Sunday, 7 February 2016

Facts and Truths

Like many parents, I’d like to home-school my daughter -- but have to work, and she needs her peers. So by day she goes to Catholic school in the village near us, with fine teachers and the children of our neighbours. In the evenings, though, we sit down for a different set of lessons, where I try to teach things most schools don’t.

Wednesdays we do logic, and week by week we’ve covered the Straw Man, emotional appeals, ad hominem attacks, circular arguments, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the bandwagon effect, arguments from hypocrisy, Ockham’s Razor, the Anthropic Principle, the Barnum Effect, false dichotomies, slippery slopes, hasty generalisations and non sequiturs.

Then I asked her to start applying these lessons, looking at advertisements and picking them apart. Now, a television announcer asks viewers at home if they want to make more money, she rolls her eyes and says, “Barnum Effect.” Now that my native USA is in the middle of its interminable coronation rituals, we’ll go over transcripts of speeches from various political groups, and cross out everything that uses cheap rhetorical tricks or logical fallacies.

In the same vein, we study the scientific method, something I wish every child learned these days. Of course we study “science” in the sense that most people use the word – that is, amazing things about the universe that researchers discovered by using science – so we’ve covered elements and electrons, carbon cycles and circadian rhythms, Batesian mimicry and Brownian movement. Just as importantly, though, I want her to know how to do science, to perform experiments and filter out flawed results.

Years ago I helped her learn the acronym WET-P; you wonder about something, you create experiments that will find what you’re looking for, you test your hypothesis, and you run the results by your peers to make sure you did everything right. We’ve talked about the placebo effect, we’ve used control groups, and we’ve removed the labels on the experiment containers to create double-blind testing. And the other night, we talked about the difference between Facts and Truths.

I don’t claim to follow Ontological Philosophy – I find most philosophical writing painful to read -- but I wish this basic division was taught to every school-child, saving society a lot of ideological confusion later on.

Facts, I told her, are things you can verify mathematically, chemically or physically – at least that’s the way we’re using the word. If you want to see if your hammer is made of iron, you can compare its volume to its weight, see if it conducts electricity or attracts a magnet, or test how it reacts to certain chemicals. When done rightly under the same conditions, those tests should yield the same results for everyone, whether Catholic or Muslim, Irish or Japanese, male or female. If someone says the hammer is made of peanut butter, that’s not a legitimate point of view – they’re wrong no matter how desperately they believe it.

If you measure the Earth as Aristarchus did, I told her – noon sunlight at certain locations, measured from the bottom of wells -- you’ll find the Earth is a sphere about 40,000 kilometres around. The meticulous, I told her, might get slightly different results if they measure top-to-bottom or around the equator, but if someone comes up with the result that the planet is four or four hundred or four million kilometres across, you can prove them wrong. The world is 4,500 million years old, it orbits the sun, which circles the Milky Way – these are all facts. Whether Kansas borders the sea or whether World War II took place – also facts.

“So what’s truth?” she asked.

Truths, I told her, are beliefs, values and attitudes – we can’t mathematically or chemically prove them, and we don’t need to. Your faith, your love for your family, your belief that a forest or a human has value -- those are all truths. Other people see things differently, and while you can try to persuade them to see things your way, or set an example for them to follow, you can’t show them a number that says they’re wrong.

Let’s say one person believes that animals evolve purely by random chance, and another person believes that animals evolve according to God’s plan. Both have truths they believe in, and since neither can be proven, neither is more scientific than the other. If someone says that animals never evolved, though, the evidence says otherwise.

“So truths might be true, but facts are definitely true?” she asked.

Facts don’t mean much by themselves; truths – our values and perspectives -- make sense of them. The facts are the bricks, and the truth is the building. On the other hand, facts are immovable – you have to accept facts and deal with them. “Or change them,” she said. “If it’s a fact that I have a hundred books, I can get more books.” Absolutely you can change certain facts, I said, but you have to accept what things are before you can change them.

“If you get enough facts together, do they make a truth?” she asked.

They might not fit together to make anything, I said, and not usually by themselves – and it’s up to us to make sense of them. You’ve probably seen science fiction stories where a computer learns so much it becomes sentient? Computers have a lot of dangers, but I’m not worried about that one, because all computers learn is data. A library has a lot of data too, I told her, but if it goes beyond a certain number of books, it doesn’t grow legs and walk away.

The examples I gave my daughter were quite tame, but I could think of many heated issues these days that would ease off if people applied this distinction. National Geographic magazine, for example, ran a cover story last year on “anti-science” beliefs, with a list of common examples on the cover -- “Climate change does not exist,” “The Moon landing was fake,” and “Vaccinations can lead to autism.” Fair enough; while they are not identical situations – we can’t know the future effects of climate change with the same certainty that we know the moon landing – they are all reasonably well-established.

To my dismay, though, they also included the line, “Genetically Modified Food is evil” – a disingenuous addition, as “evil” is a moral judgement. Genetic experimenters can splice insect genes into a berry or grow a human ear on a mouse for amusement; only we can decide whether they should. If a group of scientists proves their product is not toxic, that’s a fact; whether it’s morally righteous is up to us.

The same goes for a lot of culture-war debates in our society; both left and right are determined to see them as sides, and enforce them with the power of government. Keeping them separate – for schools and government to deal in facts, for example, and parents and churches to teach truths – would spare a lot of pointless anguish. Of course drawing those boundary lines can get complicated, but these days fewer and fewer people – on the left and right alike --- bother to draw them at all.

I didn’t unload all this on my 11-year-old, though – rather, we did a quiz to help her tell the difference– “John is two metres tall,” “John should stop littering,” and so on, and she had to tell me whether they were fact or truth.

“What about people who aren’t religious?” she asked. “Who just believe in science?”

Great question, I said – that’s a common misconception. Nobody can just believe in science, because science isn’t a belief; it’s the way you verify facts, nothing more or less.

Some people these days claim to reject all belief, accepting only scientific facts – but that’s impossible, because facts don’t make any sense outside of a larger story. Atheists usually have a very strong faith – in progress, or rationality, or the superiority of their group. Some Christian groups these days do the converse – making up their own facts to fit what they’d like to believe. One group claims their beliefs are facts, I told her, and the other tries to twist the facts to suit their beliefs. Both are determined to see facts and truth fight each other, rather than build on each other, and the world is worse for it.

“Surely some people’s beliefs are plainly wrong,” she said.

Some are monstrous, I said, and we have a duty to oppose them, whether by persuasion or example or taking up arms. Still, people usually have reasons for feeling the way they do, and it usually helps to see the world through their eyes rather than just dismissing them. Ultimately, everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs, I said – their religion, their ideology, their political party. They’re not entitled to their own facts.

“Do I have to listen to everybody?” she said.

Everyone deserves a fair hearing, I told her, and everyone knows something you don’t – so treat them with the respect you would want for yourself. Be prepared, though, to question everything people say, and don’t let them talk you out of your principles.

“Those are two contradictory things,” she said.

Almost, I said. Balancing them is the real trick. I’ll walk you through it as long as you let me.

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