Back to home page click here
THE REASON FOR TRUTH
We live in a strange world in which many people seem able to doubt almost everything (such as the validity of evolution or man landing on the moon or the official explanation for 9/11) and yet simultaneously are willing to believe almost anything (whether it be creationism or alien abduction or the murder of Princess Diana by MI5) with little or no regard for rationality or evidence. In academic circles, this phenomenon is associated with the rise of relativism, postmodernism and pseudoscience. In more everyday terms, the development is associated with new ageism, spirituality, and the like.
I believe in rationality, reason and science and therefore I am profoundly sceptical about many beliefs and ideas that others hold always sincerely and often passionately. I believe in the value of evidence and I am deeply sceptical of anything contrary to reason or lacking in evidence. I believe that belief should be proportioned to credible evidence and demonstrable causality especially where counter-intuitive notions are concerned. I believe in having an open mind - ready to contemplate new ideas backed by persuasive evidence - but not an empty one - ready to accept any novel suggestion however lacking in sense or evidence.
Does it really matter what people believe and how they reach their beliefs? Cannot we just accept that different people believe very different - often fundamentally opposite - things and that some people are more open to esoteric ideas and more willing to have faith or belief in unusual notions?
This essay sets out:
- why truth matters
- the techniques people use to deny truth
- the techniques for determining truth
- the techniques for identifying non-truth
- the sort of beliefs that I challenge
WHY TRUTH MATTERS
I would offer the following reasons for why truth does matter:
Some people argue - in a spirit of mistaken tolerance - that ultimately truth is a personal issue and it does not really matter if one person believes one thing and another person believes something else about the same subject. However, one person's 'truth' often has consequences for another person. For instance, in the UK one flawed piece of research which appeared to suggest a relationship between the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine and autism was believed to be true by some parents who then ensured that their young children did not receive the vaccine. Not only were the children concerned then at greater risk of disease but gradually so was the whole child population.
- Truth has its own virtue. Most of the time we expect and want people - including our relatives, friends, politicians, doctors and professional advisers - to tell us the truth because we believe that it is important to know the truth and honourable to express the truth.
- Only humans can discern truth. Of all life on the planet, only humankind can rise above conditioning or instinct and identify truth, so that this is in effect one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human.
- Truth is an intrinsic part of human history and culture. All our historic and contemporary experience is based on identifying the best possible understanding of truth and building upon this to create a better understanding of our world and our universe.
- Truth is necessary for a consistent and meaningful approach to life. If we do not know whether statements are true, we cannot make reasonable decisions about our life, such as whether to marry an individual or whether to buy a particular property.
- Truth is useful because it enables one to make predictions. If we are confident that things are true, then we can make assertions about the future with equal confidence, such as that a particular design of aircraft is safe or a particular form of sex is dangerous.
- The absence of truth is positively dangerous. If truth does not matter, then we can be persuaded to do things with great personal and societal implications, such as to use an ineffective treatment for HIV/AIDS or to go to war over weapons of mass destruction that do not exist. Equally we can deny the reality of the Holocaust or the evidence of global warming.
DENIAL OF TRUTH
Acceptance of the truth would seem to be self-evidently a sensible thing, so why do so many people so often deny the truth? There are many reasons including the following:
DETERMINATION OF TRUTH
- They are advised against the truth by an authority figure. If at the time of Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church told its members that it was heresy to suggest that the earth was not the centre of the universe, most religious people would not be willing to accept the truth. Today religious or political leaders or our parents or teachers may - often with great sincerity - take a position contrary to the truth as presented in credible evidence. As the writer George Orwell once put it: "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them".
- The truth may be contrary to the status quo. Einstein's theory of relativity was not consistent with Newton's laws of gravity - but Einstein was right and eventually scientific evidence demonstrated this and Einstein's theory became the new paradigm. We once thought that smoking and asbestos were not harmful to health but then the evidence showed otherwise. This is what happens in science and life and we should be open to it.
- The truth may offend against a received wisdom. For instance, it may seem obvious to supporters of capital punishment that the death penalty is a deterrent but countless studies show that it has no effect on murder rates.
- One may not like the source of the truth. If a person whom we dislike or an organisation that we oppose - perhaps a political party or a campaign group - puts forward an assertion, we may be inclined to dismiss it, whatever the evidence, because we are to some extent influenced, even blinded, by the source.
- One may feel that there is an alternative explanation. Of course, there are often alternative explanations; the question is whether an alternative explanation both is consistent with all the evidence and better accords with the evidence than the explanation offered.
- One may feel that there is other evidence. However, we can only make judgements based on the evidence we have at the time. This is how individuals, businesses and courts make decisions. If new evidence becomes available, then one can reassess one's position. As the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes once put it: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
- One may simply not understand either the evidence or the arguments. In which case, one either takes the studies and the time to understand or one accepts the authority of those who have the relevant knowledge and expertise.
- One may actually have a fear of the truth. Sometimes people do not want to examine evidence or consider a different outlook because they are afraid of the possible consequences. Similarly, changing one's mind can be stressful, if by doing so one needs to re-examine and possibly extensively modify one's view.
So, how do we know what is the truth? The following considerations are paramount:
DETECTION OF NON-TRUTH
- Above all, we have to use our reason. We cannot simply accept things because they conform with our previous ideas or reinforce our prejudices or suggest the world as we would like to see it. We have to think about the arguments and the evidence and work things out.
- We need to look at the evidence. So often assertions are made with little or no evidence. We should be very reluctant to accept any such assertion. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) put it: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”. Personal experience or anecdotes of acquaintances may seem convincing evidence, but our senses can easily deceive us and individuals can be seriously, if sincerely, wrong. Sometimes there is insufficient evidence to form a conclusion, in which case "I don't know" is an acceptable response and better than jumping to conclusions on inadequate eveidence.
- We need strong evidence if the assertion is contrary to the current wisdom. Of course, as we saw earlier, people can deny a 'new' truth or understanding simply because it is contrary to the 'old' truth or explanation and one should beware of this. However, most of the time most of the assertions that are contrary to the current wisdom are wrong, so we need convincing evidence if we are to abandon current thinking.
- We should look at whether an assertion is testable and has been tested. If we are told that a particular drug or treatment is effective, then the drug or treatment can be tested using a large enough sample of patients and a proper control group. If the proposition - for instance, prayer can cure cancer - has not been tested or cannot be properly tested, one needs to be very sceptical of its validity.
- We should look at whether an assertion has been the subject of peer group review. The best people to judge the truth of particular propositions are usually those who have the relevant knowledge and expertise in that area. So doctors are best able to assess medical propositions; climatologists are best able to judge the validity of global warming; physicists are most likely to know the effects on humans of electric fields. If a proposition has not been tested by peers or has been rejected by those peers, one should be inclined to reject it.
- We need to weigh carefully the opinion of relevant authorities. Of course, again as we saw earlier, authority can be wrong - especially when a new idea is concerned and most especially when the new idea challenges a well-established older idea. However, most of the time most of us need to accept the view of the relevant authority because we simply do not have the knowledge or expertise to make an informed judgement and most of the time these authorities serve us well. So, if the overwhelming majority of doctors state that the MMR injection is safe or the overwhelming majority of scientists state that global warming is a reality, we need compelling reasons - preferably based on sound evidence - to disbelieve this.
- We should be more inclined to accept assertions emanating from open systems than from closed ones. The reason why democratic societies are more successful economically and its citizens on the whole are happier than in the case of authoritarian societies is because a democratic nation is an open system with stronger and more effective mechanisms for determining and disseminating the truth. These mechanisms include universal franchise, regular elections, a choice of political parties, a free media, freedom of expression, freedom of association, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, the jury system, open courts, free markets, educated citizens and consumers. Similarly political parties, companies and organisations that have open systems - promoting a free flow of information, encouraging debate, and permitting challenge - are more likely to be sources of truth.
The world is awash with non-truths. How does one detect such non-truths. We need to apply the following tests:
- Above all, what is the evidence? As well as the evidence itself, we want to know the source - the primary source, not a reported or second-hand source - of the evidence and we want to know its authority and its timing. Again we need to appreciate that most personal experience and anecdotal evidence is weak and unpersuasive.
- Has the evidence been reviewed by a group of peers? If not, why not? If so, what was the response of the peer group? Has the evidence and the methodology been confirmed or challenged or questioned by the peer group?
- Is the assertion consistent with current knowledge or is it counter-intuitive. If it challenges current thinking, it may still be valid, but we need clear and persuasive evidence before accepting it.
- Are we sure that there is not merely correlation but actual causality? Every time I wake up in the morning, the sun rises. Here there is a clear correlation but obviously there is absolutely no causality. This is a simple example. Consider another: more police are put on the streets and crime falls. Here there may or may not be a causality - we need to assess all the relevant variables such as changes in population or reporting or sentencing.
- Does the assertion lend itself to prediction? If one believes in homeopathic medicine, then one can predict that those using it will recover from various ailments. This can and should be tested in a controlled experiment. When carrying out such experiments, one needs to be aware of 'the placebo effect', whereby people often report improvements in health even when no drug has been administered, and 'the Hawthorne effect', whereby people's behaviour changes simply as a response to being observed in an experiment.
WHAT I DOUBT
The analysis in this essay leads me to a particular position on many issues of discussion and debate in our society.
While I have deep respect for people with religious views, especially when this leads to ethical and moral behaviour, I am profoundly sceptical of all metaphysical and paranormal concepts and ideas such as God, the Devil, angels, ghosts, spirits, Heaven, Hell, grace, sin, miracles and the efficacy of prayer. Equally I am unconvinced of the existence of physical notions for which there is little or no evidence such as UFOs, aliens, alien architecture and alien abductions. I reject very strongly the theories of young earth creationism and intelligent design.
I am opposed intellectually to all non-rational modes of thought and therefore I am profoundly sceptical of the validity of aura, shakra, reiki, clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis, astrology, cosmic ordering, crystals, feng shui, labyrinths, dowsing, horoscopes, prophecies, numerology, faith healing, alternative medicine, homeopathy, miracle cures, and conspiracy theories. I reject very strongly the idea of Holocaust denial.
In short: there is no evidence for any of these things, so I do not believe in them.
I would summarize my position on truth as follows:
- In a strict sense, all truth is provisional and stands open to challenge on the basis of a new interpretation of the available evidence or the provision of new evidence. The key point here is that it is evidence - old or new - that is at the heart of the determination.
- In the meanwhile, the most truthful statements explain and are consistent with all the currently available evidence.
- On the basis of consistency and utility, the most truthful statements are likely to be consistent with the current paradigm until persuasive evidence challenges that paradigm.
- The most useful truths are those that do simply explain past phenomena but enable consistently accurate statements about the future.
- "The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan (Random House, 1995) [for my review click here]
- "Why People Believe Weird Things" by Michael Shermer (W.H. Freeman, 1997) [for my review click here]
- "The Skeptic's Dictionary" by Robert Todd Carroll (John Wiley, 2003) [for online version click here]
- "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World" by Francis Wheen (Harper Perrenial, 2004) [for my review click here]
- "Counterknowledge" by Damian Thompson (Atlantic Books, 2008) [for my review click here]
- "Don't Get Fooled Again" by Richard Wilson (Icon Books, 2008) [for my review click here]
- Ben Goldacre's Bad Science site click here
- My advice on "How To Think Critically" click here
Last modified on 28 June 2011
If you would like to comment on this essay e-mail me
If you would like me to speak on this subject contact me
Back to home page click here