Deception, i.e. various forms of lying, is a widely employed strategy across the kingdom of life and in all human cultures, which see the extent and nature of the practice vary considerably from one to another. We also come with considerable capacity to believe our own lies.
The most notable exception to the normalcy of lying has been the development of modern science, which, above all else, has been a search for truth and a brake on our willingness to believe nonsense. This has entailed an acceptance of the pre-eminence of empirical evidence and logical consistency plus an overt recognition of uncertainty with an obligation to recognise error and to alter belief in accord with new evidence and/or a fuller explanation. In essence, the aim and success of science has simply been an attempt at a scrupulous honesty unprecedented in human affairs; and, the result has been remarkable.
Although the development of the modern idea of science began with study of the natural world, or natural philosophy as it was then called, the method of its success soon led to an expansion into human affairs, an era we now refer to as the enlightenment. The result was a flood of new knowledge leading to an accelerating rate of technological and cultural development. This provided a quantum leap for Western Culture, propelling it to world dominance for several centuries and now being adopted and adapted to varying degrees by all the others.
Although all cultures still have a long way to go in the pursuit of truth in public affairs there is, nevertheless, a noticeable degree of difference in the attitude to truth in different nations and cultures. In general, the more successful societies at least pay lip service to truth, tend to expose lying and condemn it. By contrast, the leaders and governments of the more backward of nations in terms of social and economic development appear to have little regard for honesty and routinely express this with blatant lying which goes unchallenged in their political systems.
That there is a significant correlation between a regard for honesty in public affairs and the social, economic and political success of nations is not surprising. Governance which is widely at variance with reality is unlikely to be very successful.
Unfortunately, the regard for truth now appears to be in a period of decline in Western Culture. Ironically, this began with the peak of regard for science following the Second World War, when the humanities and social studies attempted to also become more scientific. However, it soon became apparent that to do so was going to require abandoning too much of the established reputations, authority and canons of belief. The response was a rejection of the very notion of truth and even the idea of any objective reality, which was deemed to be entirely subjective. Thus was born a new, postmodern philosophy. In it, a search for truth subject to reason and evidence was displaced by the notion of a political correctness which was deemed to be certain, self-evident to all right thinkers and unethical to question or subject to critical examination.
Amazingly, this self-serving pseudointellectual twaddle has come to predominate in academia and, thence, to prevail in the ruling classes now almost universally university-educated and thoroughly indoctrinated in this new faith. To an increasing extent postmodernism has also infiltrated the natural sciences to varying degrees, being especially prominent in the environmental sciences.
In the matter of climate change, its political correctness has overwhelmingly supplanted all conflicting evidence and uncertainty with computer models, claims of authority and an overwhelming weight of credence accorded the consensus of “expert” opinion. The consequence, we are tirelessly told, is a high level of purported certainty that disaster is imminent. Now, well into the fourth decade of failed predictions and ongoing exposures of false claims and malpractices, the charade continues with fulsome acceptance by the chattering classes but increasing doubt in a growing majority of the populace. Ironically, the claims of high-level scientific certainty employed to lend authority to the proclamations of the alarmists has done little to increase their credibility but much to depreciate the credibility of science itself.
While this corruption of science and the denigration of the scientific method of understanding has been unfolding, the advent of computers and the Internet has also presented a cornucopia of readily accessible knowledge, together with a deluge of misinformation, plus a vast cloud of low value noise. Now, more than ever, we need the scientific method to sort out what is real and useful. Fortunately, this is now developing rapidly in the form of artificial intelligence.
After a several decades of very limited success in trying to develop AI by codifying huge sets of rules, simply searching for patterns in large masses of data has been discovered to be a far simpler and more powerful methodology. Recently, this approach has boomed with startling success and is now set to bring massive changes across the whole of society. In just the next decade this will have major impacts on health and medicine, decoding the genome, self-driving vehicles, robotics, numerous areas of science, finance, business and economic management, politics and government. For example, as MIT Technology Review recently reported:
In 2015, a research group at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York was inspired to apply deep learning to the hospital’s vast database of patient records. This data set features hundreds of variables on patients, drawn from their test results, doctor visits, and so on. The resulting program, which the researchers named Deep Patient, was trained using data from about 700,000 individuals, and when tested on new records, it proved incredibly good at predicting disease.
Without any expert instruction, Deep Patient had discovered patterns hidden in the hospital data that seemed to indicate when people were on the way to a wide range of ailments, including cancer of the liver. There are a lot of methods that are “pretty good” at predicting disease from a patient’s records, says Joel Dudley, who leads the Mount Sinai team. But, he adds, “this was just way better.”
FALSE news and lying generally is going to become much more readily exposed when all that is needed to do so is to just ask an online digital assistant AI service for a summary of the supporting and conflicting evidence. Numerous areas of current belief will simply be inundated by a tidal wave of conflicting evidence that cannot be refuted. In a replay of the Luddite movement, refusing to accept the findings of AI will undoubtedly be attempted, but will have little effect against the vast advantages afforded to the adopters.
Unlike the distant highly speculative predictions of climate change, these changes are well under development and starting to be adopted. Within the next few years some major changes will start to become manifest.
Repeated experience says there is an objective reality independent of anything we may choose to believe. It also indicates that when our beliefs accord with that reality we generally enjoy a better life than if we hold beliefs that diverge from it. While untruths can sometimes gain a temporary advantage, in the longer term truth always seems to prevail. The scientific method has proven to be our best tool for the discovery of truth and avoiding commitment to false belief; it has yielded more amazing results in the past few hundred years of human history than faith, revelation, authority and all other modalities of knowledge have achieved over the previous several million years.
However, the power that science has provided also makes possible some very bad mistakes. Being honest with ourselves and guarding our best tool for truth-finding against corruption is more important than ever. This cannot be achieved by regulation or legislation. It is going to require changes in attitude like those that have led to changes in freedom of religion, slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights and other major social concerns. As a society we are going to need to be more vigilant in exposing lying in public affairs and less tolerant in voting for dishonesty, doing business with it and otherwise accepting untruth.
In science especially, uncertainties, conflicting evidence and verification of results need greater attention, while the pseudo-scientific claims of authority and consensus must be recognised and dismissed as irrelevant. Modelling also needs to be recognised as a tool that may be precise, crude or irrelevant — it is not evidence in and of itself, requiring verification without which it is just an opinion of the modeller. Data adjustment without clear disclosure of its employment and method amounts to fraud, as does the ignoring of conflicting data and the “cherry picking” of data. All these sorely require attention and if identifiable as deliberately misleading, any formally published studies should be withdrawn as should be all public funding for the researchers responsible.
A career in science is a privilege. It is not a right. Honesty should be demanded.
Note: The Rand Corporation thinktank in the U.S. has instituted an ongoing examination of what it terms Truth Decay in public affairs. A variety of interesting information from this initiative is available online at: https://www.rand.org/research/projects/truth-decay.html