Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Reclaiming Truth

When the Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web were young, many people had a utopian vision of a global free market of knowledge and ideas. Everyone could contribute to the total mass of truth, logic and debate, and we would ultimately enter an age of enlightenment.

Something like the opposite seems to have happened. Lots of people have gone through the looking glass into their own alternate realities. We have a "president" who lies so habitually that it's a surprise if he says anything that's true. Yet his true believers enthusiastically follow him into opposite world. We have the outlandish pizzagate, global climate change denial, birtherism  . . .

A partial explanation is this concept of blue lies. (Apparently that's supposed to be somewhere between white and black but I think it's horribly kludgy term.) The idea is that lies that don't hurt your own tribe or in-group, but are directed outward, strengthen group solidarity. It overlaps somewhat with confirmation bias, because deciding we were wrong about something doesn't only threaten our own ego, it may threaten our group identification.

I don't claim to be completely immune from these afflictions, but I think I'm less susceptible than most, because I am trained as a scientist and I make a conscious effort to practice critical thinking. I work hard all the time to evaluate evidence and not to come to firm conclusions that don't have strong support. And I do change my mind when confronted with good evidence that contradicts my previous beliefs. That is why, for example, I am now an atheist after once preparing for confirmation.

We are in desperate trouble if we can't get more people to think critically and start basing their beliefs on good evidence. The first thing people need to do is put more trust in the scientific enterprise. Yes there is scientific fraud and there are unreproducible findings. Scientific claims lie along a continuum of credibility. Don't believe the hype about a single clinical trial or a finding in laboratory rats -- it's a long way from initial observations and hypotheses to strong scientific consensus.

However, there is a great deal that we know. The universe is more than 13 billion years old. Life on earth is more than 3 billion years old and we got here by way of evolution. People are burning so much fossil fuel that we are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate which is causing the climate to warm, storms to become more violent, and the seas to rise. Cutting taxes on wealthy people does not make working people better off. And so on. We need to accept a common reality, or we are doomed.

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