Truth vs. Reality

Truth is a label, its opposite label is falsehood. Truth and falsehood are the products of language and the intent with which it is deployed. A falsehood is one thing, in the minds of many of those who search for ‘truth’, but a falsehood is achieved in a number of ways. A falsehood can either be a mistaken depiction of reality, or an intentional mischaracterisation of reality, and even these can be drilled down to yet more basic levels, at times indistinguishable from each other (more on that later).

A mistaken depiction of reality is not a lie, it is a mistaken depiction of reality – for it to be a lie it must be intentionally misleading. But even mistaken depictions of reality have potential value, even as claims to ‘the truth’ may have no value whatsoever, in a given circumstance. This is utilitarianism of a sort. At issue is the admixture of elements in a given statement, and where those elements come from. The provenance, if you will. Let’s start with a certain type of provenance, one that, more often than not, leads individuals to falsehoods of the ‘mischaracterisation of reality’ variety.

An individual that uncritically takes on the opinions of another individual, usually some kind of authority figure (no comment, here, as to the basis of that authority), may well hold the given statement as true. The most obvious example is the child that takes on the opinion of the parent – all children do this, at least for a time. It is necessary. Such opinions make up the environment in which the child lives, so it has truth-value, albeit that it may not be true. The child takes that truth out into the world, and if it maintains its value, then it becomes ‘a truth’ (even though it may be different from reality).

To be clear, ‘world’ is a comparative term – ‘society’ might be more correct, even though the world is made up of both society, and societies, cultures and sub-cultures. This is somewhat the point. A hand-me-down ‘truth’ maintains value depending on how far the holder of that ‘truth’ strays from the culture in which that ‘truth’ is ‘true.’ A home-schooled child in a gated community is not going to crash-test such a ‘truth’ as rigorously as a child in a multi-cultural community with ready access to the Internet.

There are adults that maintain ‘truths’ in this manner; indeed most adults still have ‘truths’ handed down from their parents that have not had the opportunity to be crash-tested in the ‘real’ world (more on that shortly). But there are adults that, like lost children, move from authority figure to authority figure harvesting ‘truths.’ (It would be right to call these ‘truths’ opinions in most contexts, but as a ‘truth’ is ‘true’ by virtue of its ‘truth value’ let us maintain this nomenclature.) The issue with such ‘truths’ is that they are handed down without an audit-trail of constituent and contributory ‘truths’. They are encapsulated pearls of ‘wisdom,’ ‘impervious bubbles of truth’. Impervious because, with no foundation, they can float above any foundational beliefs, and they contain no support in the individual’s thinking processes that would crumble under concerted attacks thereon. They can harmlessly bounce off each other, even (and maybe especially) when these bubbles are contradictory, as their deployment is often situationally specific, and as such, these ‘truths’ seldom come into contact with each other.

It would be easy to mock such an individual for such shallowness, and seemingly catastrophic stupidity. Now, where do your reactions and intuitions come from? There is a large part of the brain that we seldom have direct access to, but from which ‘truths’ bubble up. These are everything from the positive-sounding ‘intuition’ to the negative-sounding ‘stereotype,’ though there is no major difference between these two names for approximately the same thing. These are ‘truths’ that bubble up from our sub-conscious (not ‘the’ subconscious, but our sub-conscious, everything beneath the level of consciousness), and these ‘truths’ come to us without an audit-trail of constituent and contributory ‘truths’.

Of course, some of us are more inclined than others to subject such ‘truths’ to scrutiny. We may apologise for words reactively said in anger (‘our truth’), but that doesn’t mean that we won’t say exactly the same thing the next time the right combination of buttons is pushed. Then again, we may consciously fail to tell ‘the truth’ because of the embarrassing position we’ve been put in by ‘a truth.’ They are ‘our truths’, our prejudices, one might even say, ‘our reality.’

No one can lay claim to ‘the truth.’ Everyone can lay claim to ‘a truth.’ The value of these ‘truths’ is in their utility – but only in the first instance – and it is the first instance that a great many people remain focused on. Much more importantly, the value of these ‘truths’ lies in one’s relationship with the source of such ‘truths,’ and how many degrees of separation there are between oneself and reality, whatever that may be, in truth.

Intense Pressure on Carbon Costs?

With the release of the fifth assessment report by the IPCC, and more specifically the Summary for Policy Makers (brilliant idea), it seems like something nice and topical to comment on. I have not, as of yet, read the summary (that comes later), I want to comment on the responses to climate change in a more general sense, starting with climate change denialism.

Even if there is anything to the position that humanity is not responsible for the increase, should we not still work to minimise the negative effects? OK, so our carbon emissions aren’t problematic (despite the massive release of carbon back into the atmosphere from fossil fuels), but carbon is increasing in the atmosphere, and the earth is warming, should we still do nothing just because it’s not our fault?

This position can be summed up best as follow:

No single individual is at fault, obviously, and that is increasingly the case. The human race quadrupled in size over the course of the 20th century, mostly due to the massive growth in live births and increases in longevity. Unfortunately the vast majority of those living individuals (in the industrialised world at least) would rather be comfortable in the now, than worry about anyone else’s discomfort in the future (even their own, ironically).

Those comforts (and indeed profit margins) are bought, one way or another, with electricity, whether from the national grid, or individual generators (stationary, two-, four- or more-wheeled varieties). Comforts are also things we fall back on when times are hard. And times are hard.

What makes times hard? There’s the financial crisis, of course, a catastrophe also predicated on a refusal to take responsibility for the knock-on effect of action. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how many people who were making money hand-over-fist from the sub-prime market made their fortunes from businesses with laissez-faire attitudes to the environment.

So as not be branded a conspiracy theorist: there are probably both direct and indirect links, both causal and otherwise, in both directions.

Laissez-faire attitudes to other people and the environment arising from laissez-faire capitalism? Not exactly a stretch, is it?

As we’ve seen with the hue and cry about tax avoidance by major corporations, there is a pattern that often (and, it seems, increasingly) emerges. People, or more correctly businesses, do what’s in their best interests, and they do so, for the most part, within the law. Suddenly the failure of the law to keep pace with a pretty generic feeling about fairness (or science) comes to light, and the powers that be (politicians) scapegoat a few key players in order to be seen to be doing something.

Alternatively, instead of scapegoating a few key players, laws are enacted that punish entire industries for doing business the way that the laws, to that point, encouraged them to do business. And invariably these laws are punitive. Why? Because politicians know very well that they were both directly and indirectly encouraging industry to carry on making money for the country, pushing up GDP, and just generally making the numbers look good whilst they’re in power. But when they get caught, flat-footed, failing to take into account the negative impact of those businesses in areas other than productivity and growth, then politicians blame industry and have to be seen to be doing something positive.

“I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything!”

So the metric is at fault – productivity and growth. But worse, the punishment is seriously flawed (as most punishments are). We have a situation where politicians must make moves to force industries to change the way they operate because of the structure of the laws previously enacted. Any such change necessarily has a cost of compliance, but businesses are in the business of being in business. Counter-intuitively, businesses are not in the business of keeping customers happy, no, not any more (one of those costs of compliance). Now the shareholders are a company’s key concern, and the only way to keep a shareholder happy is to pass these costs of compliance on to the customers.

So what am I getting at?

I’m getting at an ultimate irony.

It seems that those least in favour of ‘cap and trade’ to resolve the emissions crisis are those most in favour of laissez-faire capitalism… and they’re right. Cap and Trade ultimately penalizes the end user, not the business that created the problem by doing business in the way that local laws allowed for, and not the politicians that enacted those laws (except in their capacity as end users, themselves).

Politicians are necessarily a reflection of the people, and people like to take revenge; something that is readily seen in the criminal justice system. In the carbon and the environment situation, it’s a case of taking revenge on businesses by making them pay for their emissions. Low-emission industries get a new revenue stream as they sell off their credits (good news for the shareholders).  High-emission industries pass the costs on to the end user, with no real incentive to work particularly hard to reduce emissions. So the populace get to feel comfortable about “doing something” with regard to carbon emissions whilst they drive up the cost to themselves of anything derived from high-emission industry, and do very little to impact emissions over all… and this particular carbon cycle starts all over again.

Topsy-turvy day

It’s great when things don’t turn out as expected, when you get to check your presuppositions at the door, and be humbled (or horrified) by the variety of people, good and bad, that populate this planet.

Here are three recent stories that shake up stereotypes:

1) “Oakland man murders atheist after debating God’s existence.”

It’s pretty clear that drugs, alcohol and despicable behaviour on the part of the atheist in the story are the likely culprits. Don’t get me wrong, his douche-baggery (teasing his “friend” about his father’s death) does not justify his being killed, but it makes a change to see an atheist gloating over someone’s death. Most of my exposure to this type of deplorable behaviour has been Christians gloating over the untimely deaths of prominent atheists – Christopher Hitchens being the most obvious example – or gloating over studies that suggest that the faithful live longer. Bad behaviour permeates humanity, regardless of how we then subdivide ourselves.

2) “God, But Mostly Science, Helps Cure Colorado Teen of Cancer”

How wonderful to see a professing Catholic – so devout that his Make a Wish Foundation wish was to meet the Pope – praise the medical technology and technicians that were instrumental in his remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Far too often we hear praise being heaped on Jesus for such things – even if one does believe this is appropriate (and you’re on pretty shaky ground, theologically, if you do), it is still appropriate to thank the doctors and nurses for their part.

3) “NAACP, KKK leaders meet to discuss race issues”

The headline says it all. It may well be a one off, but I’d like to hope that it’s the start of something bigger.


Dear readers, I wasn’t sure how to approach this post, whether to summarize the articles, and then comment, or just comment, as I have, with some reference to the content. I don’t anticipate doing too many multi-topic posts, like this, but if I do, how would you rather they were presented?

A mosque, muppets, and the media

Reported in The Guardian today is the story of an arson attack on a Mosque in Harlow, just outside London, to the north east. I think the article requires dissecting, teasing out, and looking at in a bit more detail:

“Members of an Islamic centre which suffered a suspected arson attempt have said they are “very saddened” by what appears to be a racist attack.“

Calling it a “suspected arson attack” is reasonable (and likely straight from the police). Calling it ‘racist’ on the other hand is not reasonable, and entirely inflammatory (if you’ll pardon the pun). Islam is a religion, its adherents are as united by race as Christianity is – in other words, not at all.

“Zia Rehman, the Islamic Centre’s vice-chairman, added that although police still have to determine the motives behind the apparent attack, he suspects it may have been due to anti-Islamic prejudice.”

So Zia Rehman suggests ‘Anti-Islamic prejudice,’ where the author of the article (presumably in a bid to not use the same phrase) refers to it as racist.

The largest Muslim population in the world (according to the Pew Forum, 2010: is Indonesia. It should be clear to all that this is a large Island in South-East Asia, not an Arabic state. The three next largest Muslim populations are Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – again, not Arabic states. Rounding out the top 10 are Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Algeria and Morocco – four North African states, and two Middle Eastern. To be clear, even ‘Arabic state’ is confusing – none of the top 10 Muslim populations are even on the Arabian Peninsula, though several have Arabic as a major language. So, what race is this attack racist about?

“Britain has witnessed a spike of hate crimes against Muslims in recent months following the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks in south-east London in May.”

The killing of Lee Rigby was perpetrated by Michael Adebolajo, a Nigerian (the African country with the largest number of Christians) – I can’t pretend to know the minds of the arsonists, but I don’t think they would be targeting a mosque specifically for the Nigerian or North African contingent, so racism (or at least accurate racism) can be struck from the list of motives.

It saddens me that Zia Rehman even had to make the following statement:

“We have been working very hard within the local community, building bridges, and we were hoping we wouldn’t have this kind of problem, but in the current climate there are elements within society that are not happy and there are issues.”

We don’t see much coverage of such things in the press, do we, this idea of faith communities reaching out to the greater community to say that they distance themselves from the actions of the few? Then again, when the perpetrator of a crime is a Christian, because this is the UK, it’s taken as read, whether they’re C of E or Catholic (or whatever other Christian denomination, assuming their religion even rates mention), that the church distances itself from these actions… then again, given these churches’ actions (respectively, the cover-up of organised child abuse and rampant misogyny), maybe they should.

  • As an aside: Just as ‘child pornography’ has been rightly amended to ‘child abuse images,’ maybe instead of calling these attacks hate-crimes, let’s call them what they are. The word ‘hate’ gives these crimes an element of coolness, albeit misanthropic coolness, that they do not deserve. These are stupid crimes – no-one likes being called stupid, least of all when their eventual capture is emblazoned across national papers under that heading. (It’s possible that sealing the doors with foam, thereby starving the fire of oxygen, may also justify calling it a stupid crime.)

To call the attack racist, we also have to assume that the perpetrators of this attack are white and English. But it’s not racism, so which ‘ism’ does this attack (and those like it) come under?

There is no ‘ism.’

If the perpetrators are white and English, then they are of approximately the same racial, cultural and national identities, perpetrating a crime against individuals of diverse racial, cultural and national identities, who, as a group, just happen to have similar religious identities (and who, like the perpetrators, also have some element of their identity tied to the fact of living in England). Slapping a media-friendly ‘ism’ onto this buys into the simplification that the perpetrators have engaged in to justify their actions, perpetuating the problem that occasioned the article in the first instance.

Racism is making simplistic assumptions based on obvious characteristics, and acting in accordance with those assumptions – which is exactly what The Guardian did in their reporting on this arson attack.

Anti-vaxxers and reality

This recent article on Slate raised the interesting spectre of civil or criminal action in response to parents failing to vaccinate their children. The issue being one of contributory negligence. If a child were to become ill due to exposure from an unvaccinated child, does the parent of the now ill child have recourse against the parents of the unvaccinated child?

It is somewhat ironic that “proving cause and effect will sometimes be difficult” for any such case, because proof of cause and effect is exactly what brought about this situation in the first place. What astounds me is that a lot of people who write about this gulf between the reality of cause and effect, and the anti-vaxxers’ understanding of it miss so many obvious sources of these misunderstandings.

Humans are naturally pretty bad at dealing with ratios, and we will unconsciously give additional weight to different types of emotional content, sometimes flying in the face of strongly contradicting but ‘sterile’ evidence. Why not understand where the vast majority of these misunderstandings come from?

In the case of the MMR/autism ‘thing’ (not calling it a controversy), it’s easy to see why people who are ‘in’ the situation of noticing that their child has just been diagnosed with autism, and remembering that the last major medical event in their child’s life was the MMR vaccine, might intuitively link the two. (Note that MMR is given at age two, and that is the age at which it first becomes possible, as the science currently stands, to diagnose autism.) The perpetuation of the MMR/autism ‘thing’ has nothing to do with mercury in the manufacturing process or any of the elements of Wakefield’s original “study” – it is post hoc rationalisation of an intuitive belief using conveniently available “science” – in quotes because Wakefield failed to disclose the source of the funding for his study. He has since been struck off the medical register.

Further, it’s easy to see why people who have not had such a diagnosis might be more inclined to notice the emotional story of someone who has (whether they themselves cite the link, or not), and place that information above the science that says otherwise. We are ultimately egocentric organisms, we will often place our own experience ahead of conventional wisdom, especially if that conventional wisdom comes to us with no emotional content (and sometimes that’s absolutely the right thing to do). When we’re not more egocentric we’re more social, and that means that many of us will place another person’s emotional information ahead of clinical information.

This goes to a bigger problem, that because science very often removes the human face from the information, a lot of people simply can’t relate to it. Recall, as well, that many popularisers of science – those that can humanise it, Carl Sagan springs to mind – face a backlash of sorts from the scientific community. Those involved in the hard sciences don’t want to see it reduced to one of the humanities (yet at the same time wonder why science isn’t a more popular choice at school and is under-represented in politics). Psychology typifies this battleground as it is a science that many of the natural sciences don’t see as one because it’s too “soft,” because it is too human.