How we Liberals diminished Truth:
Demonizing Science, Evidence and Reason is a dangerous game.
First we, the cognitively overwhelmed, despaired of ever figuring out the Truth.
Then our therapists reassured us that truth was personal. If we believe that it happened, then it was true for us.
Then the postmodernists spun complicated narratives about the subjectivity of truth, the impossibility of a single reality.
Then the feminists insisted that women’s lived and experienced truth was different from that of men.
Then the multiculturists argued that the idea of one truth was a white colonial lie.
Then the nativists said that their time tested and ancient ways of seeking truth was as good as any anyone else’s.
Then the activists protested that truth was always political, a tool to oppress the marginalized.
Finally the peace builders, wary of conflicting truths, just settled for feeling each other’s pain.
We were the good people. We, the liberals, the progressives, the ones who cared about equality, justice, empathy, compassion, brotherhood and sisterhood- we worried so much about discrimination and oppression that, quite unwittingly, we became the Anti-Truth Movement.
Of late though, our movement has acquired a few new, unwelcome fans. The Bible thumpers, the neo-Nazis, the Islamists, the Hindu fanatics, and the climate deniers are all now climbing onto the bandwagon. After a century of being told that the world is not flat, women’s rights are human rights, racial discrimination is unjustifiable and that critical reasoning and verifiable evidence must prevail over emotion, it is now, finally, acceptable, once again, just like our pre-Enlightenment ancestors, to be driven primarily by feelings.
The Anti-Truth brigade have received it on good authority, from the good liberals, ourselves, that’Truth’ doesn’t need to be fact checked, empirically verified or argued using rigorous standards of reason and logic. Their ‘Truth’ is now as good as any other and is unassailable- particularly if they have the crowds and the muscle to protest vehemently. It is no longer embarrassing to be openly uninformed, ignorant, unreasonable, lethargic, or even stupid.
The retreat of Truth
Just to be clear, I don’t yearn for an Eden where there was a single dominant narrative, The One Truth. I do think that Truth is complex and can be approached from many directions. However the being aware of the complexities of reality and the corrupting influences of ‘dominance’ and ‘power’ do not lead me to the (cynical) conclusion that Truth is either wholly subjective or unachievable. As much as I worry about being naïve I do worry even more about becoming cynical. The only intelligent attitude, if we are to take on the magnificent quest to understand the world around us is to maintain a healthy skepticism, leavened by an openness to extraordinary possibilities.
For most of human existence, arguments were won and conflicts resolved through the exercise of brute power. Muscle ruled. As societies became more sophisticated muscle alone was no longer enough; many arguments needed to be resolved with evidence and logic. Reason, while it never really ruled, certainly became more credible.
After barely a couple of centuries during which we privileged evidence, reason and scientific thinking, something has changed dramatically. Where once we aimed to understand reality and truth through rigorous study and disciplined inquiry, now that truth itself has been derided as a subjective illusion or worse, a figment of our biased and manipulative minds, rigor and discipline have been replaced by righteousness and expediency.
There are of course, many reasons why this has happened. Philosophers of Science, Sociologists and other scholars will be better equipped to study and report on why many in the twenty first century have this ambivalent relationship with science and critical thinking. Here are a few key factors that have contributed to this change:
- The environment we inhabit has become far more complex. This has made it difficult for the ‘average’ educated, layperson to really know what is going on.
- The disastrous privatizing of Russia, engineered by Harvard economists, and the economic crisis of 2007/2008 that caught our best institutions by surprise has brought specialized expertise itself into disrepute.
- The unedifying spectacle of ideologically blinkered or partisan experts, duking it out during every political, economic or cultural crisis, unwilling or unable to demonstrate reasonableness or even critical intelligence, has contributed to this distrust of experts.
- The money that corporations and lobbies funnel into political parties as well as research in universities and think tanks has brought the objectivity and neutrality of people in authority into question.
- In addition, the following factors have not helped:
- The media replacing journalistic rigor and discipline with sensationalism and scandal, has made it difficult to ferret out the truth.
- Politicians and leaders dumbing down complex ideas and appealing to the emotions rather than our discerning rational selves has prevented citizens from educating ourselves on the nuances and complexities of current issues.
- Technologies like television, the internet, the smart phone and the hyper link culture have whittled away at our patience and attention spans with the result that few now have the energy or discipline to read deep and well crafted books which address complex ideas that cannot be reduced to sound bites.
- The internet and our increasing dependence on social media have helped keep us in algorithmically filtered bubbles where the world is tailored to conform to our tastes, ideas and comfort levels.
- After WW2, as much because it was advocated by the victors as from any genuine conviction, much of the world embraced democracy. Three of the most critical ideas of that democratic resurgence were:
- infinite economic progress through scientific industrialization
- universal human rights and equality; and
- the possibility of these two being brought about through the establishment of secular, liberal democracies.
However, as many now realize, the results, after a few decades of stunning economic and social development, have been disappointing:
- The beginning years of the new millennium have shown that the expectation that democracy would deliver justice, peace and progress instantly is unrealistic.
- Industrialization, with its promise of a better quality of life and comfort, has come with significant costs in terms of polluted air, water and land and the exploitation of the economically weaker sections of society.
- Globalization, after the initial promises, has created greater inequalities as jobs migrate to low wage countries and unemployment increases.
- Urbanization, even as it brought with it increased diversity, has not always created a genuine and benign cosmopolitanism. In fact, many cities today are marked by ghettoization based on race, culture, ethnicity and religion.
- Liberalism, which prizes individual autonomy, once helped people overcome the oppressions of group think and tribalism but is increasingly unfashionable in an age of group loyalties and identity politics.
- The scientific method, based on skepticism, critical inquiry, reason, rigor and discipline in thinking, is today seen as only one of the many ways of finding the truth or understanding the world. To think otherwise is, in many sections of society, tantamount to being bigoted, narrow minded and favoring the oppression of marginalized people and ideas.
When the intellectuals give up on Truth
All through history the elite of every society have monopolized the idea of truth. Whether it be Brahmins, the Ulema or the clergy who interpreted the scriptures and the word of God; the infallible Monarchs and aristocrats who laid down the temporal law; or the sages who had access to wisdom; all of them were thought to have access to genuine knowledge and, yes, truth itself.
Sure, most of them were, by our standards, intellectual primitives- prejudiced, parochial and considerably less informed than any third grader today. But all of them were presumed to have the truth and many of them were, like religious scholars, teachers or sages, even rigorous seekers of it. You became a respected elite because you either knew the Truth or had access to it. Despite all the inequalities, injustices, bigotry and ignorance, few, except the most barbaric bullies, diminished or negated the idea of truth itself. They just didn’t have particularly good tools to ascertain or determine it.
With increasing democratization of knowledge in the last century, the elite and the experts no longer have a monopoly on the Truth. This is radical and a force for the good; the vested interests that twisted and manipulated truth now have to answer to ordinary folk who,if given a chance, can wield reason and information just as well. But instead of making truth seeking more robust and building a culture of critical thinking, something else has happened. Many sections of the elite, liberal arts scholars and intellectuals among them, instead of being skeptical of received truth, have abjured the idea that Truth could ever be acquired.
In college campuses today the most commonly found wisdom is the notion that ‘Truth” is subjective, relative and a figment of our own biases. Quite like Alan Bloom in the seventies, I still encounter young adults who will, in mid argument, announce, with triumphant smugness, that there are “multiple” truths or that science itself is an oppressive, patriarchal or even imperialistic affront to human dignity and justice. Entire fields of study have developed over the past few decades that see truth or truth seeking as unjust, oppressive or, at the very least, not pragmatically useful in meeting desired political or ‘humanitarian’ goals.
The enlightenment and the scientific revolution were historic attempts to separate the world of myths and mythologies from the world of reality. The values that came out of the Enlightenment, autonomy, equality, and human rights, will not survive if we forsake the culture of reason and critical thinking which gave rise to them. How can any society that does not value science, reason and the power of imagination protect women’s rights, racial equality or minority rights in general? Unlike disciplined critical thinking, emotion, righteousness and even group solidarity are capricious allies.
Scientists know that knowledge is tentative and our understanding of truth will change as we learn more and more about how the universe works. However, knowing that our understanding of the truth will change does not allow us to mistake or mischaracterize myths and prejudices for truth. If anything it should inspire us to develop rational, and even stricter, standards for determining what truth is.
Brexit, the ascendency of Trump, and the rise of nationalism and xenophobia are not only the consequences of economic globalization and Western geopolitical overreach. Nor are they, solely, the doings of right wing crazies. We, liberals and progressives, have played a unwitting role in creating the intellectual and emotional conditions where the crazies can thrive. Expediency and sophistry, while sometimes useful in meeting immediate political goals or scoring debating points, extract a costly price. Being economic with the truth, or scorning the idea of truth itself, even if motivated by compassion for those less fortunate than us, leaves us with nothing stronger than straws to grasp on to in times of crisis. The lies that we tell ourselves will almost always diminish us if they don’t also destroy us.