Progressive thinkers have given us valuable insights into the concept of ‘relative truth’, but we sometimes need to be reminded that not all truths are relative. Regrettably, certain forces have co-opted the recognition of relative truth to label all truth as a personal matter, so that we now find inconvenient truths are labelled as ‘your truth, not mine’ and ‘alternative facts’.
When Karl Rove accused journalists in 2004 of living ‘in what we call a reality-based community’, he was asserting that the US Government was now effectively an empire which could create its own reality, or make its own truth. This kind of thinking used to be called propaganda and was once recognised as ‘spin’, designed to serve a political cause rather than objective truth. The ‘alternative facts’ of the Trump era seem to be the latest by-product of this kind of aberrant thinking. If only such views were confined to the USA!
Policy workers faced with the problem of advocating for public policy changes must overcome the perception that they represent a vested interest, and that the evidence they have used in their arguments is simply a collection of ‘alternative facts’ or ‘spin’. While this is not new, the cynicism with which sincere and well-argued work is now greeted seems to have reached new heights, and many of us are hungry for a return to a more reasonable climate of debate and more objective deliberation.
Julian Baggini’s book A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World (Quercus, Sept. 2017, 128 pages) sets out to help us understand how we came to live in a “post-truth world”, and whether we can move beyond this problematic state by looking at the complex history of truth and falsehood. Amongst its numerous benefits, his book offers valuable insights into the impact of social media and the problem of confirmation bias.
“The post-truth society is in part a result of a malfunctioning of this social system of knowledge. By retreating into bubbles of the like-minded, people can strip out a lot of inconvenient complexities a wider perspective would give, leading to a simpler but therefore also distorted network of belief. Falsehood masquerades as truth by retreating into incomplete networks of belief where convenient facts are overstated and inconvenient ones ignored or just simply denied.”
He offers a taxonomy of ten types of truth and explains how easily each can be distorted, or perverted, to promote falsehoods. While acknowledging that none of these types of truth can be relied on without questioning, he demonstrates that this does not mean the truth can never be established. His taxonomy explores the following:
- Eternal truths
- Authoritative truths
- Esoteric truths
- Reasoned truths
- Evidence-based truths
- Creative truths
- Relative truths
- Powerful truths
- Moral truths
- Holistic truths
In grappling with the power of socially constructed reality, he argues that:
“No facts are inconvenient for the truth. The way to truth is not to look for an impossible neutral view that takes us outside any given network of beliefs. It is to expand the web as much as we can, weaving in as many true threads as possible.”
“When our coherent network of beliefs grows larger and is built on facts, each truth in it becomes stronger while every falsehood finds it harder to keep its place.”
Baggini urges us to adopt an attitude to our truth-seeking which demonstrates “‘epistemic virtues’ like modesty, scepticism, openness to other perspectives, a spirit of collective enquiry, a readiness to confront power, a desire to create better truths, a willingness to let our morals be guided by the facts”.
He concludes his analysis with guidance, which I suggest every policy worker should post in their workspace:
- “Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
- We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
- We should be sceptical not cynical.
- Reason demands modesty not certainty.
- To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
- Truths need to be created as well as found.
- Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths but as enrichers of truth.
- Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
- For a better morality we need better knowledge.
- Truth needs to be understood holistically.”
Good policy work is essential in identifying and addressing social problems, and to be effective in that role we need to have faith in the value and possibility of truth as a social enterprise. Baggini’s compact book reminds us that we all need to be truth-seekers, and that this requires us to be “sceptical not cynical, autonomous not atomistic, provisional not dogmatic, open not empty, demanding not unreasonable”.
PS This book is a helpful companion to Baggini’s 2016 book The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (Yale Uni. Press, 2016, 272 pages), which is also well worth reading.