A useful corrective

Some time ago, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert L. Park laid out the “seven warning signs of bogus science”. He forgot the eighth sign: being the pet theory of a Bush appointee. For a detailed report on studied ignorance and outright bogus science in Bush’s first term, see Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: Investigation of the Bush administration's abuse of science, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as the concurrent statement on Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking, signed by 62 prominent scientists.
Climate change is one example: see Derrick Z. Jackson, “Bush Fries Climate Change” (originally published in the Boston Globe 20 June 2003) and a recent report on the distortion and suppression of research at “Ignoring Science?”, also from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
I never was much enamored of the tendency among some radical critics of Western thought to denigrate truth, and to regard relativism as integral to a progressive politics of knowledge (). It is one thing to note that those in power often lie, or are indifferent to truth, and that crimes have been committed in its name (is there any ideal not so sullied?). It is another to suppose that a hermeneutics of suspicion extended so far as to cast out truth (with a small ‘t’, not the Truth), and for which argument is simply another exercise of power, could somehow advance the cause of the oppressed. The oppressors—as is apparent in the current administration—will only too happily accept the substitution of power, which they have, for truth, which doesn’t matter to them. (See Franklin Foer, “The Closing of the Presidential Mind”, New Republic 5 July 2004: how sad it is that now Nixon’s term looks like a Golden Age).
() One locus classicus is Nietzsche’s “Of truth and lie in an extra-moral sense” (1873; the German original is in Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, eds. Sämtliche Werke, Kritische Studienausgabe 1:872–890). Truth is “a mobile army“Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen kurz eine Summe van menschlichen Relationen, die, poetisch und rhetorisch gesteigert, übertragen, geschmückt wurden, und die nach langem Gebrauche einem Volke fest, canonisch und verbindlich dünken: die Wahrheiten | sind Illusionen, von denen man vergessen hat, dass sie welche sind, Metaphern, die abgenutzt und sinnlich kraftlos geworden sind, Münzen, die ihr Bild verloren haben und nun als Metall,nicht mehr als Münzen in Betracht kommen” (KSA 1:880–881). of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins”. This after a dubious discussion of the origin of truth in the defenses employed by the weak against the strong, in which truth arises as part of a “peace pact” ending the war of all against all, and some observations to the effect that all words are metaphorical (because, it would seem, all general terms are abstractions, and none can touch the individual as it is).
The essay argues, in effect, against certain naïve conceptions of the relations of language to the world, and notes correctly that “survival value” and “truth” are only loosely correlated: a creature can tolerate imprecision in its perceptions and conceptions, and even (according to some accounts of secondary qualities) certain sorts of systematic illusion, without thereby being destined for extinction. Following out the rest of Nietzsche’s argument, one might well agree with much of what he says; but then take it, not as an argument for rejecting the notion of truth or the “will to truth” properly understood, but as an indication of how difficult it was, and continues to be, to bind ourselves to attempt to comprehend the world as it is, and how precarious those social ideals that fall under the heading of “objectivity”, “integrity”, and so forth really are.
I must admit that I once found this kind of talk—armies, marching metaphors, defaced coins, and so on—more intoxicating than I do now. It is a fine antidote against smugness, a potent dissolver of dogma. To see that some talk of truth, like some talk of justice, is only a velvet glove worn by would-be dictators in their more conciliatory moods, is salutary. But then one begins to see that to deprive yourself of the means by which to call a lie a lie, or more generally to abandon the various obligations summed up in words like “honesty” and “integrity”, is to make the decision—which will be made, as in the case of climate change—entirely a matter of power relations. A certain kind of realist would have it that that is how things “really” work, whether we like it or not; but I am enough of a Kantian to suppose that we have the capacity successfully to bind ourselves to obligations to tell the truth, or at least to avoid deliberate deception, no doubt within certain limits (e.g., concerning self-knowledge); if there is mutual agreement to bind ourselves thus, then what comes to be accepted as true will not be entirely a matter of power relations.

LinkFebruary 18, 2005 in Current Affairs · Science