The Honesty Of Cluelessness

I was talking to Brian last night about my thoughts about ‘truth’. I’ve realised that we most often use or hear the word ‘truth’ when talking about ‘non-facts’. For example, “The Truth About the Moon Landings” is inevitably about some ridiculous conspiracy which ends up talking about UFOs or the Illuminati or both. As Brian said, questioning the Moon landings is as crazy as questioning the discovery of penicillin. You don’t have to scream about “the truth”. It happened. The end.

Just Googling “the Truth” brings up pages like The Truth Seeker – “Behind the headlines – conspiracies, cover-ups, ancient mysteries and more. Real news and perspectives that you won’t find in the mainstream media.“- Jah- The Truth About…– “The absolute Truth about an expanse of different subjects, from princess Diana’s death, to Genetic Terminator-Seeds and the New World Order conspiracy.“. Just throw ‘911’ into your search and a whole host of sites pop up which will dull Occam’s Razor simply by clicking on one of the links.

Far too often people confuse the word “truth” with “fact”. Sure, in some instances “truth” can mean fact – ie True or False: 2+2=4- but more often than not people use it in place of words such as “belief” “feeling” “hypothesis”. I understand and accept that certain things can be “true” within a particular belief structure – “women are inferior” is true to misogynistic men, “children should be beaten” is true to people who believe in corporal punishment, “the world is run by reptilian aliens who take the form of humans” is true to people who are functioning-insane. There is, however, no inherent truth in any of those statements. They are merely “beliefs” and our differences would be based on our particular belief structures.

If, however, one is talking about the Moon landings with someone who believes they were faked then that is a different kettle of fish altogether. I would be talking about ‘facts’ and they would be talking about ‘belief’. Now if that person didn’t know much at all about the Moon landings other than what they’ve heard from conspiracy theorists, yet they were open to the facts, then it would take about 5 minutes’ explanation to make them see how wrong the conspiracy theorists actually are (visit Bad Astronomy for facts refuting some claims).

If the person is a fervent conspiracy theory believer, however, they won’t listen. Much in the same way that a religious person refuses to accept that isn’t really an image of the Virgin Mary in a tortilla, a conspiracy theorist is incapable of seeing the apophenic illusion of reality they’ve constructed as anything other than “the truth”.

Why is it that some people find it impossible to accept ‘facts’? Why is it that some people who are intelligent and skeptical in every other aspect of their lives are happy to throw out rational thought when it comes to things like the Moon landings? Why on the one hand will they question everything the government, scientists and business state, but they happily accept without question the “evidence” spewed out by people who can find a link back to the ‘Illuminati’ in everything? They will happily claim that the sky is pink despite all evidence to the contrary. And, inevitably for these people, a ‘pink sky’ means doom, gloom and death for everyone on the planet and will go on about the “truth” about how the ‘establishment’ is purposely trying to make the sky pinker.

Just like with “feelings”, no one’s “opinion” is wrong. “I love New York.” “I hate New York.” “John Lennon was the best Beatle.” “Paul McCartney was the best Beatle.” “Abortion should be legal.” “Abortion should be illegal.” You can back up your opinions with statements of fact (“New York has less green space than London.” “Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career was more successful” “The number of abortions in countries where it is restricted or illegal is almost exactly the same as the number in countries where it is readily available, but the death rate from illegal abortions is hundreds of times higher.”) but when it comes down to it, your disagreement will be entirely based on your differing belief structures, so in your own ways, you will both be right. (I will say, however, that attempting to inflict a belief structure on other people which prevents them from living their own lives within their own belief structure is flat out wrong.)

Statements like “New York is the headquarters of the Jew World Order.” “Paul McCartney had John Lennon killed” “Abortion is murder”, however, cannot be questioned and discussed properly without having to discuss the topics on which those statements are built, namely the whole concept of the Jewish Conspiracy, the reasons why Paul McCartney would have John Lennon killed, and the belief about what makes up a ‘human being’. The disagreement then isn’t about New York, Paul McCartney or abortion, it’s about some *other* belief structure. And on and on it goes. Eventually, however, you will end up at ‘facts’.

When you and another person are disagreeing about “facts”, then one of you will be wrong. It is not possible for both 2+2=4 and 2+2=5 to be truthful statements. Sure, 2+2=5 could be the more “surprising” or “interesting” statement, but that doesn’t make it “true”. To state that 2+2=5 is “the truth” is not only wrong, but to continue to spread it as “truth” despite being told the facts, is irresponsible.

I don’t trust people who don’t know where their knowledge about a particular topic ends and where their belief begins. I don’t trust people who confuse ‘belief’ with ‘truth’. I trust people who admit to not knowing something. That is what I called ‘the honesty of cluelessness’. Whether it is admitting that they don’t know the first thing about the Moon landings to owning up to the fact that they don’t know how to do a particular task at work, being honest about what they don’t know is something I value highly in another person… and in myself.

12 Responses to “The Honesty Of Cluelessness”
  1. John Pedant. says:

    Actually, when arguing about “facts” both of you could be wrong.

  2. Suw says:

    I did a degree in geology, and the highlight for me was holding moon rock in my hand and then being able to look at thin sections under a microscope. It was an honour, and it was amazing. Moon rock looks nothing like terrestrial rock at all, it’s completely unweathered, so it’s pristine, crisp, and clean.

    The problem is, that sort of evidence gets totally pooh-poohed by anyone who chooses to believe that the moon landings never happened, not because they lack the knowledge to tell the (bloody obvious) difference between moon rock and terrestrial rock, but because they choose to believe that everything can be faked. Moon rock simply looks nothing like anything here on Earth, but if you choose to discount the facts, then everything becomes possible, which is much more “exciting” because it means they’re in on a secret that we’re all too dumb to realise.

    Which is sad. Because moon rock is amazingly beautiful, and people who convince themselves it’s fake are missing out on one of nature’s – and man’s – greatest achievements.

    Same goes for other conspiracy theories. Getting caught up in a more romantic conspiracy theory might be more interesting, but it misses what’s important – the beauty, tragedy, and comedy that’s all around us, for real.

  3. giagia says:

    John, I just spent the night arguing with Brian about number theory… so technically, pedantically, you are right… :)

  4. giagia says:

    Suw, thing is, I love conspiracy theories a lot. I find them enormously entertaining… my very favourite is that Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash by the KKK and replaced by a double.

    If someone believes that Paul McCartney is actually some look-alike from Canada, that’s not going to threaten the world. One in two people on the planet could start to believe that for real, but it’s not going to have any effect.

    If, however, people disbelieve *scientific fact* – ie that the rocks brought back from the Moon are *actually* rocks brought back from the Moon – I do think that is a threat to the future of humanity.

    I agree, Suw, that the reality of the Universe is far, FAR more mindblowing than a silly little conspiracy theory… I just don’t understand why it’s not enough for people.

    It’s not all “idiots” who believe in the Moon Hoax either. That’s what is so upsetting about it. Otherwise intelligent people have chosen to believe some lunatics rather than reality.

    It makes me sad and angry.

  5. RJ Adams says:

    I don’t know about 2+2=4, but your spam protection certainly believes 7+3=10. When I told it ’11’, it kicked me out.
    What is ‘truth’? I believe that for everyone it is simply what they perceive to be correct – their ‘belief system’. The question: what is ‘fact’, may be just the same thing. Establishing ‘fact’ is usually more difficult than it might first appear. Certain facts can generally be accepted as inalienable by virtue of their constancy: the sun rises and sets every twelve hours or so; most trees grow leaves in the Spring, etc..
    The idea of using science to establish inalienable truth is somewhat pedantic, given that on the one hand most sciences base their conclusions on the examination of physical data, but on the other, inform us nothing is truly ‘physical’, everything is in a state of quantum flux.
    Scientific truth, it seems, is similarly in a state of flux. One only has to note the constantly opposing reports emerging regularly from the medical researchers to recognize that: one day this will kill you; next day it’s vital to our wellbeing.
    I rather liked the quote of that 1930’s physicist, Sir James Jeans, who said that ‘…the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine’.
    Perhaps we might do better to accept we are all, to some degree, slaves to our belief systems, recognize them for exactly that and define ‘truth’ as a mere perception from a personal viewpoint.

  6. zeno says:

    Very thought provoking but, as you pointed out, it is rare that two people’s truths coincide completely. We all make do with a life of compromise, and that’s no bad thing.

    Anyway, a relativist philosopher was lecturing in Glasgow and he announced: “There is no such thing as Truth”

    A wee voice from the back replied: “Liar”

  7. giagia says:

    Yep, there is no truth…

    I spent Saturday night arguing with Brian that there were, however, facts… like, say, 2+2=4 – then he started going all fucking Gödel on me. The twunt.

  8. r says:

    And I think you need to expand these thoughts into a thesis to obtain a doctorate in Philosophy. Seriously. You make more sense than many other philosophers I have read. How about a faculty seat at Cambridge or Oxford as your newest gig? You are both brilliant AND have WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too much time on your hands!

  9. giagia says:

    Actually, r, today I thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be HILARIOUS if I did a PhD in theology?!’ ;)

  10. TedC says:

    I hate math. Is this the truth? We are searching for the truth via factual discovery, but when is a fact not a fact? Result interpretation is as much art as anything, and so scientific fact may not be truthful, and is only believable given the available factual perception. Do you believe we can know the truth or is it more likely we only believe we know the truth? Given the facts, I believe it’s hard to tell.

  11. giagia says:

    Do I believe we can know ‘the truth’? Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘truth’. You are correct when you say that scientific fact is only correct according to current knowledge. The difference between ‘scientific fact’ and conspiracy theory ‘truth’ is that ‘scientific fact’ goes through a lot of testing and re-testing, experiments and peer reviews. It’s not just thought up by someone with a borderline personality disorder and spouted as fact on the internet.

  12. missphysics says:

    2.49 + 2.49 (rounds down to 2+2) = 4.98
    5 in anyone’s book!