionally neutrally and with evidence and references. Equal numbers of facts were interpretable as supporting and opposing. It might be expected that the individuals, having heard both sides, would become more neutral. Instead they became more polarised, moving to 1 or 2, or 8 or 9. Perhaps this is because they paid more attention to facts that supported their opinion, or maybe they argued against facts that opposed their opinion and in so doing, convinced themselves. 

What this suggests is that giving people who disagree with you information and facts doesn’t work. It may even be counterproductive. 

In this blog I want to explore some big sensitive issues – climate change and its denial, homophobia and those who feel “Christian values” are at threat, “black lives matter” and the resistance to being labelled racist, Israel and Palestine, refugees and European “overcrowding”, London and the regions, Brexit and the EU, gun law in the USA. I also want to explore some smaller conflicts and group polarisation: women in science, working mums, flatblock arguments about children playing noisily in the communal gardens, even Christian and non-theist Quakers. 

I think in all these cases we have situations where both sides feel they are the victim. They also view the situation from such different standpoints and through such different filters that they cannot begin to understand each other. I want to attempt to understand both sides and explore that here. 

Of course I have my own biases, my own viewpoint, my own filters. My aim is to be conscious of them and seek to understand other views. Sometimes I will present my own views in this blog.