Human science as we now recognize it began in earnest when Ibn al-Haytham, working in the 11th century, formulated the scientific method: proposing hypotheses and attempting to refute them.
The epistemological tools that al-Haytham advocated took us beyond the superstition, appeals to authority, and baseless speculation that had been the foundation of our so-called knowledge until that point.
Almost every scrap of knowledge we have that is beyond the obvious has been gathered in the thousand years since al-Haythem lived. However, in less than a tenth of that time, the window of human knowledge acquisition will close.
Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.
Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:
- A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
- A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
- The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.
Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?
A friend once earnestly invited me to his very fundamentalist church. I was a Christian at the time but, according to his church, I was not the right kind of Christian and was destined for hell. He said to me, “With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to come check it out?”
He had a point, but I declined.
If there is a silver lining in the current political cloud of scandal, chaos, and lies, it is that the more responsible American media outlets are making unprecedented efforts to educate the American public in how to distinguish truth from falsehood.
It started with the first moments of Trump’s presidency. He grumped that the press had deliberately misled the public about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. The New York Times reported Trump’s attack under the headline, With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout Size and Intelligence Rift. When have the media ever begun a headline about a president’s first day with the words “With False Claims”!? This is a new focus on truth.
Although it has been said that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics,” surely the real danger lies in having too few statistics, not too many. The more you know, the more likely you are to get closer to the truth.
With that in mind, I want to recommend a fabulous website: Our World In Data (https://OurWorldInData.org). You’ll find in-depth, data-driven articles on many social and political issues. Most of the data are in graphs, many of them animated, so you can just look at the pictures if you choose.
For example, here’s one that shows the income-inequality situation in many leading countries before and after redistributive tax policies are accounted for. The orange bar marks the Gini coefficient before redistribution and the blue bar after. A bar farther to the right indicates more income inequality, not necessarily more income. I know the graph is hard to read here. Click on it to jump to the article and then scroll down a little to see the graph.
You can see at a glance that incomes in the United States are a little more unequal than most countries’ before taxes, but our minimal redistribution leaves us among the most unequal after taxes. On the other hand, Ireland starts out the most unequal, but its policies put Ireland in the middle of the pack after taxes.
I hope you enjoy Our World in Data. It’s a very enlightening site.
Posted in Truth
Tagged Politics, Truth
You didn’t believe me when I said, “In ten years nobody will be able to lie,” did you?
All I can say now is, “Ha!”
In the few weeks since I wrote that series, I have seen many articles touting progress in the area of truth-detection. Here’s the latest one, from The Atlantic: Algorithms Can Help Stomp Out Fake News. You can visit the link for the full story, but here I’ll give you a peek at just a few of the fascinating techniques that are already in use today.