What’s Wrong with “True Enough”?

Long before alt-right was born, studies had already shown truth isn’t so important to most people.

Psychologists since Freud have argued humans construct views of themselves and of the world and they experience potentially crippling anxiety when these constructions are threatened. As such, “rationality” is frequently hijacked by a defense motivation: the “desire to hold attitudes and beliefs congruent with existing self-definitional attitudes and beliefs”.

In weaving and maintaining our web of beliefs, we aren’t scientists who try to be accurate. We are lawyers who try to make everything fit into the story we want to believe in.

Humans have always picked whatever “truth” allowed them to hold onto their worldview.

Despite that, common wisdom fits quite a number of facts. People don’t fall off bridges and their life generally goes well.

I wonder whether, in a cost-benefit analysis, those who hold on to their more-or-less accurate common sense should bow for the altar of Truth and give up their previous worldview.

Tribes

Tribes are about faith — about belief in an idea and in a community. Humans can’t help it, we need to belong. So forming tribes is in our nature. — Seth Godin,Tribes

Our worldview is comprised of stories. Everything we believe to be true equals all the narratives we subscribe to (and what is entailed by them).

Belief systems (or story webs) come in convenient, pre-designed packages. We refer to them as tribes.

Membership of a tribe is part of people’s identity. It gives them love, friendship, safety and a sense of belonging to something bigger. Meaning in life. It’s our nature to seek out tribes. They’re a big deal.

Changing tribes has a high social cost.

Life is overwhelmingly complex. Tribes offer guidance and support in navigating it. So perhaps it makes no sense for the average citizen to surrender to the grace of the intellectual elites.

Somewhat aggressively, one might ask:

“How can you really believe truth is vital if it turns out every day that people don’t need truth (or what’s left of it) to live life? Why does our daily life have to be constantly confronted with the hard facts?”

Holier than holy

Against the positivist claim that there are only factsNietzsche replies: “No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.

Do we have free will? Is love just chemical? Are people fundamentally good or bad? Is family more important than work?

Perhaps the most prominent thesis of alt-right is that the spiritual hygiene supposedly typical of journalism and science is simply a ridiculous fantasy. In both these worlds, it is not about truth at all, but about conforming to a certain agenda. They, too, are devoted to their tribe. They are not servants of Truth. Claims to the opposite are either naive or deceitful.

There are two steps in this argument.

  1. Rather than registering reality, science and journalists interpret it.
  2. This (element of) interpretation is biased or otherwise problematic.

1. Interpretation vs registration

“To do physics, you’ve got to have a taste.” — Richard Feynman

Believe it or not, the first premise has long been accepted by all philosophers of science and their mothers.

For instance, Bruno Latour, rockstar of the philosophy of science, distinguishes matters of fact from matters of concern.

Sure, simple facts exist. It’s 13 degrees in Budapest right now. Girls outperform boys in most schools. Unequivocal statistics. However, the observation and registration of such phenomena — matters of fact — is pretty trivial for most studies. A good scientist (ditto for journalists) is concerned with drawing a deeper conclusion from a whole lot of these observations and registrations. Perhaps, underlying unambiguous weather events and social shifts, there whither much more exciting processes — matters of concern — even though they are less clear.

Is the climate changing? Is education feminizing?

Anyone who describes such underlying processes sticks out his neck and becomes an active participant in a discussion. For example, if as a scientist, I can explain with some credibility that global warming is really taking place, then I cannot hide behind this explanation: I am no longer a neutral registrar of the facts. The same applies if I would claim that feminization of education and discouragement of men’s behavior contribute to the higher performance of girls in school.

There is interpretation in there — inherently.

The facts at stake are not anymore good-old, neutrally observable facts. It is not about whether it is 8 degrees outside or whether eating meat is healthy or not. It is about climate change or the meat industry.

Scientists and journalists are also creating stories and go beyond “that’s just how things are”.

It’s tricky to cash out which empirical claim to factual truth ‘reports’ about ‘matters of concern’ (feminization, climate change, etc.) make in the first place. There is deep disagreement the conditions such statements have to meet to ‘count’ as ‘accurate’. We disagree deeply about how we could settle any disagreements here — about what it means for a statement to be true.

2. Standards we do care about

Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” [contra Descartes]; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason” [contra Kant] “absolute spirituality,” [contra Hegel] “knowledge in itself” — Friedrich Nietzsche

What about the second half of the argument? Is this element problematic?

I’m not sure about research, but you can’t expect the people to go and read academic papers anyway. So should they then believe what scientists say on TV or what journalist write? Sounds like a plan, as their profession requires fidelity to facts. Unfortunately, this would be an oversimplification:

Most of the findings published by the world’s most respected journals is wrong.Research, funding, and publishing are all heavily biased and unlikely to help us learn much. Most research is statistically underpowered and unverified. Most research is gamed to produce the best career outcomes for researchers. — David Siegel

Journalists still manifestly believe themselves to be the arbiters of truth, even though news desks concede coverage had been weaponized to serve other (political) goals of their tribe.

The same set of individuals lectures the public for being anti-science on issues of climate change, while simultaneously informing us that gender and sex are social constructs, with no basis in biology. — Why No One Symphatizes with the Media

You might say “Well, so there’s some issue with science and journalism. That doesn’t make it OK to hold on to false beliefs. There’s also an issue with my bike.”

This would miss the point.

The reason these issues are related to whether or not it’s okay to retain a worldview which isn’t 100% accurate, is this. If, due to the enormous complexity in reporting and analyzing the facts, science and journalism already go beyond “that’s just how things are”, and may have compromised their neutrality in doing so, we have reason suspect any other source isn’t neutral either.

Studies show that analysts game the system to produce the best results for themselves, not for their clients. This is true of journalists and analysts in every field. Journalists may mean well, but they care about their jobs, their careers, and hitting deadlines. They are rarely evidence-based. — David Siegel

This has been called the ‘crisis of expertise’. Priests, before, and scientists, later, have long had some tribe-transcending authority to adjudicate disagreements about which are the facts. But in a post-truth world, no one gets this respect anymore. The role of the arbiter is vacant.

The only way to settle any disagreement 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.

Why dogmas have a bigger function than ever

🎵 Now these days are feeling dark/
We’re struggling to figure out last year/
When the woman on the news keeps saying things that no one wants to hear. — Bastille, Snakes 🎵

In that predicament, to assess claims and make sense of the world, we compare them our core stories. Our dogmas. If they fit, we accept them. Otherwise, they’re false.

And we reject anyone who claims to have a tribe-transcending authority.

Most of us believe in a combination of our own “truths” we deem immune to falsification and which we use to assess whether things are true.

To determine if we should accept some belief as true, rather than looking at Reality, we would be using another set of stories which is neither unbiased nor neutral.

This is not just true for alt-right supporters and science-skeptics. Trump’s enemies, for example, completely overlooked the aversion of the folk towards his opponent, Hilary Clinton. Left-wing and ‘rational’ thinking people also do not want to know everything. They also deny facts. I do too.

That doesn’t mean all belief systems are on a par. It only establishes every tribe has its dogmas.

Why do we ought to maximize accuracy after ‘true enough’? And what does that even mean?

So far, we’ve seen a couple of things:

  • We all belong to a tribe.
  • Tribes have core stories. These are “truths” they deem immune to falsification.
  • In constructing our package of beliefs, we value coherence with respect to these truths over accuracy with respect to Reality.
  • Therefore, rather than Reality, we use these fundamental truths to assess whether things are true or false. This is true for tribes all across the political spectrum. Many people consider that as evidence against the existence of neutrality.
  • That’s why it is often said we live in a time where the systems that have allowed us to make sense are breaking down.
  • Another reason for this diagnosis: shit is just too complex. It’s not clear what it means for a story to be true or false given that it’s not clear how to assess truth or falsity of interpretations.
  • Therefore, we prefer to let our tribe leader explain to us how we can frame all this vague stuff in a way consistent with our core truths. That’s not mere bias, but expresses a deep human need to make sense of the world.
  • This opens the theoretical possibility that many packages of beliefs are totally off-track, spinning frictionlessly in the void, out of touch with reality. But how happy and healthy most of us are shows this is either false or irrelevant.
  • So why do these people need to come over to the Enlightened side? It’s pretty comfortable in the cave.

A cost-benefit analysis

But besides being harsh, it may also be mean if you are trying to hide behind a two-way mirror, behind a so-called truth that you have determined in a fair, unbiased, impartial and objective manner. — Jan Bransen, Don’t be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense

If your intuitions are like mine, you’ll stamp your feet and insist: Truth MATTERS. But think about this a bit more.

Why do these people have reason to care so much about maximizing the truth percentage of their stories, when it’s not clear what that even means and when doing so would alienate them from their tribe?

Do you find yourself only being able to repeat “truth just ought to be maximized!!”?

I want to make you think about the idea that maximizing truth doesn’t add a lot and is costly. I want to make you think, in other words, about the idea that maybe people are not making a mistake when they resist the rallying cry of the guardians of truth, since their lives are going pretty well and they value their tribe membership.

This is less “dumb” than it looks.

Tribes are sources of happiness and belonging to something bigger than yourself.

And what, exactly, does Truth give me when I abandon my tribe to join her?

Other values than accuracy

Even if America never was quite the land of the free and the home of the brave, it helped that most people believed it was. — Tyler Cowen

Another thesis of alt-right is often stated by Curtis Yarvin: truth is bullshit.

Why would anyone want to claim such a thing?

Because truth proves nothing.

It means nothing in social traffic. We need to know what belief you’re basing your actions on, not what belief you take to most accurately reflect reality.

What does prove something, is to be willing to believe the nonsense someone advocates. That’s what tribes care about. And without our tribe-membership, we would be worse off. So we “accept the good with the bad”.

To put it in a slogan: loyalty to people is always much more important than loyalty to the truth. In fact, searching for truth undermines devotion.

The intellectual tends to forget the basis: we can be more loyal to tribes than to the truth, because we prioritize people over accuracy. And why wouldn’t we?

Loyalty gives life meaning purpose.

Despite the technological progress of our age, our lives today are in the end no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, anxiety or death.

The answer: comrades.

Even in modern times, humans still have a great need for myths, good stories, strong images and beautiful concepts. For belonging and transcendence.

The solution: tribes.

All you need to know

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. — John 1:5.

I’ve defended the right of “the people” not to participate in the liberal-thinking rat-race of well-informedness.

Normal epistemic standards still apply to most people. It’s just that academia and most journalism have become less trustworthy, and so individuals have rightfully taken a more skeptical view of their reportage.

Moreover, starting from the observation that most of us don’t fall off bridges and that their belief systems seem to be true enough, I asked why they should care about accuracy beyond true enough. Since this goal would be in competition with their own quest for happiness and the human need to be loyal and belong to something bigger, I concluded that the claim that they ought to have worldviews that are not just true enough but maximally true is groundless.

After a certain point of true enough, for most people, when it comes to which story to believe in, ‘more true’ gets outweighed by other considerations. This appears justified prioritizing.

‘Rationality’ can only sustain its power by demanding an unreasonable thing from individuals — valuing accuracy over their own peace of mind. Maximizing truth has an inherent pathology: it cannot help but turn happiness into something insignificant.

Most people do not need a rationality which refuses to understand it does not offer an opening to contentment and belonging to something bigger.