No Objective Truth?

The other day, one commenter on a blog asked if I wanted to write about the growth of a belief structure in American society that essentially denies the existence of “objective truth.”  Actually, I’ve written about aspects of this before, particularly as a subset of the selective use of information to reinforce existing confirmation bias, but I find the growth of the feeling that there is no objective truth, or that scientifically confirmed “facts” remain a matter of opinion – and that everyone’s opinion is equal – to be a disturbing but almost inevitable outcome of the fragmentation of the media along lines corresponding to existing belief structures, as well as of the increasing role that the internet and social media play in the day-to-day life of most people.

The basic ground rule of any successful marketing effort is to get the target audience to identify with your product.  Usually that’s accomplished by positioning the product to appeal to biases and beliefs.  Information – which is largely no longer news or factual/objective reporting outside of stringently peer-reviewed scientific journals – apparently must no longer have more than a tangential relationship to facts or objectivity, but has its content manipulated to appeal to its desired target audience.  Now… this is scarcely new.  Modern yellow journalism dates back more than a century, but because the economics of journalistic production limited the number of perspectives that could be specifically pandered to, because the law did have an effect in so far as actual facts were concerned, and because there remained a certain basic integrity among at least some media outlets until comparatively recently, facts were not quite so routinely ignored or distorted in quite so many ways.

One of the mixed blessings of technology is that millions and millions of people in every high-tech society have access to and the ability to use comparatively sophisticated media techniques (particularly compared to those available even a generation ago) to spread their views and versions of the “facts” in ways that can be appealing and often compelling.  In turn, the multiplicity of ways of presentation and distortion of existing verified facts now in existence creates the impression that such facts are not fixed, and the next step for many people is the belief that facts are only a matter of opinion… and since everyone’s opinion is valid… why then, “my” view of which fact or interpretation is correct, or can be ignored, is just as good as anyone else’s.

This “personalization of truth” leads to many rather amazing results such as, for example, that, as the scientific consensus on the issue of global warming has become almost unanimous in the fact that, first, such global warming is occurring, and, second, that there is a strong anthropomorphic component to such warming, popular opinion agreeing with these findings has dropped almost twenty percent.

Unfortunately, occurrences such as global warming or mechanisms such as oncoming vehicles combined with high-volume earbuds, famines and political unrest, viruses and bacteria, and high-speed collisions are all present in our world. Consequently, rising sea levels, violent weather changes, fatalities due to disease among the unvaccinated, starvation, or due to failure to wear seatbelts will all take their toll, regardless of the beliefs of those who ignore the facts.

Belief is not a viable defense or preventative measure against climate change, biology, on-coming heavy objects, or other objective impingements upon subjective solipsistic unreality… no matter what or how you believe.


11 thoughts on “No Objective Truth?”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    I always felt you covered the general issue of truth vs fact very well in Colors of Chaos.

    “This is a book, it is, you can experience it, touch it, read it, it is real. Truth is another matter all together.”

    I’m paraphrasing a lot, I know. But I always took that very simply and very obviously. Beliefs that cannot be proven, they can be true, and there in lies the issue of blindly acting on what you feel is “right” without any analysis or self reflection. But those issues of truth have nothing to do with rather a Fact is conrete and scientifically verified or not.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    “Truth” has always been a slippery thing. One bit I’ve used to baffle friends and coworkers – I state “Sherlock Holmes is/was considered a Great Detective and was one of the good guys” – everyone agrees. “Addictive drug use is bad” – Again everyone agrees. “Sherlock Holmes was addicted to Morphine and Cocaine” (CANON per the original novels by ACD) – everyone starts to rethink their opinions of Sherlock….

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Many people are rightly afraid that claims of absolutes will be used as an excuse for the pursuit of power – to control or manipulate them. And given the history, they’d be more often right than wrong.

    And yet…without “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” you merely have rights granted by the whim of a government or of popular consensus, rather than something that is presumed to be inherent and should therefore not be taken away.

    Truth…I’d much rather take a wait and see attitude if I’m not qualified to understand the alleged proof thereof. Of course there _is_ an objective truth, but anyone with an interest in representing it a particular way, I’m not inclined to believe easily, even if they’re qualified and in a substantial majority. As long as ONE qualified person with no axe to grind disagrees, AND the explanations can’t be replicated by laymen, AND the predictions made by the doomsayers aren’t coming true, I reserve the right to remain a skeptic without in any way challenging the assumption that there IS a truth, perhaps yet to be discovered and credibly stated.

    But my bottom line is that I don’t want to trust anyone that seeks more power, however much they claim they’re only doing it for the best of reasons.

  4. I have to disagree slightly. Offhand, I can’t think of any scientific theory, even those that have been proved essentially workable for centuries, that doesn’t have or hasn’t had “qualified” dissenters without axes to grind. There’s almost always someone who dissents… and while they’re occasionally right, they’re often wrong. The problem is that the cases where they’re right are so highly cited and publicized that the public tends to believe in the dissenter far more than is warranted.

    The other problem with your comment is that science has gotten so much more complex that even highly intelligent “laymen” have neither the background nor the equipment to replicate high level scientific experiments and observations. On the other hand, this complexity means that, if they wish to be believed, scientists need to do a far better job of both communicating and reviewing their findings… or they’re going to lose even the fading support that they now have.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      They also have to hew to a much higher standard of ethics, and avoid the appearance of cover-ups and of telling their patrons what they wish to hear.

      In the absence of arguments that can be followed by laymen, integrity matters all the more. A willingness to find _whatever_, even all one’s assumptions contradicted, is impressive, but making a speculative case that requires trillions to flow differently on the chance of a worst-case scenario that can’t be proven, when doing so aligns with the interests of one’s patrons, that has trouble passing the smell test. Anyone telling me to sacrifice had better lead by example, and clearly NOT derive wealth or particularly power by doing so. Again, prominent advocates fail a simple test.

  5. Hob says:

    No Objective Truth?

    More like no objective army/police/judiciary.

    That which enforces a law is valid up until that enforcement can be breached. The problem today is that societies in general are too aware of who enforces laws — coupled with governing bodies too aware of the fragile hold they have on laws and you have a major problem formulating/implementing corrective actions when things go wrong.

    People say look to scientific data as the indicator of laws–but people rarely ask for scientific armies. It is not a scientist/psychologist that is sent in to battle with the soldiers for guidance.

    Humans use tools. We also define those tools–regardless of the objective truths they may hold. Are we all really sure that ‘modern’ society can handle actual scientific observations without politics?

  6. Joe says:

    @LEM: Thanks for this article.

    It seems to me that irrationality is being cultivated.

    By irrationality, I mean the lack of a view that all facts can be measured against an objective truth which can be ascertained. What’s odd about it is that we live at the first time in history when people can easily learn the scientific method which lets them do this, and have access to the computational power to help them check the data.

    By cultivated, I don’t just mean exploited to gain marketshare by news organizations and advertising. It is striking that as people work longer hours (or harder) to keep their job, they have less and less time or energy to study so as to have informed opinions. Simultaneously the “news” contains very few facts or context, and is mainly entertainment instead of education. The “debates” between political candidates are structured to give each speaker little opportunity for thought, but this is apparently what the candidates themselves want. And Obama has been more zealous than his predecessors in prosecuting whistleblowers, and less zealous in actually following the constitution (the strange notion that we are “at war” and habeas corpus should be suspended). When the public is not informed, democracy degenerates to a beauty contest between values.

    What’s really odd about all this is that we are so much more educated than our forebears, and our lives are much more shaped by our technology. The scientific method is simply to state your assumptions clearly and then try as hard as possible in every way possible to prove them wrong. Logic is used to determine all the consequences of one’s assumptions. A single repeatable experiment that contradicts a theory’s predictions disproves it. Given the success of science in giving us technology, one might have expected people to apply the scientific method in all corners of their lives. Instead people think like lawyers, and start by assuming some position which they then “defend” with logic. Logic is demoted to a tool with which to win an argument, rather than a tool to explore all the consequences of one’s ideas. We agree with science when it does what we want (thermodynamics powers the engine of our car) but disagree with it if its conclusions are unpalatable (thermodynamics powers climate-change). And we use law (contractual obligations) to ensure that companies’ scientists may only speak in favor, not against, the products of their company, science be damned.

    So we’re now in this very odd position where it takes more competence and effort to unearth incompetence than it did before, because people are semi-informed rather than just ignorant. The problem with semi-informed people is that they have stronger confirmation biases. And while it is true that climate change is already impacting people, whatever their opinions on the subject, it’s also true that people’s opinions have an impact on the climate. We’re in this frustrating place, where the information is out there, the means of testing it is also not that hard to learn if you care to, but instead people cling on to their existing beliefs despite any evidence to the contrary.

    Interestingly, machine learning techniques are using the scientific method and the mathematics of information to understand the world. For instance the way restricted boltzmann engines work is quite fascinating. It makes one wonder whether AIs will outcompete us as we fall back into the barbarism of irrationality.

    As an aside, the notion that climate scientists derive wealth to spruce up patrons’ interests is ludicrous. The average climate scientist would be making more than $600K/year working at a hedgefund. Instead they’re lucky to make $100K/year at a university, and struggling to get funding for computer simulations. Climate scientists are not backed by a lucrative industry which can give them dubious perks. Indeed the energy industry tries to fund scientists to disprove climate change — something that recently backfired on the Koch brothers when their scientific team applied the scientific method and ended up increasing confidence in the existence of climate change.

  7. R. Hamilton says:

    Testing what is happening NOW is easy in the sense of looking at records. Except that it isn’t. The data has to be normalized, since the location, variety, and capability of the collection facilities changed over any period long enough to hope to determine a trend. Moreover, some aspects may have been underestimated, like the encroachment of developed areas (always _locally_ warmer) on measurement points.

    Measuring reflected vs re-radiated energy from satellites is not subject to that error. But it’s not immune to other issues. This is _not_ easy to do, and the cover-ups and agendas to ensure something other than people making up their own minds by such

    Now…accessing the data is within the capability of a layman. Making simple plots is within the capability of a layman. Evaluating the validity of the means by which the data was normalized (which makes a big difference in the interpretation) is NOT within the capability of a layman, esp. since in some cases the raw data has not been retained, making it impossible to attempt to normalize it using various techniques and corrections, looking not for consistency with any theory of either extreme, but for consistency between various types of measurements and over time.

    The computer models used to project possible outcomes given trends are not within the capability of the layman, either. And maybe that’s just as good. Because many of those models failed to predict accurately. A lot of doom-and-gloom predictions have been made that have already been contradicted by far less drastic observable facts.

    Is there global climate change? Yes, always. Is there _some_ anthopogenic effect? Undoubtedly. But it’s demonstrably not as serious thus far at least as the more dire predictions. And indeed, warmer weather is usually _better_ for people overall; lengthens growing seasons, makes colder areas need less imports of food, etc. Of course warmer weather also means _all_ weather is more energetic, warmer air holds more water, and so on…meaning more and bigger storms, and so on. Sea level rises thus far have not been as bad as the most dire estimates either.

    Cooling would be much worse for humans than warming. And geologically, ice ages are far more common than the present temperate climate, which could end any millennium now.

    Regardless, we’ll have to end dependence on fossil fuel for energy sooner or later; we’re using it far faster than it’s created. But conservation, and reorganizing our lifestyles and communities to do more with less is NOT the way to get there. Producing as much as it takes to make the economy wealthy enough to invent new technologies that don’t depend on fossil fuel, that will get to the desired end state sooner.

    And ANY plan that requires more influence of central authority over private choices including those of private businesses, is evil power-grabbing that ultimately comes to be strictly the pursuit of power for power’s sake, that is almost never worth whatever benefits it purports to offer.

    So…since at least the most dire predictions seem exaggerated, I generally want less regulations, less restrictions on fossil fuel recovery, less power of government over private business and less government expenditures, so that there’s far less to be gained by attempting to curry favor with government in return for favors. The only way to end corruption is to make it so there’s simply no profit in it, and that’s by eliminating so many laws and regulations that there’s very little one needs to be corrupt about to do legally, without lobbying anyone.

  8. Joe says:

    @R. Hamilton: It seems to me that most of your arguments claim to be about defending our freedoms, but actually don’t, because they ignore asymmetries of information and power.

    This is an old problem. I’m quoting from

    Nearly 4,000 years ago, Hammurabi’s code said: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.” This was simply the best risk-management rule ever. The Babylonians understood that the builder will always know more about the risks than the client, and can hide fragilities and improve his profitability by cutting corners — in, say, the foundation. The builder can also fool the inspector; the person hiding risk has a large informational advantage over the one who has to find it.

    However, in the modern world, we don’t hang the CEOs of big polluters who increase their profits by dumping what would cost a lot to recover into the environment. Instead we pretend it doesn’t happen, and ignore the consequences, since who’s going to be able to trace each atom of pollution and prove they did it?

    I’m not really sure what you would consider “convincing”. The Arab Spring, caused by lack of food, due to Russia not exporting wheat, because it suffered from drought, due to climate change, apparently doesn’t count. Texas having the worst fires ever, burning crops, etc, also doesn’t count. Nor do the floods in Australia or South America. One of the main predictions of climate change is that we will run out of food because crops are not drought/flood/heat resistant enough. I fail to see how a more violent climate will be better for people.

  9. Steve says:

    I am glad that you mentioned vaccinations in your blog. The fraud perpetrated by Dr. Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, Oprah and others is one of the greatest in history. When people hear the word “vaccine” they think “autism”. This association exists despite vaccines being the most effective medical procedure in history in terms of lives saved and illness avoided.

  10. Mikor says:

    I think there is a slightly different method of viewing the world that often goes astray: our knowledge is always uncertain; the information needed for decisionmaking is always incomplete. In science, as in most other fields of knowledge, the best we can accomplish is high probability, never complete certainty.

    Unfortunately, many have this false dichotomy: either a hypothesis must be certain, or it’s as valid as any other. There are many methods of estimating the confidence of our knowledge, from probability and statistics to self-consistency to authority. These methods don’t yield certainty, but they form a better way of making decisions. There are issues with statistics, and authorities, and even our own emotional process of selecting choices; and yet we can be educated about them, and at least make an attempt to compensate. I think we lack such training in our schools, and our society suffers for it.

    We instinctively accept such uncertainty in little things — picking a faster checkout lane in the supermarket, or buying replacement batteries for our smoke detectors. We do not expect a guarantee from the store that the shopper in front of us won’t have a problem with his credit card; or that our house will catch fire.

    But when the matter comes to crucial things: whether to convict somebody of murder; or accept a risky cancer treatment; or vaccinate our child; or undertake severe restrictions in economic growth to reduce climate change; or decide on economic policy: we demand certainty.

    I recall one of Mr. Modesitt’s characters warning about “the Truth”, and those who insist on it. We should do more to educate the young that there is no such thing outside of formal logic, but on the other hand, some theories are so well supported that it would require enormously strong evidence to confute them.

    I believe that much of the AGW debate would be more productive if both sides did not demand absolute proof of each other’s climate models. Such does not exist. Nor does skepticism of the other side automatically constitute stupidity or cupidity. It would be far more productive if people accepted the wide variations in climate models, and tried to view the risks and costs in a rational manner; instead of trading accusations.

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