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Liar, liar, pants on fire: alternative facts

“Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” [Chico Marx, as Groucho Marx’s character in Duck Soup.]

Truth is highly significant to our culture but sometimes it’s hard to pin down what exactly constitutes truth. Let’s start with the Oxford Dictionary’s definition:

1.1 That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

That hardly covers all cases. To clarify a bit, let’s put truth into a context by looking at the scientific method:

  1. Observation – certain specific happenings of physical reality are sensed.
  2. Hypothesis – a general idea of the nature of all such events is created.
  3. Prediction – presuming the hypothesis to be true, some similar happening is forecasted.
  4. Experiment – a test is conducted to see if the predicted outcome actually occurs.
  5. The experimental result is then compared to the prediction.

The observation step deals directly with physical reality. Measurements of real occurrences are made by trained experimenters. If their results don’t agree with each other, the experiments must be repeated to resolve disagreements. The truth of observations is thus strongly supported by abundant data. This fits the Oxford definition of truth nicely.

Liar by Lena. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The hypothesis step is a different story. A hypothesis is formed by generalizing observational results inductively to apply to all similar cases. The hypothesis applies generally, and is expressed in the form of a theory, possibly stated as a mathematical equation. So, does the hypothesis satisfy the Oxford definition of truth? Nope. The definition implies that truth must be universal. The hypothesis has been arrived at by inductive logic, so it might not be universally true. For example, Newton’s Law of Gravitation has lots of experimental support, but does it apply everywhere in the universe, at all times in the past, and will it apply at all future times? Not necessarily. The truth contained in a scientific hypothesis is tentative.

The prediction step is derived deductively from the hypothesis, so it contains as much truth as the hypothesis.

Just as in the observation step, the experiment step provides physical evidence, which matches the Oxford “truth” definition. The experimental result is compared to the prediction. If reality doesn’t match prediction, the hypothesis is faulty and must be adjusted or changed totally. If they do match, the hypothesis is supported but not confirmed absolutely since a general hypothesis requires all cases to be tested.

This demonstrates the different forms of scientific truth. But there is still a lot more to the story.

A further definition from Oxford states that truth is:

1.2 A fact or belief that is accepted as true.

This needs a closer look. Science has facts, but there were no beliefs. Back to the dictionary.

Oxford lists several definitions of belief, but here is a paraphrase of their meanings: something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion; a religious conviction; trust, faith, or confidence in something or someone. How do truths believed by individuals or groups compare with scientific truths? On the face of it, scientific observations and experiments are backed by physical evidence, repeated in many settings, by many independent observers around the world. Beliefs require no such evidence.

On the other hand, scientific hypotheses are tentative truths, and require experimental evidence for support. The provisional nature of hypotheses sometimes leads to the cry: “that’s only a theory.” True enough, but the quality and quantity of experimental support for the theory must be examined before judgment of its truth is rendered.

Pseudoscience may also fit into the belief portion of the Oxford “truth” definition, since ESP or astrology may be accepted as true. By contrast with science, however, pseudoscience often lacks general hypotheses and broad experimental support, so science’s truth seems preferable.

However, here’s yet another wrinkle. The Oxford definition also says that accepted facts are regarded to be true. Suppose two different observers see the same event but report different results. According to science, observations made by large numbers of trained people are preferred, but pseudosciences accept anecdotal reports made by untrained observers.

Another approach would be to accept different versions of the same fact as being both true. In early 2017, different estimates of crowd sizes at large events have been made by different viewers, leading to the concept of “alternative facts,” as if all observations are equally valid.

This confusing and potentially divisive state of affairs has led the Oxford Dictionary to award the Word of the Year for 2016 to “post-truth” – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

So, have we arrived at the philosophy of nihilism that says nothing in the world has any real existence? Or are we closer to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a Palestinian rabbi from the second century CE, who taught: “[There once was] the case of men on a ship, one of whom took a hand drill and began boring a hole beneath his own seat. His fellow travellers said to him: ‘What are you doing?’ Said he to them: ‘What does that matter to you, am I not boring under my own place?”

From the perspective that we all live on the same planet, perhaps we should take Chico Marx’s advice and examine the truth of everything, however challenging the critical thinking may become.

A trouser conflagration can indeed have devastating effects.

Featured image credit: Truth by GDJ. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Eric H. Roth

    A Palestinian rabbi? Really? Is this demonstrate the concept of post-truth?

  2. Bhupinder Singh Anand

    Thanks for an interesting and topical perspective on the significance of ‘truth’ in human thought and dialogue.

    Let me further suggest an arbitrary distinction between:

    * The applied science hat: worn when one’s primary concern is addressing our sensory observations of a `common’ external world;

    * The philosophical and pure science hat: worn when one’s primary concern is abstracting a coherent perspective of the external world from our sensory observations; and

    * The mathematical hat: worn when one’s primary concern is adequately expressing such observations and/or abstractions in a formal language of unambiguous communication.

    From such a perspective, it would not be an exaggeration to posit that the yardstick for what is held to be incontrovertibly true in general discourse is today increasingly defined in terms of what can be held to be true in scientific discourse; the implicit aim being to eliminate ambiguity completely in critical cases—such as communication between mechanical artefacts, or a putative communication between terrestrial and/or extra-terrestrial intelligences.

    This raises the intriguing question of the nature and value of contradiction; and of how—or even whether—we can justify seeking contradiction-free dialogue in general discourse.

    Now, one could reasonably argue that, both qualitatively and quantitatively, any piece of information is necessarily associated with a suitably-defined truth assignation that must fall into one or more of the following three categories:

    (i) information that `we believe to be true’, and have in common with others holding similar beliefs;

    (ii) information that `we hold to be true since it is self-evident’, and have in common with others who also hold it as self-evident;

    (iii) information that `we agree to be true on the basis of a convention’, and have in common with others who accept the same convention for assigning truth values to it.

    Clearly the three categories of information have associated truth assignations with increasing degrees of objective accountability that must, in turn, influence the perspective of whoever is exposed to a particular category at a particular moment of time.

    For instance, zealots might be categorised as those who accept all three as definitive; prophets as those who hold only (ii) and (iii) as definitive; and scientists in general as those who only accept (iii) as definitive.

    In mathematics similarly, those who hold axioms as `discovered’ truths might be categorised as accepting all three as definitive; those who hold axioms as hypotheses as holding only (ii) and (iii) as definitive; and those who hold axioms as evidence-based propositions as accepting only (iii) as definitive.

    In the first case (i), it is obvious that contradictions between two intelligences which arise solely on the basis of conflicting beliefs cannot yield any productive insight on the nature of contradiction.

    Although not obvious, it is the second case (ii)—of contradictions between two intelligences that arise on the basis of conflicting self-evidence—which yields the most productive insight on the nature of contradiction; since it compels us to address the element of a possibly implicit subjectivity underlying the contradiction that motivates us to seek (iii).

    The third case (iii) is thus the holy grail of communication—one that admits unambiguous and effective communication without contradiction.

    The significance of minimising miscommunication is that it has historically led to bursts of progress in scientific thought—as well as to increased awareness of what lies latent in individual human potential—when society as a whole values and nurtures the combined perspective of those whose primary interest is in ‘seeing a little further’ the objectively accountable ‘truths’ which characterise the progress of science, rather than merely echoing the combined perspective of those whose primary interest is only in the immediate fruits of scientific advances.

    I would venture to suggest that:

    (a) societies whose academic culture is determined in practice—irrespective of what is officially proclaimed—by those who hold all three of (i), (ii) and (iii) above as definitive are unlikely to experience bursts of progress in science;

    (b) societies whose academic culture is determined in practice—irrespective of what is officially proclaimed—by those who hold both (ii) and (iii) above as definitive are likely to experience random bursts of progress in science;

    (c) societies whose academic culture is determined in practice—irrespective of what is officially proclaimed—by those who hold only (iii) above as definitive are most likely to experience the synergy of common intellectual endeavour that leads to—and would be reflected in—periodic bursts of progress in science.

    By this yardstick, one would be justified in holding the United States of America as hitherto exemplifying (c); just as one could reasonably view the reigns of the more `enlightened’ rulers of nation-states all over the world historically—and China today—as exemplifying (b); and as reasonably view the cultures subject to the `inquisition’ in Europe historically, and those propagating the doctrine of alternative facts today, as exemplifying (a).



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