It’s something I mentioned in passing in a blog post some time ago (I’ve been busy!), but I wanted to take up the question again, because I think it’s interesting.
If an explanation that is offered is false or incorrect, does it constitute an explanation?
Our answer to this question, and the kind of thinking it takes to get to an answer, is likely to be helpful in thinking about the broader question ‘What is an explanation?’
Take an example: Chemtrails. People see the lines of cloud that are left in the sky when jet-powered planes fly over when certain atmospheric conditions apply.
(I thought about using vaccines and autism, but that debate is both disrespectful to people with autism, and tragic in terms of the unnecessarily dead or ill children it produces, so I thought I’d leave it aside. The considerations do apply to it, though.)
A scientific explanation involves the burning of jet fuel – a hydrocarbon similar to kerosene – in oxygen and the fact that the products are water vapor and carbon dioxide, and that the water vapor condenses into small droplets of liquid water if the surrounding atmosphere is cool enough, and that if the winds are slight at that altitude, these lines of vapor can remain for some time before the evaporate or disperse.
An alternative explanation considers that the government is dispersing chemicals using jet planes that are intended to (variously) pacify or sterilise the populace. This is often linked to comments like ‘I don’t remember seeing so many in the past’.
On that last one, a few minutes with statistics on the total numbers of flights occurring now compared to the past can be illuminating…
Part of the challenge in thinking through whether the latter explanation is an explanation is a potential confusion as to what phenomenon is being explained. Is the explanation tendered in order to explain the white lines we see in the sky, or to explain passivity and low birth rates among the populace?
If it’s the former – white lines in the sky – then there doesn’t seem to be a simple empirical way to distinguish between our two explanations: both ‘explain’ the white lines as some form of chemical substance (remember, water is a chemical substance) being released from jets. We might use logic and reason and the demonstrated inability of governments to keep secrets secret or maintain conspiracies in the long term, but that’s not something we can observe directly.
If we wanted to look at passivity and sterility, though, presumably water vapor would have no effect (since it already pervades the atmosphere and we breathe it out ourselves – check your breath on a cold day), while sinister chemicals would.
Since world population is still increasing and the atmosphere covers the whole world, sterility chemicals, if they’re being used, aren’t very effective. (Some variants have racist elements where the chemicals target particular races, but we’ll leave those where they belong.)
Protests are far from unknown either, so the passivity-inducing chemicals don’t seem much more effective. (Social media, on the other hand…)
Anyway, this wasn’t meant to be a post about chemtrails: the topic is explanations. I am going to argue that an explanation must be true, accurate and correct, or at the very least to represent the best current state of knowledge in relation to the thing to be explained, in order to be an explanation.
The old definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ is helpful here. That is, to be able to say that we know something, we must believe it, it must be true, and we must have adequate, relevant grounds for believing it.
If an explanation is intended to increase knowledge, and knowledge is justified true belief, then an explanation must be true.