Wednesday, 16 November 2016

What is truth?

Once upon a time I was planning director of an advertising (well direct marketing really) agency. We'd done so focus groups for a client looking at pensions and savings. They were enormous fun - I mean this, we did pensions the advertising agency way with cushions, music, pictures of sexy celebrities and party poppers. OK, I made the last bit there up - but the work was good and I learned more about the issues around pensions than I'd done from all the dry as dust actuaries and economists (we did lots of stuff with these folk too).

Any way, we presented the work to the client. It was well received by them with one, somewhat grumpy, exception. A day or two later, I got a letter (this was in the days before email since you ask) from the Finance Director asking how I could know the research was true - after all we'd conducted six focus groups with ten people or so in each. It can't be true can it, I can't commit to a major investment on the basis of giving sixty people wine and cushions can I?

I can (more or less) faithfully reproduce my reply:

"Dear Finance Director,

Thank you for your letter regarding our research. It was interesting.

What is truth?

Yours sincerely,

Simon Cooke

Account Planning Director"

The problem is that there are a load of people out there who think - nay, insist - that they know what truth is. And, more to the point, that we have moved into a "post truth" world:

Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of "secondary" importance.
Yeah. And no politician before Farage and Trump lied. Or, shall we say, carefully selected the statistics, the words and the timing for something so as to get the maximum political impact.

The whole idea is - as these things so often are - an attempt to discredit critics of a politically dominant group by suggesting that they are, in some way, charlatans or chancers rather than wise, noble folk who care deeply about the people. Yet no-one ever challenges them on the idea of truth itself. My Finance Director at least had the defence of needing to make a decision about a major investment - most of the 'post truth' stuff isn't so significant. Instead it's a way by which an intellectual (and very Laputian) elite closes off criticism.

In political discourse there is very little objective truth. Our job isn't to capture the moonbeam of that hypothetical truth but rather to negotiate between a set of possible truths including ones based on the feelings and emotions of voters. In a world where we're encouraged to respect the faith of people who believe their prophet flew to heaven on a winged horse what exactly has changed in our understanding of truth?

Christians believe Christ died for our sins and rose again after three days. Is this truth? Is the idea of the world's creation - whoever's myth you prefer - true? Or should we go with a sceptical view that, in essence, says there is no truth except that we don't know?

In our daily lives (and this is so for peasants and kings) we make choices on limited information, opinion and prejudice. We choose to call some of this "truth" but that's a rationalisation rather than, dare I say it, truth. The truth we're getting over in 'post-truth' is exactly the truth that finance director was writing to me about - a sort of scientific method truth in a world where, most of the time, we can't conduct randomised control tests. Assuming that such things are ever truly random, controlled and a test.

Talking about 'post-truth' is a recognition from the bien pensants of this world that they have been fibbing to us for all these years. Instead of this 'skeptical' idea, we have instead an approach embracing doubt, emotion, intuition and wisdom. It's no longer the case that some academic's research - framed by their prejudice and enacted in that context - is seen as truth. Interesting, challenging, informative - but not true. Long may this last.


1 comment:

Lisboeta said...

"Randomised control tests. Assuming that such things are ever truly random, controlled and a test." I'll have to remember that to clinch some future discussion!