On truth and its perils

What is true, what is false, what is wrong?

With the rise of large scale misinformation, this question has become more and more important, as it seems political parties around the world have reached the escape velocity of facts.

polarization in US politics really goes only one way…

(dear reader, please perdon me: I still need to make a few edits for this piece to stand by itself, but I believe there are some interesting insights already!)

Lies and Lies

First of all, let’s make a distinction between lies and lies, using Paul Valery’s observations in Tel Quel:


What urges us to lie, is frequently the impression that the we have of the impossibility for the others to wholly understand our action. They will never be able to construe its necessity (which imposes its essence on us without getting any clearer.)

– I will tell you what you can understand. You cannot understand the true. I can’t even try to explain it to you. Thus I’ll tell you the false.

–This is the lie from the one who despairs about the mind of the other, and lie to him, because the false is easier that the true. Even the most complicated lie is easier that the True. Speech cannot purport to develop all the complexity of an individual.

I find this excerpt fascinating, because it is kind with the one who lies, and explains a lot of the reasons why people lie.

But it also makes a subtle (“frequently“) distinction between those who lie because they can’t explain their action (e.g. “Truth is I cheated on you because I needed to feel good about myself.”) and those who lie because they don’t care to deceive people for they have no conception of truth.

That’s why we need to examine (albeit very clumsily!) the notion of truth.

One truth, many fallacies

Truth is what is true, Fallacy is what is not.

And a fascinating thing in logic is that modus tollens is asymetrical: everything that is not true is false, while everything that is not false is not necessarily true. For the software engineer who programs in C, that’s implicitly in the “return 0” line when a program executes properly: you can return any value otherwise; sometimes the indefinite -1, sometimes a number coding the kind of error encountered.

That being said, not all fallacies are equal.

Truth in science

The relativity of wrong by Isaac Asimov explains it well:

Although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat. Even the oblate-spheroidal notion of the earth is wrong, strictly speaking. […]

What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.

This can be pointed out in many cases other than just the shape of the earth. Even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured.

This is particularly important in the debate on climate change. Conservative bluntly deny any climate change, arguing that climate change (or the theory of evolution) is just a theory, and that it may not be right, hinging on the fact that alternative theories are not falsifiable either. But this is perverse, because there are obviously theories that are partially true (can be falsified), but allow us to make useful predictions while others not.

The evil is in the detail

I’ve been going to a lot of events on Arts & Science recently, and this piece by Jose Luis Borges kept coming back:

On Exactitude in Science

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

This excerpt adds a nail in the coffin of why most of the time you need to resort to partial truth, and that there is often, upon examination, a complete spectrum between things that are not remotely true, and things that are not quite true but useful still.

Scientific realism

A vast question is what is science good for? Some will say that science is a useful tool to predict how Nature will behave and use it to develop technology, while other see it as an explanation of how Nature works in some ontological sense. The distinction being well explained by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in her 2017 Edge essay:

Those who oppose scientific realism are sometimes called scientific non-realists and sometimes, more descriptively, instrumentalists. Their view is that scientific theories are instruments for predictions that don’t extend our knowledge of what exists beyond what is already granted to us by way of observation

While nowadays science is mostly used as an instrument, the deniers of science force us to pick a side between scientific realists and instrumentalists – if you’re a scientific realist, you must acknowledge my right to believe in a god and dismiss your arguments.

(in a recent article in the New-Yorker, I came across this idea, apparently championed by Don Herzog:

To a pragmatist, “truth” is an instrumental and contingent state; a claim is true for now if, by all tests, it works for now.

I think I need to think about it for a while)

Transparency can be blurry

A more personal point now. I long thought that transparency was something desirable – in government at least. But recently, I had a relationship with someone who demanded that I give access to all my text and email archives from before our relation. Pandemonium ensued: having a third party trying to understand past events with limited knowledge can lead to serious misinterpretations of these situations. This harkens back to the notion that context is important to define truth, and often there is not enough time or space to explain things.

Absolute transparency, and worse, anonymous transparency, with organization such as Wikileaks, should therefore be construed as manipulative and eventually deceptive. That is not to be say that institutions should be opaque: transparency should be promoted by means of evaluation and information should be boiled down and filtered before it is passed on to the public.

(Besides, it is generally a bad idea to unconditionally allow your partner to read text messages you receive. It occurred to me that in any correspondence with someone, there is the unspoken agreement that the content will not be shared with anyone else, akin to executive privilege. Not doing so is disrespectful, except in the workplace, hence the golden rule in work email not to ever say something you might regret if they were to be shared broadly (e.g. accidental “reply all”), such as judgement of characters which is poor taste anyway.)

Sticking to the facts makes everything harder

There must be a reason why people in education and academia overly tend to be liberals: they believe in evidence-based policies, and sticking to the facts leaved them disadvantaged in the political field, since they can’t promise things they know are wrong. But that leaves us with people with no qualms about it (cf. Paul Krugman’s Zombies of Voodoo Economics.)

The thing is that people start noticing…