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White Lies

Is it OK to embellish the truth, or exaggerate reality, or ignore inconvenient data contrary to your preferred position, for the greater good? In the past I would have said no, that is not appropriate under any circumstances, and I have tried to present what I see as the facts with all the appropriate disclaimers. But after listening to a couple of podcasts on the subject, and being involved with an actual potential instance, I am beginning to think otherwise.

In a formal environment, such as a scientific paper, there must always be total truth. For example if the scientific data only shows climate change can be attributed to human activity with 95% certainty then that is what must be stated. But in informal and political discussions I think it might be OK to say that human activity is certainly the cause of climate change.

It is also OK to say that evolution is a fact and that the theory of evolution explains the mechanism extremely accurately. And it is OK to say that the Apollo Moon missions were real, and that secret elements of the US government were not behind the 9/11 attacks, and that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, and that there is a conventional explanation for UFO phenomena.

None of these statements are strictly true, but neither is this one: the Sun will rise tomorrow just like it always has. We should more accurately say that according to the experience of millennia and our best understanding of solar physics, the Sun will rise as usual tomorrow, but there is a small chance it might be affected by a passing black hole or it might become unstable. But no one plans their day around the tiny chance that the Sun might not continue to shine as expected which makes the absolute statement that it will good enough.

Now I agree that the phenomenon of the Sun behaving normally has a greater chance of being accurate than any of those other cases I mentioned above, but that just makes this an argument around where to draw the line. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about the real world can be known with 100% certainty so unless we are going to stop making absolute statements completely there has to be a cut-off point where a percentage chance is thought of as being close enough to 100%.

Where that point is will depend partly on the subjective opinions of the person making the statement and it doesn’t so much matter where that point is as much as it should be consistent. So libertarians who deny the reality of global warming should also deny their own political philosophy which has far greater uncertainty. And creationists who deny evolution should never be certain about the myths and dogma of their church which have almost no supporting evidence. And people who think the 9/11 attacks were caused by secret American government elements should also wonder whether their own beliefs are the result of a secret propaganda campaign.

That’s what being a rational, skeptical person is all about, but by doing that you will be at a disadvantage to those who make absolute statements. Most people respond more to simple, direct statements. They find a statement from deniers that “climate change has always happened without human activity and there is no evidence that this time is any different” (which is simple but untrue) easier to relate to than “according to the majority of experts there is a 95% chance that global warming is primarily caused by human activity”. The less certain statement is true but sounds more evasive and uncertain to many people.

According to a veteran of science communication who was interviewed in one podcast we should be saying that climate change is real and caused by humans because most people think in absolutes and by that standard the statement is true. And saying that evolution is a fact is true because if evolution isn’t a fact then nothing is. There are few (if any) phenomenon in the real world that I can think of with better support. If evolution might be untrue then so might gravity and I invite the denier to jump off the top of a tall building to test this uncertainty.

The problem is that after some consideration I just can’t force myself to do it. Look back through this blog and you will see many instances where I have qualified a statement with an estimate of uncertainty, or a warning that nothing can be known with certainty, or that the essential truth of a theory might be modified in the future to give greater accuracy without changing the underlying idea.

According to some people that makes my arguments less convincing but I have to do what I think is right, even if it is less effective in some ways. A similar case applies in the atheism versus religion debate – but that is a subject for another blog entry.

A final point, in a similar way to the previous blog entry I again sound fairly arrogant, because I’m saying that I have the moral strength to tell the real truth where my opponents don’t. Yeah, well, I think most people from the “reality based community” would say that there’s an about 95% chance that is true… but we can never be sure!

  1. October 22, 2013 at 12:38 am

    I think this is an interesting topic. I agree with you on virtually everything, with one possible discrepancy. I would argue that you DO speak in absolutes. When someone asks you what you’re doing for the weekend, you answer “I’m gonna go see a movie with my girlfriend,” not “I’m planning on going to see a movie with my girlfriend, but…” and then run through the other things you might do if that doesn’t work out. You also don’t mention all the little things that you will also do that weekend(get groceries, take a shit, etc). These “white lies” are just part of communication. We necessarily oversimplify. Science is one of the exceptions, because we strive to use language that perfectly defines what we mean, rather than the laziness that we take in everyday conversation. Here’s what I would argue, when you say that evolution is “proven” in everyday conversation, that really isn’t any different from saying that your dishes are “clean” when in reality they probably still have a few bits of microscopic food still stuck to them.

    Give yourself a break :p

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