In a political debate the American Senator Moynihan said: ‘You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.’
I want to disagree with him. Not because I want to mislead, lie, or create some form of legitimacy for untruths.
I would love there to be absolute truths. In the same way I would love there to be a Father Christmas.
I would love there to be an absolute truth that can prove the existence of a ‘Blue Monday’.
Yet I would question if we do live in a world where there are absolute rights, and counter-balancing absolute wrongs. (Wow! I had a real freaky moment writing this; the batteries in my computer mouse went suddenly dead with no indication of low juice!)
Now I am not an extreme post-modernist-relativist who would explain away everything as relative and make no moral stance. (My own view is that all things are relative: but some things are more relative than others, and individually you need to draw a line somewhere on issues, but equally appreciative your stance is relative.)
Sometimes you can get insight from someone outside the field of study, a non-expert in the domain.
A major philosophical concept, well at least a label, was not created by a philosopher – but by a comedian. During an episode of the political satire show ‘The Colbert Report’ comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word ‘truthiness’. It means in essence: ‘the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.’
Our reality is that we all see the world through ‘truthiness glasses’. So, to counter Senator Moynihan, we do indeed have our own facts.
Thomas S. Kuhn in his ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (University of Chicago Press 1996) identified the root cause of what we call ‘Groupthink’ – where you are susceptible to peer pressure, social norms and other influences – with the concept of ‘paradigm’.
He writes: “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute. ….The success of a paradigm…is at the start largely a promise of success discoverable in selected and still incomplete examples. Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise, an actualization achieved by extending the knowledge of those facts, that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by increasing the extent of the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and by further articulation of the paradigm itself.”
“Few people who are not actually practitioners of a mature science realize how much mop-up work of this sort of a paradigm leaves to be done or quite how fascinating such work can prove in its execution. And these points need to be understood. Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers…’
“No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena: indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies.”
As the quantum physicist Max Planck reflected: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
I think the Danish astronomer Ole Roemer would agree with him.
I always take inspiration from the quote of legendary rock guitarist Frank Zappa when he said: “Just because several million people think you’re wrong doesn’t mean they’re right.”
In using the touchstone of ‘truth’ for their arguments, a belief in there being an absolute, fundamental existence of a truth, are members of the scientific community anchoring their messages to an untenable point?
Perceptions are just as valid as facts in our mental landscapes, certainly, when it comes to triggering belief, behaviours and Blue Monday bitchiness.
Let us first examine a scientific definition of ‘Perception’: ‘Perception is the process by which organisms interpret and organize sensation to produce a meaningful experience of the world where sensory stimulation is translated into an organized mental experience.’ (Source: Peter Lindsay and Donals A Norman: ‘Human Information Processing: An introduction to psychology’)
You are the only one who can tap into your perceptions – and how do you know you are really perceiving what you are perceiving? A conundrumm mitigating against 100% external validation.
An encounter I had with a scientist, an academic, charged with popularizing science at their university illustrates the power of truthiness in shaping our thinking and how we respond to new information.
When sharing the Blue Monday story he interrupted and said: “Doesn’t Cliff Arnall gets a royalty every time his formula for the most depressing day gets used?”
Now, this ostensibly was an intelligent person who must have some knowledge of the publishing world, and would know that his statement would not stand up to the most cursory of examinations: How could such a royalty be exacted?
Indeed, Cliff has gone on public record staing that he earned just £1,500 from the assignment of devising the formula.
Yet, when I contradicted the academic, you could tell by their reaction and response that they just refused to belive my statement. They erected a barrier in their mental landscape preventing the recognition of ‘the truth’ of this new information.
They did not want the dissonance, the anxiety to upset their existing world view, which acts as a magnet for any negative information about Cliff Arnall, and precludes contradictory data, otherwise their truthiness, their definition of truth would need to be re-evaluated.
So, it does not matter if Blue Monday exists or not, in terms of being validated by data. You can have your own facts. We all cultivate positive illusions about ourselves to boost or protect our self esteem, make ourselves happier, and to cope with difficult challenges.
Our brain’s reticular activating system filters how we see the world, filtering incoming data according to what you want to see. We prime ourselves to notice certain things; implicitly we do not see other things.
Imagine there is such a thing as an absolute truth umbrella; where everyone sheltering under it is protected by an implicit belief that by being where they are helps them get on to the path of absolute understanding and enlightenment. It protects them from a world where outside it rains ignorance, misunderstanding, and falsehoods, leading to at its extreme beliefs in voodoo, and at the very least not understanding about scientific deductive process.
To representatives of the scientific community sheltering under this umbrella, it makes them feel protected, comfortable and in a better place than those outside.
The reality however, is that there is no umbrella. There is no rain of ignorance. Just a big cloud of perceptions.
I saw a brilliant musical ‘Enron’, based on telling the story of the financial fraud and catastrophe caused by the rise and collapse of the eponymous corporation.
In one scene a financial expert, Sheryl Sloman tries to explain how everyone, including groups of very intelligent financial analysts and journalists were taken in by the financial scam: “There’s a strange thing goes on inside a bubble. It’s hard to describe. People who are in it can’t see outside of it, don’t believe there is an outside. You get glazed over. I believed in ENRON. Everybody did. I told people again and again to keep buying that stock and I kept rating it and supporting it and championing it like it was my own child. And people say, how could you? If you didn’t understand how it worked. Well. You get on a plane, you don’t understand exactly how it works, but you believe it’ll fly. You know — and everyone else boarding that plane knows — it’ll fly up into the air and take you to your destination, crazy as that may seem. And if you got out your seat, said ‘I’m not flying, I don’t know how it works,’ you’d look crazy. Well, it’s like that. Except. Imagine if the belief that the plane could fly was all that was keeping it in the air. It’d be fine. If everybody believed. If nobody got scared. As long as people didn’t ask stupid questions. About what it is keeps planes in the air.”
I am not suggesting the scientific community is engaged in a conspiracy, con or wilfully trying to create its own bubble of confidence. But there is a danger of a community of people living in a bubble of who ‘get it’, have a knowledge of science, statistics and scientific method, and label themselves as ‘scientists’, existing in what they perceive within a wider world where the general public, the mass media ‘don’t get’ this thing called science.
And the bubble perpetuates itself, so long as the folk keep thinking what they are thinking. That there is there is nice, open body of knowledge and methodology, and is accessible for anyone wanting to get it. Oblivious to the fact that, they the scientists by the way they think, act and re-act, might actually might be creating this bubble.
The challenge we face in promoting greater understanding of science is the presence of relativism of knowledge; different groups’ beliefs will filter how and what they see – based on their needs to maintain the truthiness of their worldview.
Some will have an intense wanting for the plane to be in the air. For others, by not wanting to recognise the plane, will see a different picture without a plane in it.
On the one hand truthiness is what some people want to exist.
So I want Blue Monday to exist to demonstrate that you do not need to be depressed on the symbolically most depressing day – and you can use this occasion to promote personal well-being and help good causes.
On the other hand truthiness is what some people don’t want to exist.
And that’s the truthiness of it.
What truth are you deciding upon?