Back in September I had what I’ve jokingly described as “a brush with the law.”
It’s not what you think. I was called to give a deposition in a lawsuit in the course of my day job. It involved me spending a whole day in a conference room of a fancy New York law firm, answering questions from an attorney sitting across the table from me. There was a microphone clipped to my shirt, a video camera trained on me the whole time, and a court reporter doing a live transcription. It was not fun.
I can’t say anything about the content of the deposition, but the emotional experience was profoundly unsettling. It gave me a visceral understanding that the legal system is not there to determine “the truth.” It’s there to ensure that two sides get an equal opportunity to discover and present their own version of events.
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove“ is a cliché of crime fiction. When you believe there’s such a thing as objective reality, this doesn’t seem right and fair. It certainly didn’t make me happy. Normally I enjoy spending time in New York. This time, I couldn’t wait to leave.
A few weeks later, I started the first term of a part-time distance learning Master’s course in Organizational Psychology at University of London. I can do the course over five years, so I’m being sensible, taking it easy, and only doing one module per term. This was a good move because the module for this first term is Research Methods, and it’s hard.
And the subject of truth came up again. In the first two weeks we studied epistemology, ontology and the philosophy of science: how do we know what we know? How can we be sure that we know is true? Is there even such a thing as objective knowledge, or is the whole edifice of science a convenient construct that could just as easily be formulated and interpreted in a thousand completely different ways?
I’m a hard science boy. I did maths & physics as an undergrad, and I’m pretty solid on the idea that there is an objective reality, and we just live in it. Physics has a habit of being measurable and immovable. When there’s a discrepancy, it’s theory that’s wrong, not the universe.
Buuuut…in the context of social sciences and psychology, we’re not dealing with particles and forces and fields. We’re dealing with dynamical systems on top of dynamical systems. If someone says that they see the dress as white and gold, when actually it’s black and blue, their perceptions are objectively false. But the statement that the person perceives the dress as white and gold is objectively true. Now think about phenomena that can’t be measured by spectrometers, such as self-image or emotional resilience.
Epistemologically speaking, I’ve been coming to terms with the idea that qualitative research can be rigorous, “hard”, and meaningful just like quantitative research. Is it true? That might be asking the wrong question. Does it matter? The way I’ve got it in my head right now is that qualitative research tends to be broadening: improving our understanding of and empathy for others by gaining insight into their lived and shared experiences.
(Even in the last few weeks of studying quantitative methods, we still have to deal with questions of ontology. Sure, we have scales for measuring “intelligence.” But is this even a valid construct in the first place?)
Yesterday, feeling better than I had been all week, Abi and drove to Castricum beach to watch the sunset, get some sea air, and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie at one of the beach cafés. In the light of the Trump impeachment hearings in the US this week, and the general election campaign in the UK, I got on a ramble about how modern media, by attempting to be impartial and “fair to both sides” allows lies to run rampant. How the idea that there are always two sides, and it’s up to the reader or viewer to decide, is in itself a libertarian free-market stance. And we’re back to the nature of truth again.
When we got home, I read Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), printed in The Guardian. He talks about exactly this, with specific reference to the gatekeepers of modern popular knowledge – social media and search engines:
On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.
To quote Edward R Murrow, one “cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument”. We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust – it is an historical fact. And denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.
Still, Zuckerberg says that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.” But at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible”? How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?
There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.
I’ve long turned away from web-scale social media myself, because I’ve found it incompatible with maintaining my own mental health. The only person I’m helping with this stance is myself. Truth is very important to me, but I’m not 100% sure what it is any more. And I don’t know what I, as an individual, can do to promote it.