Friday, February 27, 2009

The truthiness of truthiness

(James is not an accredited philosopher, a man of science or a personage of any evidence of the intelligence required to master such a question. As such he mixes issues, confuses ideas and just does the general mishmash we all do when we natter about topics that we're not well acquainted with. And unless you have never soapboxed what the PM should be doing, or how the NHS should run or why the US should leave Iraq, I doubt you're in a position to judge me on such a broad, unsubstantiated ramble!)

There are two particular quotes I'm very fond of, both purporting the need for the same arsenal of knowledge. Let me put them to you:

""I was in a taxi early on a Sunday and the cab-driver started talking about how homosexuality was immoral. I was fed up with this and so I said I didn't know how useful hard and fast concepts of morality were in discussing this kind of issue. I then elaborated on societies, such as the ancient Greeks or the Zunis, where, far from being subhuman, homosexuality was actually viewed as a higher, more profound form of love, so all our ideas about its degeneracy may actually be bound-up in our own cultural context. The cab driver then said: ‘Well, you can prove anything with facts, can't you?'" Stewart Lee.

"I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart...

"The 'truthiness' is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the you." Stephen Colbert, on the premiere of The Colbert Report

I've always been a big fan of knowledge (regardless of what my dear sibling believes). I can't pretend my facts are wide-spread thanks to a rather poor memory retention. But when it comes to "facts" I get nervous. Facts are duplicitous and polygamous bedfellows, yet like the politicians who crave their usage, enjoy a certain infamy that I wonder masks their true danger to society.

I am by no means suggesting that the acquisition of data is a danger, far from it, but I think how we perceive that data does invoke a danger largely invisible to society - a reliance on what we automatically deem factual. As a consequence can being knowledgeable lead us to create as many mistakes as being pig ignorant?

I think my first concerns began to wriggle and tickle inside me through the observation of politics. If we take the division of political contrast, left and right, both will rally themselves with a sheer mountain of facts to support their ideology. As more a leftie than a rightie myself, the facts the left offer to support their perception of political acceptability quench my righteous appetite of the right - yet the knowledge and facts of the right could - and are - equally justified. As I said before, facts - if their is such a definitive thing - are rarely monogamous and are positively dirty bedfellows, happy to be bent and twisted into all sorts of positions. As a simple citizen, I listen to the radio and hear all sorts of tangents based around the same findings - how these findings can be good or bad to a situation depending on the person speaking on them.

You see, as we all know, facts never come to us singularly, they are born from judgments, either from our own if we discover them ourselves, or by others if they are delivered to us. For if I may use a vague Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle allegory, our perceptions alter the article; no fact carries a definitive truth because our perception alters its appearance.

To make facts even more confusing (if I wasn't confused enough already as I'm sure is evident), we have the basis of desired perception. I very much doubt there are many people who look to evidence without already holding an opinion, be it from casual observation or from some gut instinct - how does that affect how we deal with the facts we get presented to us? How honest are we? Statistics are a collective of brothel infested facts - they really are any man's truth. Statistics are born from an often invisible selection of queries that nearly never come with the parcel of answers. There are so many variables in any statistic - or experiment - that can affect or distort the outcome, yet to an extent we take this statistics on board and if we decide they support our own perceptions, conclude them as "evidence".

Of course many of you will refute this idea that you only allow statistics to inform your already garnered conclusions, and are a little more open minded than that - and to be fair, that is true. But on subjects where one does have an opinion, when we get a statistic presented, do we judge it objectively? Do we always address its validity with the same considered appraisal regardless of its answers? It's unlikely - yet we'll use these "facts" in our arsenal.

Before I finish on statistics, to my knowledge, in professionally gathered statistics, the rate of accuracy take from a small target group being projected on a larger group is very high. Question I'd still ask is without the details of the survey, can we ascertain whether the roots to the maths are accurate? It would appear facts beget facts - is their an end?

And I guess this largely the problem: "facts", being born from the studies of such an erroneous beings as man will never be wholly accurate. Even our basics science is at risk. You'll find few scientists who won't acknowledge that all science has the potential to be fallible in some form. Every generation is prone to changes in their current scientific conceptions. So again, our facts become even more intangible.

Yet we do need them - but not as we'd like to believe we do. I think we like to see facts as the pillar of our society; treasures to be sought that enlighten us to the foundations of our existence which we can then relax in the assurance of their presence. But they're not. There are no foundations. There is no concrete fact. The best facts can do is help shape - or substantiate - what we need to know, what most likely fallacy we need to believe.

For instance, a court has a judge, and the judge will make a judgment based on the facts presented. He cannot make that judgment without hearing the facts - or should that be the arguments supported by "facts"? As we know, no judge is absolute, no judge is infallible, and part of that is because the application of facts is subjective to their presentation and of course, to his perception of their presentation.

So what does this tell us, my dear ramblers (and you are a true rambler if you've got this far into my turgid, swampish musings - for different reasons I may add that I too am clearly a rambler to have delivered you to this point) - well it tells us that perhaps as a society we need to be more honest, and to my horror, the homophobic Taxi driver Stewart Lee spoke to did - to my horror - have a point? Anything can be supported by facts because the facts are so malleable to the good lashing of an orators tongue/open mind/devious manipulator. That's fairly scary. I guess what it tells us is that we as people live perhaps behind a shield painted with "fact paint". This extraordinary paint hides this misgivings that we accept facts to readily to inform us or we are using the facts to hide our own bias. Unless we actually go and investigate these facts for ourselves, can we be certain of their validity - or do we want to? Does that merely destabilize that foundation of our world - that we, as imperfect as we are, live in the constructs of absolutes, be they maths, morality, science or religion, when in fact we live apart from any absolutes because we indeed cannot touch them without tainting them ourselves.

But facts we do need if we are to function effectively in our society, though perhaps more wary of how dirty our fingers our as we grab them and smear them with our bias, possible misnomers, misapprehension and inadequate investigation as to their nature. I see many people quote facts and most of those I hear are largely questionable when placed on the table and probed with some very simple question. But that's the scary thing, the same can be done with all facts I imagine - which is why we are subject to the wonders of discursive tacklings from word, pen and digital communiques such as this. No subject is without its facets. No proposal without a counter. It is the very reason God as the image of Faith can never be real (I am not suggesting high powers/creators can't exist, merely the quandary of how we assess perfection) - for as soon as he was real, any of his commandments or choices would be subject to scrutiny, to question, to the proposal of facts that counter the systems employed. God would be come fallible - maybe great, maybe omnipotent, maybe just totally uber-cool - but quantifiable and thus at the mercy of question, and for questions we most have evidence and evidence is born from fact. The need for simple Faith in our maker is lost because nothing we perceive is totally absolute, and there seems to be nothing we can genuinely hold in our arsenal as utter, objective knowledge - everything is dirtied by our sticky sticky fingers.

So here we are at the end of this musing, a musing that serves no real purpose except remind us that our society and life is built on - hopefully - informed perception, not facts, and as such we should perhaps prize the certainty in what we believe is definitively true and embrace our ability to build our own unique and fascinating towers of perception from faceted knowledge. Of course if we want our tower to remain strong and sturdy, we have to acquire supports - just best to acknowledge that support isn't singular, but might be equally shared as a strut to your opposer's skyscraper.

We're all interlinked in murky waters. Ourselves, our opinions and our facts. We enjoy being informed, but do we inform ourselves enough? Do we take facts on face value too often - and can they bring us answers or merely just reinforce our own personal constructs of preference?

This isn't a profound statement, merely a musing from a late night lying in bed. Don't take it too seriously and certainly don't berate me as someone trying to be profound. This isn't a soapbox, merely a position where I can use you (or the lack of you) as a personal soundboard.

As much as I feel ignorance is a dangerous beast, the acquisition of data is a subjective monster and we should always be aware that the facts at our disposal merely inform our decision, they do not necessarily enhance it with any absolute certainty. Perhaps if we were more honest, we'd see the environment we grow up in informs the basis of our perceptions and from their we collect and ally to facts that support the innate ideologies that set as we grow. If we look at investigations into facts, the are born from suppositions or un-substantiated questions that begin the exploration. Does Colbert's faux Republican have a point? Are we scared to acknowledge the power of our gut as much as our head? Facts in the different hands can create all sorts of tangents - does that mean our gut, or personal culpability is more the anchor to our decisions than the information we gather to support it? Is our personality the absolute that choosen facts orbit around? Maybe. After all, I agree with Stewart Lee's quick points on how homophobia is indicative of cultural contexts rather than any universal morality. That was my feeling before I learned about homosexuality in ancient Greece. The facts supported what I already felt. Likewise, I have no doubt a pretty well documented argument replete with facts could be offered to suggest a definitive amorality for homosexuality. I'm sure there are many out there which search for evidence beyond cherry picked evidence from the Bible. Doubt I would agree with them not because my facts are "right" and their facts are "wrong", but simply because my gut tells me that no matter how well presented and alluring, it's just not right to decide who or what is moral - just like a calculator shouldn't try defining what are the best numbers on its keypad - we're part of the issue we're trying to bracket - part of the problem. I can't see an argument swaying that gut belief which doesn't require facts - it's been built through observation and innate learning via my environment. And that's sort of scary for me as I like to feel I am open to new ideas, and that knowledge informs rather than simply substantiates. Maybe that's my own failing. Maybe this whole argument is.

In a world where we are individually exposed to far larger and complex issues than ever before (yes, we are now in a position to see far beyond our insular farms, villages and towns of yesteryear) we have to be wary that facts may make our perceptions more credible, but too many issues are far too large to ever truly make us right.

Incidentally, for all the grammatical transgressions in this blog, I had indeed investigated the meaning of certain words - I have increased my arsenal of factual information. Of course with a memory lacking retention as I have, I have to wonder for how long before I descend back to ignorance once more?


Mark Hayden said...

Hope you don't mind me sharing a penneth or two of my thoughts but this post had me in mind of those hazy, and they were hazy, days at university. We were required to undertake either a qualitative or quantitative study which necessitated the need for us to form our initial hypostheses. My friend Sharon was toying with the concept of studying the positive effects of Lavendar essential oil upon post operative analgesia in the recovery room and proudly presented her ideas to our tutor. Somewhat nonchalantly she uttered a universal truth that has stayed with me to this day, namely, "Very good Sharon but you could argue quite the opposite if you wish, you'll find plenty of evidence to prove either assertion so give it some thought." Needless to say we didn't ponder over our hypotheses for very long after that.

James McLean said...

It's just one of those funny quandry's where I embrace the need for facts but at the same time aware of the false security they bring to my being and my arguments - also how if I was honest, there is a bare certainty to my core that would be hard pushed to be swayed by any facts.

Of course I guess that's the nature of politics rather than of study of science...! One should be a little more swayed when studying objective quandaries than the subjective nature of opinion!