Tag Archives: beliefs

Nothing but the Truthiness

On 2 January 2017, I half-heard on Radio 4, ‘The New World. Nothing but the Truth’, presented by Jo Fidgen of the BBC World Service and produced by Gemma Newby. It lasts 45 minutes and is available on BBC iPlayer Radio for 1 year, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg, so if you don’t listen to it after reading this, I want a note from a grown-up to explain why.

“Are we really living in a post-truth world?” or is ‘post-truth’ a new label for liberal angst, due to loss of control? It even asked us to consider whether Michael Gove was misrepresented by the media (He was. I’ve seen the transcript.) Sadly, there are a lot of experts in the program, so perhaps you shouldn’t take it as seriously as I want you to. Listen for yourself, in case I can’t be trusted.

It finds that people are not rational in their analysis of facts that challenge their beliefs. They believe The Wrong Thing even harder.

‘Truthiness’ was coined by Stephen Colbert to refer to “what we feel to be true.” Another parody of right-wing politicians, Donald Trump said, “Fact is not always the same as Truth”, though 70% of what he says has been shown not to be true by fact-checkers. People are looking for “a deeper level of truth, their identities”. Trump’s facts are rhetorical tools, not actual information to be taken seriously. He is only President Elect of the USA.

We wear our beliefs as a badge of membership of our group. “We determine the truth by the people and sources we trust. That’s how we know truth.” When faced by ‘an alleged fact’, we decide how we feel about it then look for evidence of how right we are. Educated people are not immune. Numerate people were shown to be better at assessing data but to lose their intellectual advantage when faced with facts related to their political beliefs.

At the end, the programme presented a 10 minute Drill:

  1. Ask the opinion of someone you disagree with and don’t interrupt
  2. Don’t assume they are stupid
  3. Resist forwarding to all you echo chamber buddies that article that proves how right you are
    [ I would add “unless it contains new information, but not without fact checking first” ]
  4. Bear in mind that just because you like the story, doesn’t mean it’s true

What first caught my attention in the programme on first listen was use of the word ‘truthiness’ which the programme has in common with the functional programming language Clojure. Falsiness is ‘nil’ or ‘false’. Truthiness is everything else.

If we imagine ‘nil’ as being a bit like the Scottish legal verdict ‘Unproven’, we should demand higher standards than “You can’t prove I’m lying, yet.” from our politicians.
We need to demand truth, not either value of falsiness.

In hospital statistics, ‘Deaths = 0’ is different to ‘Death data was not measured’. We expect politicians to attempt to try to lead interviewers away from the second option with weasel-words like, “there is no evidence of deaths” and we expect journalists to destroy them whenever they do. Accepting falsiness gives us corrupt politicians and journalists. No politician stands in front of a bus promising £350M per week to spend on the NHS when they known it is not true should have any further input to UK politics. No newspaper calling people who point this out “Remoaners”, to silence them, has any interest in their readers knowing the truth. Resignations are long overdue and it’s almost too late for them to be honourable.

 

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Values Market

“You can’t put a value on human life.”

I’m sorry, but yes, you can. If it is your life or the life of a family member then it may be ‘everything I have’ but if you are an administrator of a health budget then you must optimise the use of a finite resource according to some algorithm. Or you could pick the people you like the look of, or who agreed with your religious beliefs or politics. In the UK, they would generally not prove popular options. That isn’t the way we do things around here. Maggie Thatcher was wrong. We are a society and our society, on average, has loosely agreed on some ‘values’. We are willing to pay more for things and people and beliefs that we value . We value our values. We say “I love you and I will do anything for you, for ever” but we won’t really. We have limits. There is an upper limit on our investment, for our own protection.

That isn’t money though, is it? That’s love and some people appear to have bottomless reserves. Do they, or are they simply measuring their relative values in a different way? We all have different ideas of the value of things or commerce would be impossible. Trades only happen when there is a differential between the values of the people on either side of the trade. Our individual valuations change over time too. I won’t pay for your bottled water because I have perfectly good tap water available, but try offering me a tiny bottle for 5 Euros in a hot airport when my plane is 3 hours late. Think of bartering in a market too – finding the tipping point betwee holding on and letting go.

Money doesn’t really exist. It is a metric of relative value. Our chosen currency itself has a relative value against other currencies. There is a market in values and we have to agree our price.

“I’m not eating that!”
“I’ll give you £10… £50!”

Decide what you value and where you are willing to fold. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” is an opening bid, as Western-style market-capitalist democracies try to negotiate a new value system we can agree with the rest of the world. We may need to consider if any of our beliefs need to be re-evaluated in the new world market.

When I woke up this morning, I believed there were two different meanings of the word “value”; one about morals, one about money but I’ve realised that whether I want world peace or a new sports car, value is the measure of our personal desire for a particular future projection of the world to be true, relative to a network of the desires of every other living creature. Markets are the human race, balancing our collective desires. They aren’t going to go away.

The values and beliefs hiding behind the concepts and ideas

For the last few years I had a verbal sparring partner at work. We had grown comfortable expressing strong opinions that we didn’t necessarily believe in, as an intellectual challenge and to mutually explore what we actually think about a subject. We sometimes gave the impression to casual observers that we hated one another; but it worked for us.

Nearly always, during these squabbles, we discovered that at a deeper level we agreed about fundamentals but had been coming at the subject from a different angle or using words that misled the other into shadow-boxing a spectre from our own imaginations. We would argue forcefully for an hour or two before finally identifying a point of agreement that had been crouching in the shadows. Very occasionally, we would not converge. Whenever this happened, it would eventually emerge that we were arguing from a point of view based on our core values, which are different in some areas.

Some months ago I started to consider why well-meaning people, with logical thought processes, when presented with the same data,  came to different, even opposite conclusions, based on their political beliefs. I decided to apply what I’d learned from my own ‘heated debates’ to political thinking. I started by trying to identify the value systems supporting Left and RIght Wing political thinking. That is still a work in progress but I’ve discovered that almost everyone involved in politics will cite their main motivation at the beginning to have been their desire to make the world a better and fairer place.

As there are concepts behind the content of our information resources, so there are deeply held values and beliefs forming the foundations of those concepts, yet we rarely bring our values out into the broad light of day. Are we ashamed?  Almost everything we do is informed by values that we keep hidden, perhaps from ourselves. Is that healthy?

The Scottish Referendum brought out questions about where Scottish, English and British values were different. We discovered that we didn’t know what that meant. People said that the British believe in “fairness” but we argued and we screamed “that’s not fair” at each other as we fought about ideas.

Before we start to write, should we make an honest private check-list of our personal values? As we approach the next general election, I’d like to see the values of parliamentary candidates made explicit. I guess I’d like some reassurance that they believe in something.