Does The Truth 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 evolution 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 will 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—that seems to be individually relative.

Other than where it seems there is no objective 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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16 thoughts on “Does The Truth Matter?

  1. I like broccoli. Some folks do. At least one President said he did not. I also like garlic and it is supposed to be good for you, Mediterranean diet and all that. Truth and reality are often at odds. While things true are often indisputable under the scrutiny of proof, reality is less reliable when it is contextual….some of us ‘make it up’, while the rest know better.
    Your illustration on political ‘science’, is, well, illustrative. Contextual truth is for those who believe what someone has claimed and may well be counter factual, either now or in some future, under different circumstances. Whether I or you like broccoli is a due to interest, preference and or motive. As a practical matter, it has no relation to our political leanings. Whether one of us is conservative and the other liberal is a different story. And, in a real world scenario, it matters very much.

  2. we tend to see the world thru tinted glasses. the only way to avoid this is a careful application of the scientific method

  3. My favorite movie, “Excalibur”, teems with great quotes, almost all by Merlin. One of them is “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.” Similarly, when a man denies the truth, he blinds himself to a part of the world. If some idiot chooses to believe falsehood, he denies himself the full appreciation of the beauty of the world. It is an old adage that truth is beautiful, but I would qualify that by stating that the overall system of the universe, the whole truth of existence, is beautiful beyond comprehension. The more I have learned, the more beautiful the universe becomes to me. I take immense joy in my ever-expanding realization of just how beautiful the world is. Those dumb clucks who deny the truth damn themselves to their own private hells. It is justice.

  4. “when a man denies the truth, he blinds himself to a part of the world.” Great quote. I suppose the rejoined might be that he finds lies more comforting than truth, or something like that. But you have a ready-made reply. It is the truth that is beautiful not the lies and fables. That is one of the most positive statements about life and the universe that I’ve ever encountered.

  5. Interesting piece on one of the blogs today, arguing a problem—part of which entails misinformation. I reduced it to facts vs. hype, just to simplify things a bit. You might enjoy it if you have time to look at Aeon-Psyche.

  6. It almost seems that people have become so obsessed with the concept of truth that it is yet another area that have become so polarized and ripe with rotten fruit. It is overwhelming to partake in discussions in comment sections. Luckily real life isn’t like the internet, at least from my experience. As a teenager I enjoyed the internet, but now it is almost just a painful experience.

    The scientific method seems to me a great way of finding truth. What I also like about science is the concept of continuously challenging our current beliefs, which I think is healthy and fun.

    What is funny is that every now and then we see people who deny science opt for a religious viewpoint, because they are annoyed that scientists can’t give answers written in stone. No answer is a final answer. Everything can always be improved.

    The more I learn, the dumber I feel. Does anyone else feel this way?
    I also wish someone could tear apart my beliefs and ideas, because having to pick up the pieces and make new discoveries is a joyful process.

  7. I agree with almost everything you say here Cornelius. And if Socrates can say he is smarter than others because of all he doesn’t know and if Einstein can say (paraphrasing) that as the light grows so too does the darkness that surrounds it then we are in good company admitting our ignorance. And you last sentence is reminiscent of JS Mill’s sentiments. You are in good company again. Thanks for the comments.

  8. I have observed a curious inverse correlation between anthropogenic global warming denial and tendency to see trauma everywhere, which I’ll caricaturize thus:
    It is as if some denialists extrapolate from personal stoicism to some kind of weird environmental pseudo-stoicism (chin up, what’s a little extra CO2, it’ll grow plants faster, lower heating bills, and anyway, the risk of disaster is ‘small enough’ that I’ll take it), while the trauma addicts see the earth itself as traumatized and dying and let’s have whinge-fests in Woodstock while we still can–they’d feel trauma even if the risk were much smaller than it is. (Anger addicts, too, hijack the AGW issue either way.)

    Seems to me a serious stoic would study the data at arm’s length, would be prudent about existential risk despite impossibility of exact risk predictions, and would refrain from partaking in the profligate lifestyles and fertility styles to which some of us have unthinkingly got accustomed. Facility with getting out of one’s own bubble of needs/wants/habits/power struggles is perhaps the no. 1 skill a truth-seeker needs, and not necessarily one that is currently prioritized.

  9. Very interesting topic, Dr. Messerly.

    The Peirce book seems very interesting.


  10. Oh yes. He’s also the creator of the “abductive” type of logic, which is the one I am interested in. I also have an essay by him but it’s an Italian translation, but it is incomprehensible. I always prefer reading in English but this essay costed peanuts so I bought it merely because of that. Got to read the original version.

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