Review: Why Truth Matters

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom addresses how, in recent times, truth has often been put aside for the sake of other concerns and discusses why this is a problem.  It covers the postmodern view that many different truths are in some way acceptable and that there are useful “ways of knowing” besides science. I hoped and expected that Why Truth Matters would provide insights into many dubious claims and show how harmful woolly thinking can be in the real world.

My expectations were only partially met.

I can’t say I disagree with the authors’ aims. In the course of writing and researching this blog, I’ve certainly found plenty of people who, whether knowingly or not, see the truth as a secondary concern. Why Truth Matters provides some fascinating examples of this, many of which were new to me, for example the historical revisionism that has been associated with Afrocentrism and the widespread dislike of certain ideas within sociobiology.

Others, such as the creationist dilemma of nineteenth century naturalist Philip Gosse, were more familiar, although the commentary frequently added some fresh insights. For example.

This is the crux of the dispute… What should trump what. Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not…

What’s wrong with the book is not so much the content and the thinking behind it, as the way it is presented. Yes, there are some intriguing quotes and reports and the book certainly has a naturalistic theme, but you never get the feel of an argument being constructed. The examples, while interesting, are arguably too long and I found I often lost track of the thread of the chapter’s argument. The book  is billed as being “accessible and exciting” and at under two hundred pages I hadn’t expected to have to do any extra homework to follow it. However, much of it seems to rely on knowledge of previous philosophical writers that I would consider outside of the mainstream.  The style of writing varies from the lucid to the impenetrably convoluted. There are some sentences “so clear you could swim in them”, as the Independent review described, but there are others which frankly, made my brain hurt. For example, chapter three “The Truth Radicals” opens with

Neopragmatism, a postmodernist view of pragmatism which sees truth variously as, in the words of its best-known exponent, Richard Rorty, ‘a rhetorical pat on the back’ or ‘whatever one’s contemporaries let one get away with’, began in the backwash of the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Morris Dickstein points out that the revival of pragmatism is a complicated phenomenom with a lot of cross-currents; among them he cites a ‘new impetus to radical thinking’ in the 1960s, the shift of that impetus to the universities after the New Left collapsed, and the renewed disappointment with Marxism which caused apocalyptic thinking and ‘the grand narratives of earlier systems’ to go out of fashion, at which juncture the work of Rorty ‘formed a bridge between a Deweyan faith in liberal democracy and a postmodern antifoundationalism’.

Erm… what?

To be fair this is probably the worst example in the entire book, but there are lesser incidents where names are dropped in without introduction and unfamiliar schools of philosophical thought are referenced with little explanation. I’m not sure if these are examples of philosophical showmanship or merely a difficulty empathising with dilettantes such as myself. Either way, it makes parts of the book almost incomprehensible.

To conclude, Why Truth Matters is a mixed bag. It contains some insightful content cleverly disguised in a confusing structure and overly-academic prose.


6 thoughts on “Review: Why Truth Matters

  1. I agree that truth matters, but I remain unconvinced that science is an utterly objective discipline.

    I had a lecturer at University who was employed to do some research for the government. His evidence went against what the government were trying to propose. He admitted he had to interpret the data a little differently so he could get paid for the massive project he had undertook.

    All evidence is going to be coloured by human interpretation. Barely a day goes by when I don’t see some education research make the headlines, where the statistics have been highly manipulated. My medical friend says its the same for medicine.

    Nevertheless postmoderns go too far in saying truth cannot be found. There must be some middle ground, but I’m not quite sure where it is…

    What do you think Eshu?

  2. Tim,
    That’s a very good point. Scientists and lay people inevitably have some bias, some preferences about what they’d like the truth to be. Some are brave enough to honestly follow the truth wherever it may lead whilst others may find a way to selectively see the results they’d like. This gets worse where the science is funded by parties with particular interests.

    What is important is that science acknowledges this. In fact much of the scientific method is intended to eliminate personal or institutional bias. Principles such as full disclosure and peer review are essential for judging the worth of any scientific finding. If people didn’t have personal biases and preferences, we probably wouldn’t need the scientific method. Or at least it could be a lot simpler.

    If someone tells you “I’ve done a scientific experiment and discovered that X=3″, then unless you (the public and other scientists) are given access to all his results, methods and are able to repeat his experiment, then his claim might as well have been, “I held a seance and my great grandfather’s spirit told me that X=3″ or “I feel in my heart that X=3″. He might as well have made it up.

    Science can be done badly. It can be done in a way that is not especially scientific (no matter how many test tubes were involved). The examples you gave were obviously biased and unscientific. The point is that the only thing which would help us eliminate that bias is applying the scientific method better. Knowing the fact that the scientist had a vested interest in one particular result doesn’t automatically make him wrong about it, but it should arouse our suspicion. This is why conflicts of interest should be declared whenever we’re trying to get at the truth (I think judges are not supposed to try people with whom they are personally acquainted).

    The trouble is, that the majority of us are not scientists and even if we were, we don’t have the time to review all findings in details, we need to rely on other people to do the work. In fact, most of us hear about new research through newspapers, who no doubt put their own ignorant spin on the results. I tend to ignore any brand new health advice I hear in newspapers (especially if it’s along the lines of “Chocolate and red wine are good for you!” – what they mean is usually one specific aspect of your health). When health advice has been around for a few years, I’m more confident that the experiments have been reviewed repeated and it’s actually worth following.

    I’m not saying that what people call science is always objective and infallible. Scientists know this very well. Theories are not proven, not set in stone. They can be disproved and replaced with better ones. This is how knowledge progresses. Einstein said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” – evidence can be consistent with a theory, in which case it’s still a theory (and we’re slightly more confident that it’s right), but when evidence is inconsistent with the theory, the theory has to go.

    I do think science is by far the best way of working out what the truth is. It works. We wouldn’t be having this “conversation” if scientists hadn’t worked out the semiconductor properties of silicon and been able to inform engineers how to make diodes and transistors. There are thousands of other examples.

    Greta Christina has a great post comparing scientific to religious knowledge using the blind men investigating an elephant fable.

  3. Thank you for the review. I like it a lot.

    I haven’t even read the book–and I probably won’t unless you mail it to me for free–but I have a question. Do you think the writer “diluted” the message in the interest of making it accessible?

    Going from what you have quoted, it seems that his topic was highly philosophical, and that perhaps in trying to make it available to less-than-scholar folks, the main points were lost in translation.

    Just wondering! Thanks again.

  4. Lorena,

    Firstly, sorry for taking so long to reply. No, I don’t think the message was diluted for accessibility. The distraction was the academic vocabulary and long sentences. There was certainly a strong message there, but I don’t think it really answered the assertion of the book’s title.

  5. I love what you did here, Eshu. You probably saved me some time. One complaint: I’m not really sure where you stand. It would be helpful to hear your opinion.

    I have to agree with Tim that statistics, evidences et al., almost all are colored in some way. It’s so hard to interpret data objectively, even if it’s flat in our face. This is true for biblical stuff, too.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in absolutes, though. Clearly there are absolutes. Gravity, for instance. And I think this extends into the legal and moral realms. Nobody would question the morality of raping a baby. Or would they?

    Good writing. I always enjoy your discussions.

  6. Demian,

    Thanks for the compliment. To answer your question, I think certain things are factually true or morally right, but that finding out what they are is not always easy, partly for the reasons you mentioned. That doesn’t stop them being (absolutely) true, it just means we can be ignorant. The uncertainty is with us, not with the world. Gravity, evolution, gods. Either they’re true or not – what we believe doesn’t affect what’s true. Even if we all started believing the Earth was flat, it would still be round, we’d just be wrong.

    What the book is advocating, which I agree with, is that truth is important enough that we should seek it regardless of what we imagine the implications of it might be. I think we should find out what is true as best we can, then decide what we’re going to do about it.

    Yes, it can be hard to be objective, which is exactly why we need science. If we make scientific findings public, allowing review and repeating of the experiment, we can either increase confidence in the theory or replace it with something better. Either way we’re moving closer to the truth. Two scientists can come to the same conclusion via completely different experiments. If they don’t, then someone can devise an experiment to work out which theory is closer to the truth.

    Without such methods, we’re forced to make multiple guesses which people may believe or endorse for emotional or partisan reasons. However, without a reliable way of evaluating these guesses, they’re not worth much.

    I hope that answers your question.