Truth Is a Casualty of Our Culture

I had so much fun writing about myself last time that I’m going to risk it once more. This time the pretext is to provide some background for future columns. So here’s my take on nothing less than truth. Which, by the way, has been a major casualty of the escalating cultural and political warfare in this increasingly bizarre country of ours. . . .

To the best of my self-knowledge, truth is my highest value, even when it is painful. And because truth (which I define as verifiable evidence) is so obviously essential for survival and progress, it offends me when people abuse it, bend it, or embellish it. I’m speaking as a dedicated, lifelong naturalist, rationalist, and scientific skeptic who values reason and evidence as the only reliable tools for discovering and understanding the nature of reality at all levels. In other words, scientific method. The same kind of thinking applies at a practical level: I see no reliable way to solve problems or make viable progress unless we start with and build upon accurate and reliable evidence in every situation and proceed systematically in the spirit of science. To me that is basic: it is essentially what a doctor, auto mechanic, or just about any competent expert routinely does. Based on the evidence I’m aware of (quite a bit, really), I can’t see value or promise in anything that departs very far from that prescription. I’m talking about beliefs and related practices that can in fairness be labeled paranormal, supernatural, or pseudoscientific. A few examples: revelation, divination, energy medicine (here and here), prayer and faith healing. Quite simply, I have never seen persuasive, supporting evidence for any of those belief systems or practices. Such questionable evidence as is brought forward in their behalf always breaks down under close scrutiny or the weight of better, more rigorous evidence.

Some readers will surely take that as evidence that I am close-minded, which I categorically and resentfully deny. I’m not a fanatic – that’s for ideologues and dogmatists – and I do recognize the necessity of being open-minded in tandem with my skepticism. I count myself as a member of the modern skeptical movement, which opposes close-minded rejection of claims while also holding that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That certainly seems reasonable, don’t you think? I am not a reflexive naysayer or debunker, and I’m willing to consider reasonable evidence for a wide variety of fantastic claims and beliefs. In fact, I have taken a keen interest in pseudoscientific, paranormal, and religious topics for more than 30 years. That said, anyone who has been reading my columns is aware that I strongly reject, and even ridicule, many claims. Ridicule, as Thomas Jefferson said, has it place and certainly can be justified in many cases that have been around for a long time and have repeatedly been shown to be wrong. But thanks to an intractable epidemic of immature wishful thinking combined with incompetent, irresponsible media reporting and programming, the public just doesn’t get it. Skeptics remain a small minority. Maybe I should have channeled the spirit of one of America’s true geniuses, H.L. Mencken, and titled this column Minority Report (and do check out the link – you’ll thank me). 

I also give short shrift to claims that violate scientific laws. How about the unsinkable rubber duck known as perpetual motion? Can anyone offer even one good reason why it should not be scornfully dismissed? Show me even one example over the centuries where such a claim has held up. For your entertainment, here is another ludicrous example – that “holy man” in India who claims not to have eaten food or drunk liquid for 70 years. According to some mainstream press reports (stupid Fox News, again) he was “tested” under rigorous conditions. Obviously that cannot be the whole story, and it doesn’t bother me in the least to summarily declare that it’s a crock. I just keep finding more reasons to be contemptuous of mainstream news media and still more reasons to be embarrassed by the species I’m a member of. If any right-wing morons out there think that sounds snobbish, I am proud to plead guilty.

Anyway, skepticism is a complex topic in its own right that I’ll cover in more detail later. For now I’ll just take a commonsense position and say that I try to be skeptical the way a good scientist is. In general, the credence I’m willing to give to a claim is proportional to the supporting evidence. And the more extraordinary the claim, the more doubtful I am and the more and stronger evidence I require. So while I’m determined not to get taken in by bunk, I’m always ready to change my mind on the basis of convincing evidence. Naturally, some claims rightly require a lot more “convincing” to get past my baloney detector.

Although I hold factual truth as my highest value, I am not interested in beating individuals or groups over the head with “the truth” when it might be hurtful. (Well, there are exceptions.) For sure I am not opposed to the white lie to protect someone’s feelings. And I am not opposed to being very cautious about publicizing findings that could cause further disadvantage to the already disadvantaged. I try to remain aware that what I regard as truth is best viewed the way science treats facts and theories – not as proven, but provisional. Stephen J. Gould put it quite well:

In science “fact” can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.

By that criterion there are a great many right-wing “perverts” out there concocting all kinds of ridiculous, convoluted arguments to deny any science that conflicts with their simplistic, anachronistic belief systems. The religious right is particularly gifted in that regard with their creationism and intelligent design fantasies. Can you think of anything more blatantly stupid than Noah’s Ark? I can: that infantile fable is about to be celebrated in the form of a tax-subsidized Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky with the blessing of the Republican governor of that great sovereign state. I’ll be curious to learn what Senator Rand Paul has to say about it.

Whether ideologues (who, almost by definition, oversimplify reality) like it or not, there is no escaping the fact that the reality gradually being revealed by science is highly complex and very difficult to understand. There are and always will be huge gaps in our knowledge, and we are surely destined for many surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. Whether the dogmatists and ideologues like it or not, there is and never will be any simple, overarching explanation: facts and the theoretical frameworks that tie them together are provisional and always subject to revision on the basis of new evidence. And ethics are, of necessity, situational – again whether the ideologues like it or not. Reality as revealed by science is amazing; and it is surely not a marionette controlled by a cosmic puppeteer, not even one with a long, white beard. Reality is all-too real; and it’s tougher than ever to study and understand now that we’ve already picked most of the low-hanging fruit. Fruit that the religious right rejects. I guess they learned their lesson with that first “tree of knowledge.”

Difficult as science may be, every scientific and professional field is based upon a core of well-established, replicated facts and evidence-based methods – truths, if you will – that it would be perverse to deny. Competent and ethical experts in those fields never claim knowledge or expertise they don’t have; and if they encounter situations where they feel they need to use speculative methods, they say so up front. It’s called transparency (a fancy term for honesty), which should be – make that must be – fundamental not only to good science but to mutually respectful relationships among competent adults.

Would that it were. Instead, on a daily basis I experience a culture that increasingly thrives on disinformation and hype in just about all areas. As soon as I get away from my handful of trusted print and Internet sources, it’s like I’ve entered a reality distortion field of spurious claims. Just turn on the TV and flip to a random channel. You won’t have to wait very long to see someone making unsupported claims or telling outright lies. Everything and everyone with a public presence is managed by PR experts, spin-meisters whose main purpose is to present a contrived, favorable image to a gullible public. Truth has nothing to do with it except as an annoying impediment easily circumvented. If you can afford it. This phenomenon reaches a crescendo during election seasons, which have now been extended to the point where they are seemingly perpetual. Is it my imagination or do all those formulaic campaign ads use the same droning voice reading minor variations of the same negative script? It’s amazing that we, the great American public, have become so indifferent to and so accepting of blatant deception. And the lies and deceptions continue unabated for one major reason – they work! And they work for a number of reasons, primarily because far too many Americans are too easily manipulated. Meanwhile, no one dares to utter a word about regulation or accountability for lying to the public.

Returning to science and expertise, I don’t mean to oversimplify the messy nature of the very human enterprise known as science, which, for all its imperfections and growing pains, is our only tool for understanding reality. Science’s great virtue is that its core methods are sound, and it eventually gets things right. I readily concede that more often than not we must act with less than full understanding, often in circumstances that are fraught with uncertainty. When we’re fortunate, we may have recourse to tested (evidence-based) strategies for optimizing our risk- or cost-benefit prospects. Of course there are always the slick, persuasive charlatans and sincerely ignorant, misguided ideologues ready to step forward with plausible-sounding, oversimplified solutions to almost any complex problem. Just look at all the alt-med cranks that I wrote about two columns back. Like politicians, they are very good at exploiting the myriad foibles of human nature.

As I think about the deteriorating political and cultural landscape in this country, I can only conclude that Republicans are the masters of effective propaganda. How else can you explain their recovery just two years after the debacle of the Bush administration? Here’s how: They see themselves as an army engaged in a life-and-death culture war, and their primary weapon is a massive, well-orchestrated propaganda network. They are far more coordinated than the fractious left, and they all reinforce the same memes. Getting caught lying never seems to shame them, hurt them, or mitigate the damage they inflict on the other side. Hillary Clinton got it just right with the phrase, “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” Now of course they’re after mild-mannered Obama and anyone who stands in their way, using the same old despicable and effective Swift-Boat tactics.

So there I go, complaining again; and I admit that’s the easy part. Much harder is to propose workable solutions. So in my next column I’m going to offer at least three steps we could take to begin reversing the intellectual and ethical deterioration of our culture. Be warned: these are ideology-free, evenhanded, practical proposals, which certainly means they would be savagely opposed by Republicans.

Ideology corrupts; ideology wedded to power corrupts absolutely.