Adventures in Ethics and Science

Since the internets are abuzz with discussion about truth, I decided to get some input from the smartest members of my household.

Dr. Free-Ride: Wakey wakey!

Younger offspring: (groggily) I don’t want to get out of bed yet.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s fine. Can I ask you some questions?

Younger offspring: (simultaneously nodding and burrowing further under the covers) Mmm hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: If I ask you some questions, do you think you can tell me your answers?

Younger offspring: If I know what the answers are I will.

Dr. Free-Ride: Can you tell me what truth means?

Younger offspring: Not imaginary. Real.

Dr. Free-Ride: Interesting. So, how can you tell when what someone is telling you is true.

Younger offspring: When they say something and they really mean it. Or when, if you say they’re not telling the truth, they say it again and they start to cry if you won’t believe them.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, so you’re saying that how someone acts when they’re telling you something can be a clue to whether they really believe it’s true. (You’re giving me a theory about testimony!) But are there any other ways to tell if what someone is telling you is true?

Younger offspring: Huh?

Dr. Free-Ride: What if someone shows you a bike and tells you it’s red.

Younger offspring: I can look to see if it’s really red.

Dr. Free-Ride: Exactly. And if I tell you the hot and sour soup is kind of peppery but still yummy?

Younger offspring: I can taste it myself to see if that’s true.

Dr. Free-Ride: Or if I tell you three plus two is five?

Younger offspring: I can think about my math facts. Or check on my fingers.

Dr. Free-Ride: So there are some claims where you can figure out whether they’re true or not just by using your senses or thinking about them. Are there other claims where you can’t tell what’s true and what’s not?

Younger offspring: No, I can tell. Even when you say, “I’m going to run away,” or [Dr. Free-Ride’s better half] says, “I will crush you!” I know that it’s not the truth.

Dr. Free-Ride: How can you tell?

Younger offspring: Because you two love us very much.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, that’s true.

* * * * *

Dr. Free-Ride: How can you tell what’s true?

Elder offspring: Huh?

Dr. Free-Ride: Let’s say I told you there was a purple sloth in the back yard.

Elder offspring: There wasn’t.

Dr. Free-Ride: How do you know that?

Elder offspring: I’ve read about sloths. Sloths aren’t purple.

Dr. Free-Ride: So the books say sloths aren’t purple. But what if I insisted that there was a purple sloth in the back yard?

Elder offspring: (looking out the window) I’d look in the back yard and see that there’s no purple sloth and I’d know that you were lying.

Dr. Free-Ride: What if I told you it was there a moment ago but now it’s run off?

Elder offspring: I wouldn’t believe you. Not only would a sloth not be purple, it’s not likely to run off so quickly.

(The younger Free-Ride offspring wanders by singing Fibber Island.)

Dr. Free-Ride: Perhaps on Fibber Island the sloths are purple and move quickly.

Elder offspring: There’s no such place as Fibber Island.

Dr. Free-Ride: How do you know there’s no such place?

Elder offspring: My teachers have never told me about it.

Dr. Free-Ride: So?

Elder offspring: It’s not in my book about different countries.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s a big book, but it doesn’t talk about every country there is.

Elder offspring: It’s not on our globe.

Dr. Free-Ride: That globe shows the whole world, but it’s a lot smaller than the whole world. A really tiny island might not be easy to represent on that globe.

Elder offspring: I’m pretty sure there’s no such place as Fibber Island.

Dr. Free-Ride: I agree with you. The hard thing is how you can know for sure.

Elder offspring: But unless it’s on a map or in a book or someone’s been there, it’s just as hard to prove that there really is a Fibber Island.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s also true.

Younger offspring: Besides, They Might Be Giants sometimes lie in their songs.

Elder offspring: They’re still good songs, though.

*While the title of the post is from a John Lennon song lyric, the sprogs prefer the Sam Phillips cover of it that appears on the album Martinis & Bikinis.


  1. #1 Frank Sayre
    January 26, 2007

    Sometimes waiting for Friday Sprog Blogging is the only thing that gets me through the week.

  2. #2 Unlearned Hand
    January 26, 2007

    Verification by personal observation gives too little respect to the truthiness of an assertion.

    However, the sprogs seem to understand rather well the linguistic roots of the term autopsy, and it’s value in scientific verification.

  3. #3 fanofsloths
    January 26, 2007

    Motion to place “Sloths are not purple” in the truths.

  4. #4 clerambault
    January 26, 2007

    Reminds me of my father’s joke about what’s red, hangs on the wall, and whistles.

    I love the tales of the sprogs.

  5. #5 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 26, 2007

    I need to ask:

    What’s red, hangs on the wall, and whistles?

  6. #6 cfeagans
    January 26, 2007

    A herring, of course.

  7. #7 Larry Ayers
    January 26, 2007

    Sprog-blogging, what a wonderful concept! I wish I had been writing for my blog when my kids were young.

    I came here out of curiosity after reading of someone who took it upon himself to criticize science blogs, one by one. I read the guy’s post; he seemed like a jerk, thus I figured your blog might be worth investigating. I’ll be back!

  8. #8 Erin
    January 27, 2007

    Yay They Might Be Giants. My first favorite band.

  9. #9 clerambault
    January 27, 2007

    just to confirm, on the hanging-red-whistler front: cfeagans is quite correct. cfeagans, did your father grow up in the Bronx too?

  10. #10 Zuska
    January 27, 2007

    I think the sprogs are lucky to have Philosopher Mom.

  11. #11 knobody
    January 29, 2007

    and at just what age do sprogs switch from waking up the adults too early in the morning to being awakened by the adults? i’m still waiting for the chance to sleep in on weekends.

  12. #12 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 29, 2007

    Knobody, they need to be awakened by adults only on school days. On weekends, they don’t even wait for the sun to come up to bound out of bed.

    I’m told by the time they’re teenagers (and you have chores for them to do) they can be counted on to sleep in.

  13. #13 Jesus Sanchez
    January 30, 2007

    My teen has no problem staying up until 12:30am doing homework, but to got to be early to rise early…yeah right. As for the purple sloth on a different island, he’d give me the old “no causal connection which relates it to being what WE’D call a sloth” answer. Kids sharp…maybe too sharp…


  14. #14 Bob O'H
    January 30, 2007

    Hmmm, shouldn’t a few Sprog Blogs also be classified as Basic Concepts?


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