Truth or Consequences

truth or consequences

I imagine that very few of those who read this blog will remember the old radio show by this title. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

On the show, contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly (usually an off-the-wall question that no one would be able to answer correctly, or a bad joke) before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded (in the rare occasion that the contestant answered the question correctly before Beulah was heard, the question inevitably had two or even three parts). If the contestant could not complete the “Truth” portion, there would be “Consequences,” usually a zany and embarrassing stunt. From the start, most contestants preferred to answer the question wrong in order to perform the stunt. Said Edwards, “Most of the American people are darned good sports.”

I only wish that the game of truth were such a light-hearted sport today. The Guardian, now an increasingly important source of news for me, ran a story today about Roger Stone, one of Trump’s early supporters, entitled “Trump ally Roger Stone: Americans can now choose ‘alternative’ truths.” Referring to the Kennedy assassination, Stone argues that there is now much disbelief about the “official” explanation and, consequently “… there can be a choice over the truth?”

Here’s where we start to get into deep trouble. There are only two forms of truth, brute facts that are exact replicas of reality, and self-consistent truths, like 2 + 2 always equals 4. Everything else is opinion in one form or another. Opinions are assertions about reality that are not or cannot be grounded with indisputable evidence. Scientific facts are an exception. They are very carefully constructed opinions, based on a rigorous methodology, that we have come to accept as valid statements about how the material world works. They are the opinions of the scientists that applied the method and interpreted the results, and can be superseded by better opinions in the future. Social scientific facts lack the same rigor.

Truths are statements that should or must be taken into account in our actions if actors of all sorts want their intentions to become truly satisfied. Truths become embodied in the brain as beliefs, the grounds on with an actor plots whatever actions are to be taken in any particular case. If I fail to believe that 2 + 2 = 4, I will be unable to balance my checkbook and may overdraw my account. If a UPS driver believes I live at 19 Main Street in Lexington, MA (I do not), I will not get my long-awaited package.

Opinions are not important until they become embodied as beliefs and determine how we act, using them as grounds. Until they become embedded beliefs, opinions are nothing but words. Because opinions are what they are because they lack acceptable grounds for establishing their factual reality, we are always forced to rely on assessments of the source as a proxy for the truth of the assertion. From the start, people were suspicious of the Warren Commission’s report of the Kennedy Assassination. So, it is not surprising that alternate stories (opinions) continue to capture the beliefs of many people.

In the Guardian article, Stone, who has just written a book about the Trump election, paints politics as a “contact sport”

“Politics is not beanbag. This is a contact sport, always has been, always will be. It was alleged that Martin Van Buren dressed up in women’s clothes, that Abraham Lincoln fathered mulatto children - this is part and parcel of American politics.”

Perhaps so, but those who win in this game become our governmental leaders and legislators. Quite abruptly they are thrown into a different game. Some realize that and start playing by the new rules, but others do not. This seems to be the place we are right now in the US. Our leaders cannot distinguish between the rules of getting elected and being elected. If they continue to act based on lies and biased opinions—a sort of lie, we cannot count on the outcomes of actions as likely to be the case.

Brute facts are few and far between in most of the issues that matter in governance at all levels. The problems to be faced arise in complex systems, one of my favorite topics. Complexity confounds the discovery of brute facts. It is unlikely and, in some cases, impossible to determine the basic facts that explain a situation and can, thus, be counted on in drafting and implementing a response. There is only opinion to be had. Science, which is the only institution that offers “truthful” opinions about the material world, may be useful, but cannot deliver a full story in these cases. It is critical that the opinions used to plan and initiate action are the most reliable possible. Reliability of opinions depends on the open-mindedness and mental capabilities of those (high levels of complexity always require multiple inquirers) involved in generating the actions.

Partisan opinions are intrinsically biased; that’s what makes them partisan in the first place. I do, unhappily, agree with Stone’s claim that such partisan sources now dominate the way many, if not most, people get the information on which they formulate their beliefs. I do not see any way to avoid this. All the more reason that those who win on the basis on poorly grounds opinions, shift as they move into their official roles. And all the more reason that the people have access to unbiased sources of information and public opinion. Painting such sources as passing off untruths and alternate facts is a strategy to deprive the citizenry of such sources.

Lastly, in this discussion of truths and opinions I have to add lies. Lies are statements the speaker knows are not true. They do not ever correspond to reality. Saying I live in Washington DC is a lie. Claiming I have a PhD in philosophy would be a lie, although I have come to acquire lots of philosophical ways of thinking. Accepting lies as truths has two serious consequences. Acts based on them will generally fail because they have little or no reality as grounds for the choice of action. In addition, they will erode the legitimacy of the speaker’s reputation as a truth teller, making it more and more problematic to engage with her or him in the future. That may not matter for those who are uncritical and do not care about the bad outcomes, but would seriously damage future interactions with anyone who does. Lies have no legitimate place in either the political process or the governance that follows. They may thwart the popular choice in elections, but they will cause harm, perhaps very large, to all, both the winners and losers, during the governance actions that follow.

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