The Truth is Out There; maybe…

This week we go all X-files with a consideration of the nature of “truth!”

This article from The Conversation by Dr. Patrick Stokes fired up some thoughts on the subject. In general I agree with his argument, although feel it might possibly be a little overstated.

The argument he presents is, that saying “everyone is entitled to an opinion” is OK but opinions expressed (particularly in public forums) should always be supported by clear arguments. I would agree, and like most teachers, I try and get my students to think and present sound arguments for their positions, and consider alternatives, rather than just declaring what they think or have read (or repeating what they have been told by their last professor). Getting students to consider what is the best argument in considering competing positions is an important part of critical thinking in higher education. Nevertheless, getting people to revaluate their positions or change their minds is very challenging, as many behavioural studies have demonstrated over the years. After all, no one wants to admit they were wrong.

Anyhow, Dr. Stokes argues that modern interpretations of freedom of speech have become shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like”  and has led to experts and non-experts being presented for equivalent viewpoints in the media, and belief based statements with no empirical support being presented up against scientific argument. To some extent I think this is certainly true, but the problem arises in defining “expertise” which then inevitably falls back on defining which epistemological framework you are grounding your arguments to claim “expert knowledge.” This also then raises the quesions of what knowledge do we consider experts to posess, and what do we value as “certain knowledge” or truth.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into what consitutes a truth. The ancient Greeks identified theoria as knowledge leading to truth, whilst Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge. However, what we determine as certain knowledge is precisely the issue here. We can argue that 1+1=2 is certain knowledge, but even that relies on us defining the terms of those values and the mathematical formula represented.

Opponents of science are often arguing that there is no such thing as a single definable truth, as we cannot divorce ourselves from the perceptual process. They characterize science as positivist dogma; but of course, modern science does not claim this is the case anyhow, so this is rather an old, boring straw-man argument, and we should move on. As we saw with our previous discussion of the problem of induction (and in post-positivist science; after Thomas Khun) we can only really suggest that certain knowledge is what we can state as the best explanation given our current understanding of the phenomena in question.

These are not exactly new arguments, the rationalist René Descartes (1596-1650) argued that the criterion of the truth should not be sensory, but intellectual and deductive. Another of his most influential ideas in science was his principle of doubt. Cartesian Doubt is the systematic process of doubting the truth of one’s beliefs (skepticism), and Descartes advocated the doubting of all things that could not be justified through logic.

From a practical and empirical perspective our old friend Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) tackled the issue in an article entitled How to Make Our Ideas Clear (Pierce, 1878). He suggested pragmatism, which purports that something is true only insofar as it works. Pragmatism considers practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth, and this represents one of the central tennets of modern science, and is particularly important aspect of modern healthcare where we are interested in practical outcomes.

So determining which arguments get put forward as the “truth” is not as simple as it first appears, but as Dr. Stokes points out, there are problems in putting up empirical scientific arguments against those based on alternative belief structures, and suggesting both are equivalent in terms of practical outcomes. They are not, and where individuals are put foward presenting empirical arguments in a debate based on a specific set of scientific theories and evidence, it is reasonable to expect them to have some expertise in the field. Calling for people with little knowledge of science to be given equal airtime in a public scientific discussion makes little sense. Likewise calling  moves to stop this “censorship of a scientific debate” is also nonsense.

The real question is do we want public health policy debates to be argued from scientific or alternative perspectives? I would hope the former, given that practical outcomes are at stake. Sadly it doesn’t always seem the media is on board with that, as their objectives are often not concerned with the notions of “truth” and “knowledge” but more focused on audience and circulation.


Useful Sources

René Descartes

Pierce, C. S. (1878). How to make our ideas clear Retrieved 8/23/2011, 2011, from





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