If you have followed this Blog for any length of time you will know of my commitment to evidence-informed policy and advocacy, so you won’t be surprised that I like to share resources and thinking which promote those positions.
Bernard-Henri Levy’s recent article in Project Syndicate, Google, Fake News, and the Crisis of Truth, is one such resource, which offers further insights into the ‘war on truth’ currently being played out in various political arenas and via social media.
Levy (pictured in the middle above) outlines his analysis of how ‘phenomenalism’, ‘perspectivism’ and ‘deconstructionism’ were subverted to permit personal opinion to outweigh ‘truths’ defined using rigorous standards of evidence. He also suggests some measures that should be implemented by companies such as Alphabet (Google), Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, to counter ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.
A constant source of thought-provoking material, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings Blog has often drawn attention to the profound reflections of great writers and thinkers on this and related topics. Her Karl Popper (pictured on the right above) and Hannah Arendt (pictured on the left above) posts in particular offer valuable perspectives on the question of how, paradoxically, science aims to dispel ignorance with knowledge, while holding as constant the view that we can never thoroughly understand anything. Our current explanation or theory may be replaced tomorrow by a more valid one.
Regrettably, this has meant that, for example, when hundreds of climate scientists express their agreed findings in academically acceptable ways, this is used by political and industry ‘spin doctors’ to suggest that those findings are equivalent to the personal opinion of a shock jock or a Twitter troll. She quotes Popper as follows:
“Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories.
It is not the search for certainty. To err is human. All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain. It follows that we must distinguish sharply between truth and certainty. That to err is human means not only that we must constantly struggle against error, but also that, even when we have taken the greatest care, we cannot be completely certain that we have not made a mistake… To combat the mistake, the error, means therefore to search for objective truth and to do everything possible to discover and eliminate falsehoods. This is the task of scientific activity. Hence we can say: our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty.
Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.”
Paraphrasing Popper, we could say of our not-for-profit work …
To combat the mistake, the error, means therefore to search for objective truth and to do everything possible to discover and eliminate falsehoods. This is the task of policy analysis. Hence we can say: our aim as evidence-informed policy advocates is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty.
One of her selection of quotes from Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind addresses the distinction we should draw between the quest for truth and the quest for meaning:
“The great obstacle that reason (Vernunft) puts in its own way arises from the side of the intellect (Verstand) and the entirely justified criteria it has established for its own purposes, that is, for quenching our thirst, and meeting our need, for knowledge and cognition… The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”
Some not-for-profit organisations have recognised that they can play a role in fact-checking commentary on issues within their fields, with collaborative projects allowing even smaller organisations the opportunity to counter ‘fake news’ interfering with evidence-informed policy. Links to some fact-checking sites and resources are included below.
Julian Baggini, A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World
A collection of articles on ‘fake news’ in The Conversation.
Lucas Graves and Federica Cherubini, The Rise of Fact-Checking Sites in Europe, (40pp report, see especially pp 10-11 for an outline of independent and NGO fact-checking services)