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The difference between “Truth” and “truth”

Politically, 2016 has been a wildly, tumultuous year. We go into 2017 on a completely new footing. One that has many of us fearing we face a treacherous fall. Now is the time, more than ever, to reposition our global footing and keep climbing.

It’s impossible to wrap up a year of writing a science column without talking politics. Deep and divisive political change is overshadowing science.

The looming danger we face today is far bigger than budgets for science, public perceptions of the positive impacts of science, or changes in levels of pro-intellectualism. The looming danger is the now very perceptible, deeply tangible move in this year away from ‘facts’.

The post-fact era has been touted and now confirmed repeatedly. Post-truth has been named the Word of the Year. The silver lining lies in the thinking world’s recognition of the era of ‘post-truth’. Identifying a problem is the first step towards solving it. Understanding the forces contributing to the formation of a post-truth world is now the duty of all who care about Truth.

There are two types of Truth, one absolute and the other manufactured to suit humans. We’ll call absolute Truth, based on empirical evidence and objective reasons, the kind with a letter “T” in caps. We will call human-concocted notions that gain wide-spread acceptance as truths, with a small “t”. “Truths” and “truths” are decidedly different.

In history, there have always been truths with a small t that come about as an unavoidable aspect of progress. They have scarred and marred the progression of science, as in the dangers of nuclear war or the environment-destroying properties of DDT, originally used to rid the world of disease-carrying mosquitoes. We simply don’t know everything and it takes time, and yet more good science, to learn how the world works. These are the ‘honest’ truths with a small t. At its best, science is self-correcting and in time truths evolve into Truths.

A typical 19th century phrenology chart: In the 1820s, phrenologists claimed the mind was located in areas of the brain, and were attacked for doubting that mind came from the nonmaterial soul. Their idea of reading “bumps” in the skull to predict personality traits was later discredited. Phrenology was first called a pseudoscience in 1843 and continues to be considered so. Image from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Then there are naïve, ignorant, and downright, malicious truths with a small t, fabricated by self-serving humans with horrible aspirations: war propaganda, grounds for genocide, and all forms of manufactured untruths, such as smoking being beneficial to health, that make their masters big money.

There are huge gains to be made by fabricating truths. Consensus-based truths have repeatedly helped society. For example, the stack of technical standards that run the plumbing of the Internet are consensus-driven constructs. Languages, which form the very foundation of human society, are human constructs. The 7000 extant languages, and many dead ones, attest to the fact that there is no Truth when it comes to language. Just practical human agreements about ways to communicate. A dog is a dog whether you call it a dog in English, chien in French, or kutta in Hindi.

So, when do truths with a small t go so wrong? When they serve only a fraction of people. When they are engineered to benefit self over society. When these truths are deeply asymmetrical in their consequences. When they cause intended harm.

An entire society benefits from a shared language. Only a fraction of a population from untruths that prop up false claims of superiority, tout products that kill, or spread rumours that compromise the reputation of a president or a presidential candidate.

Today, on top of the historical motivations for spreading untruths, we have a new motivation. Cash on the internet. False content can bring purveyors of lies big ad money. A few individuals have realised this and cashed in. The worst fake stories are the ones that go viral the quickest, preying on our worst human tendencies. Lies are the new get rich quick scheme.

Untying this knot is essential. Educating the public to the existence of fake news is critical.

One can look back and see how we got here. Thanks to the rise of blogs over the years, we have become used to consuming opinions. They offer a valuable perspective on the comings and goings of the world. But some are using the normalization of ‘opinion’ to create highly biased news outlets.

Now we are a grey area between news and opinion that can be steeped in hidden agendas and increasingly, flat out lies. News should be objective, present both sides, and be based purely on fact. Most of the public doesn’t expect lies in print. It takes some getting used to, and is a very scary scenario to take in.

So, how do we maintain the integrity of our public world? We should demand that anything branded as ‘news’ be Truth. Opinions should be branded opinion. Packaging fabrications as Truth should be a punishable offense under the law. The determining factor, though, of how and when we move to a Truth-based, global society is how much we want to.

We must revere Truth and demand it at all levels, not just the news. Science might not always get it right, but its foundation is the empirical search for the Truth.

Where strong societal belief in Truth and its values exists, open thinking, reason, and science thrive.

May 2017 bring a marked shift towards Truth. A revived, blanket belief in the need for Truth. Truth is our moral compass in times of uncertainty.

Featured image credit: Truth, Newspaper by PDPics. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. kathykilljoy

    The notion that there is any objective “Truth” out there that humans can understand and disseminate as news, scientific research, or anything else is a fallacy indebted to Enlightenment ideals of progress and reason. I don’t have time here to rehash decades of critical science scholarship, feminist science studies, and indigenous critical thinkers that have abundantly proven this point, but suffice it to say that everything we experience, whether in the lab, the news broadcast, or anywhere else in our lives is always already filtered through subjectivity, power relations, and various other social structures that shape our perceptions of the world and our material realities of it. Scientists and journalists are just as embedded in social configurations of power as everyone else. To suggest that there is singular Truth just waiting to be discovered is a misunderstanding of history and power at best, and incredibly dangerous at worst. (see: decades of scientifically justified violence particularly upon people of color, for example) Let’s not fall for it; these are dangerous enough times as it is.

  2. Dawn Field

    Thanks for your comment. Truth and truth are still worlds apart and we should aim for Truth. By suggesting we aim for objective Truth in the context of this short article, I’m thinking about the dangers of ignoring Truths like climate change, or denying evolution — and if those are still contentious in the perfection of Truth you call for — even the most basic mathematical principle like “2+2=4” — but for limited space didn’t go into that here. The relative degrees of Truth versus truth stand whether or not you believe there exists any absolute Truth. It’s the self-serving use of truth that is so incredibly dangerous, as you point out.

  3. Nolan White

    Dr. Field does an excellent job of drawing a distinction between Truth and popular thought that passes for Truth, but is instead truth in the sense of being erroneous.

  4. Jacob Radford

    You say that our truths should be based on facts but news is a place for those facts to be interpreted in some way. That’s where some of the problems lie with a lot of news sources. Facts are never a clear cut line but instead a very blurry line that even the most truthful has a very difficult time interpreting. You talk about the downright untruthful fake news but I think you should of went into more detail about what seems to me to be the most common of news sources

  5. Dawn Field

    You are exactly correct. Facts are interpreted to create a narrative. It’s the narrative in which the Truth or ‘truth’ lies…depending on the interpretation. And where the Truth can be subverted into ‘truth’ most easily. In the best sense, Truth can be ‘tested’ by the objective fact that it predicts the future. ‘truth’ rarely doesn’t…in the sense that if climate change is Truth, the ‘truth’ of climate denial will be proven incorrect over time (with more observations).

  6. Dawn Field

    * ‘truth’ rarely does (predict the future)

  7. John Graves

    Truth is a philosophical concept, yet also a social, cultural and religious one.
    Known truths, demonstrable by the available science at the time, supported a wide variety of what we would today called rubbish. Perhaps these are those to which ‘killjoy’ are referring.
    Truth in the USSR, the Lakota tribes, Myanmar, Mekkah or Paris varies with the times.
    In mathematics, one can construct a world where 2+2 never equals 4…
    I would suggest that Truth is discovered by revealing ‘unknown unknowns’. We do not know what we do not know.
    This revelatory process comes about through hard science. Hard science continually asks, is never consensus driven and is always in denial of accepted truths.
    All else is Lysenkoism. Politics in science is just as disturbing as in the newsroom…
    We know how to do ‘real science’: just act like a two year old.
    Ask “Why?” at every opportunity. When you are told to be quiet, you know you are on the path to Truth.

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