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Reasons we cannot agree on what’s true

‘Noam Chomsky’s work Manufacturing Consent (with Edward S Herman) surely set the framework for all serious discussion of veracity in media and politics.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian.

John Richardson & Mark Richardson, Reasons we cannot agree on what’s true, The Guardian, 21 September 201

John Richardson talks about the power of big businesses to promulgate false information, while Mark Richardson says complex explanations for events end up being doubted.

William Davies’ discussion of truth and lies in modern life (Truth and fury, 19 September) misses at least three important elements. First, the emergence and centrality of sophisticated businesses dedicated to achieving outcomes at any cost for their clients. Cambridge Analytica is the obvious example. But consider also the huge sums that US drug and medical businesses have spent seeking to block the introduction of any kind of healthcare system that those of us in the rest of the developed world would regard as normal. The systematic dissemination of lies and mistruth has been weaponised.

Second, discussion of ideological education was absent from the piece. Back in the day, education in subjects like economics, politics and sociology were underpinned with a grounding in understanding ideology. Outside the classroom, political education was a vital part of membership of or participation in popular organisations like unions or political parties. It provided a framework for analysing current events which, while partisan, was at least systematic and equipped significant portions of the population with generic skills.

Finally, it’s a pity discussion online was not opened up. Your readers provide a deep well of information, pathos and witty irreverence; enough to lighten the most doom-laden topic.

John Richardson
South Cave, East Riding of Yorkshire

 I thought that William Davies’ article was fascinating. He believes that our acceptance of the truthfulness of an event or fact is determined by how it is framed. But I think there is another reason why our acceptance or not of the truthfulness of a report is so fraught with difficulty.

Scientific facts and theories about the behaviour of physical things are supported by evidence, and there is usually a consensus among scientists about their truth. This is possible because the behaviours of physical objects (bullets, rockets, planets) are relatively simple to explain, requiring only a few scientific theories.

But complex systems, such aseg the weather, require many interdependent theories. And explanations about situations which involve humans may also include non-physical science theories for which there is limited consensus. This makes complex systems much more difficult to explain, and the explanations inevitably include caveats and levels of uncertainty.

With all evidence now claimed to be “scientific”, we expect simple explanations for all kinds of events. When the explanations for complex events are complex and uncertain, we suspect the evidence.

Mark Richardson

See also: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/sep/19/why-cant-we-agree-on-whats-true-anymore

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