Truth is a concept that gets thrown around a lot these days. What is the Truth of this political situation? What is the Truth of that famous person’s claim? What is the Truth of this scientific study? On and on it goes.
Much has been written about Absolute Truth versus relative truths. For the record, I believe that there is Truth and there are truths. But how many times have we gotten lost in the search for Truth or truths that are still “out there” and “illusive,” all the while missing “reality” that is right in front of us and needs to be dealt with?
Science is one area where we debate Truth, truths, and “alternative truths.”
Let’s talk Truth in science a bit, and the concept of “what science says” is Truth. What you hear in school or on the news is not necessarily “what science says” in an exact and specific manner. It is usually a condensed, simplified, and amplified version designed to be easily shareable or to gain viewers/readers/etc.
For example, you hear people say that one week that scientific Truth says coffee is bad for you, and the next week science says coffee is good for you, so that means facts and truth are relative and science is not trust-able… right? However, science never really says “Coffee good unga unga!” or “coffee bad unga unga!” What science says is something like “under these circumstances in reality, those that drink this much coffee are 30% more likely to develop these possibly negative factors” or “under these circumstances in reality, people that drink coffee this many times per day are 52% likely to live 4 years longer than those that don’t.” People in the news and media simplify that to “Scientists say coffee may be good for you!” because, well, we have short attention spans and they have to catch our attention quickly. But that is not what “Science says” – it is what a reporter say about a scientific report. To dismiss science because of this is a bad idea, because you are not dismissing scientific Truth but how some report on science.
Or for another example: people say that they were taught in school that scientific Truth says that Saturn was the only planet in the solar system with rings, but that ended up not being true, so scientific facts and Truth must be relative. However, “science” never said Saturn was the only planet with rings. In 1789, William Herschel reported seeing rings around Uranus and got several details about them correct. No one else saw them again for hundreds of years until the 1970s, but the idea that there could be other planets with rings has been a scientific possibility for hundreds of years. A few decades ago, science textbooks said things like “based on our current reality and abilities to view space, Saturn is the only planet that we currently know of that has rings, but it is possible that others will be discovered.” Your teacher might have shortened that to save time to “Saturn is the only planet with rings,” but that does not mean that is fully what science said in Truth.
So in order to critique science, you have to look at what science actually says and not how it has been summarized by non-scientists. To throw out scientific evidence just because you don’t like it is just reckless at best. I mean, really – scientists spend their whole career studying something, using thousands if not millions of dollars in funding and hundreds of full time hours to come up with their science… and you come along with no experience or funding or employment in the field and spend a few minutes or even a few hours reading about their work and just decide “I don’t buy it” and that means science is wrong or relative or whatever? Ummm…. nope.
But if that is the case, then great. We can reject any facts simply because we don’t like them or they don’t add up in our minds. Awesome! I will now call everyone that believes this “She-ra Princess of Power” because the evidence that your name is Jeff or whatever just doesn’t “seem right” to me. Your birth certificate and decades of experience being called your name is now irrelevant to me, She-ra – sorry. I disagree with your name and that is all that matters.
But, of course, the reality is that you are called Jeff at this moment, so the Truth of your name is irrelevant to me at this moment. I have to focus on your name being Jeff because that is what the reality at this moment is.
So that is why I am growing less interested in talking “Truth” and more interested in talking “reality” in most circumstances where practical solutions are needed. Of course, I would be glad to sit over a meal and chat Truth with those that like those kind of deep talks, but those rarely solve the problems in the world. What we need as a country is to face reality.
For example, the Truth about Trump’s involvement with Russia is that we just don’t know for sure what the Truth is. But the reality is that there is a lot of concerning evidence that many laws were broken, so we need to fully investigate those concerns to find out either way.
The Truth about climate change is that there is much we do not know about what is going on on our planet in general. But the reality is that the numbers and signs are not good and pointing towards imminent global catastrophe. So we could argue the Truth about blips and problems with the Science, or live in the reality that we currently have and do something about it.
Truth is something that is always true and any changes to it will cause massive crises of faith, thus revealing it to have never been “True.” But a reality is something that is real right now, but it may change in the future and still be real.
For instance, the Truth about the DNC rigging the Democratic nomination for Clinton is that we just don’t know if that was really true or possible. The reality is that the evidence for that idea that we currently have was mostly fabricated by WikiLeaks. I can’t say that is a Truth either way right now because something could be released tomorrow either way to prove me a liar. But I can say that the reality right now is that we have no credible evidence that the DNC rigged anything. That reality might change either way in the future, but all we have to act on at this moment is reality.
There are, of course, historical, scientific, and political issues that we do know the Truth about. Or at least parts of it. Time, investigation, and research have provided a solid foundation of Truth. In other cases, it depends on what you are talking about. Do you want to know the final Truth about every aspect of climate change? Can’t give you that. But we can give you a whole ton of concerning current realities. For instance, do you want to know the Truth about whether humans have caused some problematic climate change? We can provide you with that – that part of Truth is also a current reality for the bigger issue of climate change. It’s all inter-related in some ways. A bit fuzzy and hard to pinpoint depending on the angle you take, but clearer and clearer from another angle. Kind of like, well… metamodernism
But so often we are arguing current realities as if they are already settled Truth. Or arguing against current realities because they lack the ability to reach the level of settled Truth (yet). So I prefer to keep the arguments about current realities and leave the discussions of Truth to be with those that can handle that conversation without all the drama.
One thought on “Becoming Less Interested in Truth and More Interested in Reality”
The problem is we as a culture (and particularly media types) don’t understand how science works. Truth is truth. Scientific “truths” are just our current best approximation based on what we can measure and test. Add in lazy reporting by media people who are untrained in scientific methodology, and you get the current situation where people on the one hand elevate The Scientist to the level of absolute arbiter of The Final Truth and on the other hand feel free to ignore or dismiss the real science because how it’s reported doesn’t match what we think. Media types are typically arts/humanities-trained rather than pure scientists; they often put a scientifically-ignorant spin on things in order to try and make it understandable to Jim Caveman, and so much of the time they miss or gloss over the nuances that make the scientific claim actually work.
I think you’re right. Talking “reality” rather than “truth” may be a good way to communicate, because we’re so confused as a culture about The Truth and what it is that the word isn’t always the most helpful tool to communicate the idea we mean.
Great article, Matt!