Why Your Skepticism about Science and Journalism Is Dangerous

A lot of people, myself included, deep down feel there is such a thing as truth. And that it matters when it’s spoken, even if no one listens.

When you see an expert, someone with access to the facts, what they say sounds like a lot of dark Balinese magic, perhaps. But we’re aware that’s in the theologies of journalism and science to provide a view of a subject that closely matches what’s referred to as the “reality” of it.

But aren’t they also humans? Biased as hell, pushing their own opinions rather than channeling ‘the truth’? And didn’t I read something about most published research being false anyway?

These are hotly debated questions, and I don’t have a complete answer. But they also reveal something interesting about what truth is and can be, the role of trust and agreement in forming knowledge, and what has changed in the post-truth era.

Correspondence to…

In philosophy, ‘theories of truth’ try to answer two main questions:

In what does the truth of a statement consist? What is the difference between true propositions and ones that are not true?

For most people, the correspondence theorycaptures the intuitive way of thinking about these issues. It says that the truth of true statements consist in their correspondence to how things are in objective reality. The difference between true and false claims is that the former correctly describe the facts or the world whereas the latter do not.

Note that, on this way of thinking, truth is relational. The truth of an assertion consists in there being a “chunk of reality” such that what is said is in a “correspondence” relation with it.

… The world?

Thus: ‘true’ is used for facts. Things that are or are not the case. Accurately describe the facts. Correspond to reality.

So far, so good?

Surprisingly, things get woo-woo here pretty quickly.

We just said that, in jargon, truth consists in a binary relation between of correspondence between

  1. a statement, and
  2. a fact/the world.

Now we can ask two questions: If ‘truth’ means ‘correspondence to the facts’, then what exactly is it that assertions correspond to? And what does ‘correspondence’ mean?

To answer these questions, the correspondence theory must say something about (i) “the world” and (ii) the correspondence relation.

It needs an understanding of correspondence that allows there to be a real, substantive relationship between beliefs — items in the head — and fact-sized bits of reality. Moreover, this relation must be such as to pick out some particular fact-sized bits of reality.

And it is difficult to see how there could be such a relation between items in the head and bits of reality.

If we ask, for example, what makes the sentence “The moon is a quarter of a million miles away” true, the only answer we come up with is that it is the fact that the moon is a quarter of a million miles away. It seems there are no interesting and appropriate entities available which, by being somehow related to sentences, can explain why the true ones are true and the others not.

It seems, in other words, that the correspondence theory of truth can’t explain what it means to correspond to “the world”.

Coloring within the lines

In the meantime, my alarm bells have gone off.

Of course we can’t directly hold our beliefs up against “the world” itself. Contrary to popular opinion, facts and truths do not speak for themselves.

Truth can’t speak for itself, like the voice of God from above.

To ‘make it talk’, we need to figure out the arrangement that allows reality to answer us back.

In other words: truth can only reveal itself through human institutions and practices.

If people start rejecting the authority of these institutions and practices, truth can’t reach us anymore, and loses its relevance.

Welcome to 2019.

Neurath’s boat

About 100 years ago, the Austrian philosopher Oliver Neurath compared our body of knowledge to a boat that must be repaired at sea:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. — Otto Neurath, Anti-Spengler (1921)

Any part can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to stand. Otherwise, the boat will sink.

We can’t start from nothing: we have to start by assuming something and trusting somebody.

Knowledge is like coloring within the lines set by these fundamental principles. Not like working with a blank slate.

We cannot check our beliefs about what the world is like directly against reality itself. Rather, and more modestly, in deciding whether something is true, we check it only against other beliefs about reality that we already accept as true:

The very idea of objective reality guarantees that such a picture will not comprehend everything. We ourselves are the first obstacles to such an ambition.” — Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere

Facts cannot speak for themselves

Back to our topic of truth — and yes, it will all become concrete very soon.

What follows from the realization that we can’t check statements directly against the world, but only hold it up against our theory of it?

First, we should acknowledge it.

In science and philosophy, we want to understand how the world works independently of us — we want to know how reality really is. In other words, we want to know reality ‘objectively’. If the correspondence theory aims to make ‘truth’ mean correspondence to REALITY (full stop ), sure, its prospects might look dim.

So in determining the facts, and what’s true, there’s always human mediation involved. Okay.

Now, acknowledging this does not entail, however, some kind of relativism about the facts.

Truth can’t speak for itself. Recognizing that truth can’t speak for itself doesn’t mean we can replace the common-sense link between truth and objective reality with some form of relativism.

Truthfulness & factuality

Why is it no problem that truth can’t speak for itself? Why doesn’t it lead to a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda?

Two reasons.

One: we have reason to believe our belief system reflects the outside world to a significant degree.

Insofar as a claim about reality is scientific, it affords reality the opportunity to answer us back. The scientific method is so powerful because it is the arrangement that allows reality to answer us back. Scientist’s work at experimentally engaging reality to respond — the elaborate testing and experimentation — provides the means for nature to answer scientists back, sometimes so forcefully and unambivalently that cherished hypotheses are, sooner or later, discarded.

Since truth can’t speak for itself, any belief system necessarily needs a whiff of coherentism. Yet, we needn’t fear that our ‘theory of the world’ is causally disconnected from it or “spinning frictionlessly in the void”.

And two:

Philosophical worries that we never come into contact with the naked truth directly, needn’t undermine the ability of sane and reasonable people to differentiate what’s likely sound from what’s almost certainly not.

Normal epistemic standards still apply to most people and it doesn’t take a degree to call out conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, or that Hillary Clinton has had multiple people killed, or that Obama is a secret Muslim who wasn’t born in the US.

There is such a thing as previously located information — call it ‘facts’ or ‘the world’, whatever — and what you say typically can characterize it correctly or incorrectly.

As Aristotle remarked almost 2.500 years ago: To speak truly is to “say of what is, that it is”. You cannot validly interpret your heart’s content out and come out truthfully any way you choose. Philosophical nitpicking aside, correspondence or factuality has always been at the heart of what we ordinarily mean by ‘truth’.

Correspondence might be problematic as a theory of what truth is (of the property of being true) but it is very plausible as an explanation of what makes beliefs have the property of truth. An explanation of what makes some belief true.

It’s not a huge concession to admit that truth and data cannot speak for themselves. They can only speak through human institutions and practices.

Nonetheless: we can still evaluate information based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world.

Or can we?

Accuracy only matters when there are institutions and norms with the authority to make it matter

Indeed, or can we:

[Especially] the US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach … in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening. — David Roberts

There’s an increasing rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, academia).

However, if we dismiss the very idea of neutral referees in factual dispute, then— to go back to the questions at the very beginning — in what does the truth of a statement consist and what is the difference between a true contention and a false one?

What’s the currency of truth?

It’s extremely important to realize this: since truth can’t speak for itself, if one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done.

The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy, and to place a measure of shared trust in institutions meant to vouchsafe evidence and accuracy. Without that basic agreement, without common arbiters, there can be no end to dispute. — David Roberts

Truth depends on agreement that accuracy matters, means the same thing for everyone and parties are accountable to it. If, for example, Trump were proved to have committed impeachable crimes, he can’t simply deny the evidence. You’d think. But without norms with the authority to make accuracy matter, he can.

Since truth can’t speak for itself, we need some agreement of what conditions a statement needs to meet to count as plausible. If there are no institutions that have credibility and are capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood, then there is no truth — only individual and tribal ‘truths’.

In a world that lacks real gatekeepers and institutions with the authority to make accuracy matter, and in which digital manipulation is so effortless, spin, conspiracy theories and myth and outright lies may get the better of many of us.