When you want to emphasize an affirmation in Spanish it is said to be “a truth as a house”. It is a glorious phrase for whose devote our living to built buildings because it relates the product of our work with the fundamental human aspiration that is the truth. However, at present, the degree of cynicism exhibited by public figures that should be exemplary produces fear and poses a challenge to time. It is turn out that from simple lying, we are already in the unpunished and shameless use of the most obvious falsehood with the premeditated purpose of confusing. It is the denial of illustration. The subject was already treated seriously in classical Greece. The sophist Protagoras famously said that “man is the measure of all things”. A phrase that in its context instilled the relativism of opinions. Protagoras considered that any opinion having origin in an individual could be contradicted by that issued by another individual. In this way it was always possible to weaken an argument by strong that it seems with suspicions over the source or the antecedent facts. We can defend ourselves by turning to the old trick of applying Protagoras his own medicine. That is to say, it considers that if all opinion is relative, it can also legitimately be contradicted by saying the opposite, that is, that not all opinions are relative.
Science solves the problem by not attending to the temptation to discuss the matter and dedicating itself to basing its theories on experimentation or coherence. That is, if a statement explains a physical fact is accepted and a theory, which can not be proved by the space-time remoteness of its object (generally relative to cosmology), is accepted if it is internally coherent. In any case, any contradictory fact disrupts the cleansing of scientific beliefs leading to a process of recovery of the coherence between theory and facts, but without losing sight that our theories are intellectual constructs. No one is aware that all this requires the consensus of the scientific community and the commitment to believe above all in the provisional nature of their proposals pending new developments. This whole body of beliefs today has so much prestige for its technological achievements. There is something to be true in the scientific theoretical corpus if such a checkpoint on reality has been reached. And all this fortunate convergence in scientific truth occurs when this community, precisely, has accepted as its own the idea that reality is relative. A relativity that makes possible that our sensitive experience is stable to be independent of the speed that has the system (for example a ball called Earth) in which we are transported.
However, in the realm of truths that underlie social action the situation is quite uncomfortable for our mind that it needs a firm ground. Unlike in the scientific field the facts are more vaporous, the consensus very difficult to obtain when it is at stake the power or the money and the relativity is seen like an evil. And, indeed, the facts are difficult to prove because they are episodic (they will not be repeated), while gravity or radiation is always present to check the theories made about them. In addition interests deform opinions, but relativity is structural and therefore we must not fight against it, but understand and use it.
If there were absolute truths how would we know it if it is not possible to resort to experimentation with the same forcefulness as in the physical world? If such an absolute character could be proved as in science, it would be unwise to object. If not, it is only possible to believe in them as in religions or to approach facts with contrasting methods of reasoning and deliberation. But the fact is that, even without absolute truths, there will always be justification for physical or moral violence (as in fact it is exercised) on the basis of the duty to impose such truths. This strong sense of being in the truth explain in the remote and recent past (Northern Ireland) why Europe suffered the violence between Catholics and Protestants and that today Sunnis and Shiites fight to death in the Muslim world.
The relativity that Protagoras enunciates originates, first, in the individuality or proliferation of points of view and, above all, in the independence of the emotions with respect to a certain moral framework. For example, an Arab or a Jew feels disgust (disgust is an emotion) if they know that they have inadvertently consumed bacon. But not in the case of a European. That is, emotions are independent of the behaviors associated with different cultures. This explains and makes it possible to live in peace in each culture. Emotions (such as light) are not linked to the source of conduct that causes them, so they can not serve as absolute reference, but make life in a given social framework bearable and even satisfactory. For example happiness is not ruled out among cannibals (I think they laughed a lot after lunch). One examines reactions and is just as comfortable to be in a culture that accepts ablation in one case, as in another that accepts the equality of women. If there were a rigid emotional response, certain customs would not be tolerable even if one had been born in that culture. If there is a universal repugnance to some practice one would have to think that it is absolutely rejectable. This is the case, for example, of parricide or incest. Since emotions do not help enough, the only practical way would be to establish a truth for the human species, which, while being relative to other species or creatures, would serve our government. On the other hand, reason can not help much if there is no respect for well-established facts, as in the scientific field. In the social sphere the facts are elusive and by that fissure all the populisms enter. A fissure that conventional politics has allowed to widen by guilty indifference.
Reading an article by Soledad Gallego has led me to an article in the Financial Time written by Timothy Harford. Reading this article has led me to become interested in Professor Robert Proctor who coined the term “agnotology” and is a teacher and researcher at the renowned Stanford University in the United States. The new word is a compound of a = negation + gnosis = knowledge + logos = science. That is to say science of the denial of knowledge. It seems quite contradictory but the plasticity of the words admits it. Professor Proctor proposes this word to define the situation we are suffering right now due to the abuse that certain political groups are making of a fundamental creature for societies to survive: the fragile and subtle construction that is human truth . He tells us that this unfortunate strategy was invented by American cigarette companies when they noticed the proliferation of indisputable reports linking tobacco with lung cancer. The strategy consisted in attacking both the sources (the author of the report) and the facts themselves! Jon Christensen, a professor at the University of California, says that it seems that politicians in the United States and others countries are using the tobacco manual. In fact an internal report from the tobacco companies said that “doubt is the method” because “it is the best way to compete with the body of facts and create controversy”
In the article plus some reflections of my own think several factors are identified by which people admit to propaganda rather than facts:
- The lie provokes the reaction of those who have evidence to the contrary. But the well-founded truth neutralizes the concrete lie while arousing the fear of other associated threats.
- Our mode of reasoning is more directed to keep us within a certain group with which we identify than to embrace the proven truth.
- In front of the same facts, people analyze and conclude on the basis of their ideological and emotional patterns, as well as the role of economic or status interests in constructing well-intentioned and unsubstantiated reasoning.
- We have a great ability to construct reasoning to keep our beliefs neatly rational. Spontaneously we consider the subject from another point of view not to clarify, but to achieve a previously established goal as a belief.
- The great impact that the electoral propaganda concentrated in a few days in the electoral campaigns or in the commercial publicity produces on the beliefs to reinforce the most consolidated ones and to sweep the doubts that could make change of political option or of consumption.
On the positive side, the article concludes that scientific curiosity is the key. So we must stimulate it by popularizing the social sciences in the style of Carl Sagan with the cosmos or Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker or Rodriguez de la Fuente. If we are not interested in science, we are interested in the truth that is within our reach.
We add the importance of metacognition. This ability of the human mind consists in unfolding the conscious thought to become privileged spectator of the own way of reasoning. That is, thinking about one’s own thought in the same act. Hence comes a soundly ironic attitude by observing the turning of thought to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. We see thus the traps that we do to ourself. A play within everyone’s reach that makes us critical epistemologists as David Perkins of Harvard University points out. Training in the identification of fallacies of thought would also be fundamental, which would arouse interest in attacking the problem differently when the first attempt has logical inconsistency.
If this is the way we have to work, there are problems because we are not trained for quiet reading, careful analysis, accurate diagnosis and appropriate political or social conclusions. The whole world of unregulated communication and entertainment conspires for magical thinking, conceptual laziness and the “dolce pensare niente”. I think that once part of the political class has recreated the sophist world of Protagoras we have a very serious problem. That’s why truth-fighters are needed like Scott Pelley CBS who refuses to ambiguously translate his president’s counterinformation (lies) to the audience. In Spain, the radio and television programs which use the newspaper archive are useful in order to at least identify contradictions in the statements that oblige those who make them to better base their statements and to coordinate their promises and actions. The truth is at stake, that is, we are at stake.