In Quest of Truth

The effort to discover the truth in any situation is always difficult. In order to do this more effectively it might be useful to see what the obstacles are. The aim is determine where facts can be the basis of decision making. This is a first attempt at the issue. I might also add this is not meant as a disscusion of epistemology. I'm not concerned with abstract ideas of truth, just with the practical ones of how society can make rational decisions better.

Step one is to define the domains of knowledge where truth applies. For this discussion I limit myself to the following.

  1. Historical Truth
  2. Economic Truth
  3. Cultural Truth
  4. Scientific Truth

Let's illustrate by example some statements that need to be evaluated as to their truthfulness:

An historical statement is an event or some such detail about the past, for example JFK was assassinated on Nov 22, 1963.

An economic statement is that lowering taxes increases government revenue.

A cultural statement is that the internment of the Japanese Americans was done to prevent them from collaborating with imperial Japan.

A scientific statement is that water boils at 212 degrees at sea level.

Now how do we go about evaluating whether a specific statement is indeed true?

I have an essay on the role of authority in determining whether something should be believed Faith vs Trust so I won't repeat all the arguments again.

Let's just say that using the information provided by authorities is one of the methods that we commonly use, but how do these authorities make their determination in the first place?

Well, for the JFK assassination there were many witnesses as well as pictures and sound recordings of the event. In the current Lewis Libby CIA leak trial there are several witnesses, but they don't agree on the sequence of events. Some may be lying to further their own personal cause, some may misremember, some may be deceiving themselves to promote psychological comfort, and some may be entirely accurate. We can see that even with a series of events that have happened very recently determining the "truth" can be quite difficult.

Even when the events were unfolding it was difficult to find agreement. So historical truth can only be determined in certain limited cases.

Economic truth is not of the same type. One can say that the tax rate was raised on such and such a date, but that is an historical fact. All economic truths are based upon imposing a hypothesis on the available data and trying to create a cause and effect correlation. The hypothesis is then the "truth" that is being tested. This fails several of the precepts of the scientific method. There is no way to repeat the "experiment" to see if the same results reoccur and there is no way to separate the effects of the desired variables being tested from other uncontrolled factors. Economics which is used to determine social policy cannot depend upon the "truth" and claims that it can are overstating the case.

Cultural truths are very important since they, along with history, are frequently used to justify policies. Perceived wrongs from centuries ago are used to maintain cultural identity and foment discord when politically expedient. Many of these cultural truths are related to religion as well. To take the example used above, did the authorities really believe that Japanese-Americans presented a threat or did they push this theme to promote other goals? Did they do any investigating of the threat before acting and did they reverse the decision when later events didn't support the original claims? No. All governments lie and using cultural myths is one of the way they can lie without having to provide significant evidence. Cultural truths which are based upon stated intentions are, thus, never reliable truths unless there is other independent evidence presented as well.

Scientific statements are based upon evidence. When enough pieces of evidence are accumulated a theory is formulated which attempts to explain all the observations gathered so far. This is not sufficient for the theory to be regarded as "true" it must also make predictions about evidence not yet discovered. If further evidence doesn't match the theory than it must be altered to abandoned. In some cases evidence must remain probabilistic.

This is the case in much public health work. There is a well-understood connection between high cholesterol levels and heart disease, but this based upon statistics. The theory is not comprehensive enough to predict that a certain individual will suffer only that the chances are higher than those with lower levels.

Even probabilistic truth can be useful for making personal and policy decisions.

The US is currently the world leader among advanced countries in skepticism about the scientific method. Eighty percent of the population believes in ideas that can not be validated empirically or has doubts about how the scientific method works. At one time "everyone" in Europe believed that the Earth was the center of the universe - except for one person. Further study showed that the one person (Galileo) was right. Scientific theories are not judged by popularity, or dictates from authorities, but by objective means.

The issue with climate change is an important example. The current theories about the influence of mankind on climate use probabilistic evidence and are still being refined. This has led many (especially in the US) to dismiss the theories. Some of these people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, but many other seem to take their position by following the statements of those they trust. As I pointed out in the prior essay uncritical trust is a dangerous way to get to the "truth".

Dependence upon claims which are offered as "truth", especially by governments and other institutions of control, have become more of an issue in last century. The tools of propaganda are more refined and widespread rapid communication facilitates getting the "story" out quickly. This makes critical evaluation all the more difficult. In addition the consequences of following such "truths" has become much more devastating. The 20th Century is littered with false social statements which led to death and destruction at unprecedented levels. In the 21st Century such misguided themes threaten the very existence of much of Earth's ecosystem.

So, in summary:

Historical truths can sometimes be validated. In many cases these are conflated with social "truths" which can not be proven. These ideas are then used to support policies when there is no valid basis for these claims.

Economic truths of a nature that is used to support public policy can never be validated. All claims that various theories are "true" is a perversion of the scientific method. In every case when an economic solution is proposed based upon "proven" facts the correct response is to evaluate in terms of the old test: "whose ox gets gored".

Scientific facts are the best we have. That science is not perfect and that later research may invalidate earlier theories is the nature of human intelligence. Those who claim to back their claims with scientific evidence must be evaluated by the recognized tests. These include repeatably, predictive success and evaluation by independent experts.

Lately we have seen a rash of self-appointed "experts". These free-ranging pundits are entitled to their opinions, they are not, however, entitled to their own facts. If there "facts" are based upon any of the areas I've outlined which are not verifiable then one should treat their entire position as suspect.

Moral: Unverifiable statements make for bad policies

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Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.