Does The Truth Even Matter?

Suppose you are literate in a precise subject like the mathematical or natural sciences. Suppose you know how the communicative property works, how to factor polynomials, or the formulation of the quadratic equation. Suppose you know that atomic, relativity, or evolutionary theory are true beyond any reasonable doubt, that plate tectonics occupies a fundamental place in modern geology, or that the most recent report of the IPCC (the definitive international body on climate science made of thousands of climate scientists) says that the probability that humans are the main cause of global warming since the mid 20th century is between 95% and 100%.

Now suppose you encounter skeptics who doubt these scientific ideas. You are clearly right and they are scientifically illiterate about the scientific theory in question. (With the caveat that no knowledge is absolutely certain.) But what difference does it make? In a sense, it doesn’t seem to matter. They may get along better with their false beliefs than you do with your true ones. Whether they are flat earthers or climate change deniers they may be happy in their beliefs, and changing their mind may cause them cognitive dissonance.

But in another sense, the truth does matter. If we want to build a bridge we will need mathematical principles; if we want to understand flu viruses we need evolutionary theory; if we want to find oil we need geology; if we want to make chemicals we’ll need to understand the periodic table; and if we want to understand climate change we need to know basic physics. It may not matter if people privately believe they can find oil by using tarot cards, build highway bridges out of duck tape, or cure disease with incantations; but if you really want to find oil, build secure bridges, or fight disease you’ll need geology and engineering and modern medicine.

Of course, this may all seem obvious because the mathematical and natural sciences are so precise. But what of less precise sciences? If we turn to social sciences like economics, psychology, history, or political science the situation is a bit different. In these fields, even the experts sometimes disagree. I can say with certainty that there was a Roman Empire or a Holocaust in 20th-century Europe if I’m a legitimate historian, but exactly what led to the former’s decline or the latter’s existence is open to debate. Still, much hinges on these disciplines—many lives are affected by them—so it is important to find out what’s really true regarding their subject matter, not just what we want to be true. We must proportion our assent to the evidence, view the matter impartially—very hard to do given human psychology—and then act the best we can.

If we get to subjects like the humanities and aesthetics we are in the realm of relative, or nearly relative, truth. The truths about philosophy and religion, even if they are objective, are so difficult to discern and one often must accept disagreement and uncertainty. And when we get to what is a good movie, book, poem, food, or piece of art, the truth does seem subjective and relative. There just isn’t much point in fighting about whether broccoli really tastes good.

Other than where it seems there is no truth—the broccoli case—the truth certainly matters. And not just for public policy. If individuals believe falsehoods it may cost them money. If they think they can beat the odds in Las Vegas or that clairvoyants or palm readers can predict the future, they will pay for these false beliefs. False beliefs might even cost you your life. You may die in unjust wars because you believe the lies of politicians, or you may fail to wear a seat belt because you would rather be “thrown clear in an accident.” (This was actually a widely held belief in the early days of seat belts. I am not kidding!)

Thus we must distinguish between knowing what’s true and convincing others that something is true. Both are difficult. The first results from using the scientific method, from a careful and conscientious examination of the world. Scientists toil for years in their laboratories teasing a bit of truth out of reality and adjusting their beliefs on the basis of the evidence. (For more see Charles Sanders Pierce’s classic: “The Fixation of Belief.”) Convincing others is much more difficult, especially since many people cling to comfortable beliefs and intuitions, avoid cognitive dissonance, or simply enjoy being contrary, argumentative, and disagreeable. Add selection bias and the various reasoning errors that humans are prone to, and it is easy to see why it is difficult to change a mind.

In the end, we should continually reexamine our own beliefs—to rid ourselves of false ones–and state the case for those things about which we have great certainty—well-tested scientific theories for example. After that, there isn’t much we can do except hope that truth will win out in the end. This doesn’t mean I’m optimistic about this happening. I just believe that if the truth doesn’t matter, then nothing much else does.

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3 thoughts on “Does The Truth Even Matter?

  1. In my science of toxicology we use the concept of ‘weight of evidence’ to discern provisional truth. When more evidence becomes available, the weight is reconsidered.

  2. Some truths matter a great deal. If you are stranded in a violent storm, the truth is you had better be prepared and have the tools and wherewithal to ride it out , else your fate be serious injury or death. Other kinds of truth matter to those who believe them, while having little or no meaning for many others. These ‘truths’ are representative of contextual reality; subjects of belief, opinion ;ideology, etc.—things made up and sold as truth by believers and ideologues, based on interests, preferences and motives. There are gradations of truth, some of which sell increments of falsity. So, does truth matter? It depends, on who is selling what.

  3. Here is one of my intuitions. There are ‘oracles’ who believe their conclusions about things are muy fina. Because their academic credentials and infinite wisdom are unassailable. One such source originates in Chicago. Another, in Scandinavia. The Chicagoan rests upon his experience and, interests, preferences and motives. He is, seems to me, wrapped in his own ineffable, academically earned twaddle. The Scandian dismissed me, because I do not read,speak or understand any Nordic language and am, ergo, irrelevant. I could not argue, either way. His blog is, clearly, exclusive. Why it is posted on an English-speaking blog is counterintuitive. Seems to me.

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