'Beauty' is not (necessarily) truth

As scientists we’re often attracted to elegant, ‘beautiful’ ideas. For instance, I, like many biologists, think evolution by natural selection is profoundly elegant and beautiful (in ways I have difficulty fully articulating). We’re attracted to elegant ideas in part because they seem like they get to the heart of the matter, that they capture essential truths. All scientists believe that nature is knowable, but we also recognize that it doesn’t often look that way. So we believe that underneath the apparent complexity of nature there must lie some simple truths, and simple truths are often seen as elegant and beautiful.

Which shades naturally into the belief that elegance or beauty is a mark of truth. This is a mistake–that the truth is beautiful does not imply that the beautiful is true. A point made beautifully (pun intended) by John Maynard Smith in one of my favorite essays. John asks, ‘What’s the most beautiful scientific idea that ever turned out to be completely false?’ I won’t spoil his answer for you; suffice to say that it’s from biology, and it’s extraordinarily clever and very beautiful indeed.

I’ve been trying to think of beautiful ecological ideas that turned out to be totally false, but I’ve been drawing a blank. Every candidate I came up with has at least a grain of truth to it. Assuming I’m not just forgetting obvious examples (am I?), I’m not sure if this is to ecologists’ credit or not. Perhaps we’re good at ‘keeping our eyes on the prize’ (the truth), and so aren’t attracted to beautiful ideas unless they clearly have at least of grain of truth to them. This would be very much to our credit. Or perhaps we actually see beauty and elegance as a mark of falsehood rather than truth, because we’re afraid of oversimplifying the polyglot complexity of living nature (see here and here for more on this). And so in the name of avoiding beautiful false ideas, we avoid beautiful truths too. This would be rather less to our credit.

p.s. There are actually all sorts of mundane reasons why ecology might lack beautiful but false ideas. But it’s more fun to contemplate the alternatives suggested in the previous paragraph. 😉

13 thoughts on “'Beauty' is not (necessarily) truth

  1. Pingback: More on changing your mind in science « Oikos Blog

  2. Perhaps ‘truth’ isn’t reducible to and pure and absolute figuration or concept. Not ‘either/or’, but ‘both/and’.

    Beauty and truth are, like the flow of experience in the world we live, inextricably dynamic and becoming, in an ecstatic unfolding.

    Different level of logic than 2 plus 2 equals 4.

    Just my hunch–and helps transcend the perpetual paradoxes that are implicit in language and reductive reasoning.

    • Thanks for the comment, but afraid I don’t quite follow. The post doesn’t say that beauty and truth are ‘either/or’, it says the latter is not necessarily also the former…

  3. Jeremy, with respect to your question, should we limit the scope of sources from which such an idea may have originated (e.g. religious texts are out, even if they do bring up various cosmological (or other) ideas that we would now classify under “science”)?

    • Yeah, when I wrote the post, I was certainly thinking about the purely scientific context to which Maynard Smith refers. Scientific truths can be beautiful, and scientists of a certain stripe have thought that beauty is a mark of scientific truth. It’s that line of scientific thought that Maynard Smith is pushing back against. Of course, boundaries between science and non-science can be fuzzy. But no, I’m not really thinking of beautiful but (on a literal interpretation) empirically-false religious passages like the Genesis story about creation in six days.

      • So, taking your two most recent comments together, I take is that you consider your Calvin and Hobbes books to be religious texts? 🙂 Actually, I can appreciate that.

        If you want to use this post as an excuse to link to your favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, go ahead…

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  6. Very belatedly: a suggestion of Levy flights as a beautiful false idea in ecology. In retrospect, kind of kicking myself for not thinking of this one.

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