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On truth

Monday, June 8, 2015 - 2:28pm

Astute piece in the Chronicle Review about the opportunism of disputing the truth that actually grew out of the academy:

It’s not just garden-variety ignorance that periodically appears in public-opinion polls that makes us cringe or laugh. A 2009 survey by the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53 percent of American adults knew how long it takes for Earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59 percent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs.

As egregious as that sort of thing is, it is not the kind of ignorance that should most concern us. There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.

Important to understand the way many controversies of today were birthed - not over their own facts but by a legitimate form of questioning that, taken out of its scientific-phliosophical context, can leave the public ripe for deliberate misinformation. It is a topic we will not get away from until the priority for truth is re-asserted in the academy and elsewhere. Let's have questions, by all means; but let's also respect definitive answers, peer review and proven expertise.

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