Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.

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6 thoughts on “Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

  1. I agree with much of what has been said above, especially how important it is to accept the processual nature of all this: to focus on having conversations, rather than on what is true or not true.

    You started by saying this Rob: “By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions.” I want to ask, what is dependable knowledge? I am pretty sure some philosophers would have views on this; my view is very personal. For me, dependable knowledge is that which I can sense.

    This is what I think of as ‘facts’.

    Everything else is opinion, or belief, and should therefore be subject to the critical approach you suggest. The critical approach means noticing our own beliefs and opinions, and especially noticing how our emotions get in the way of noticing that they are our own beliefs and opinions, and not ‘facts’.

    Personally, I have had the sobering experience several times of believing something to be ‘true’ only to discover that more likely I wanted it to be true, or that in some other way my emotions were affecting my view.

  2. Thanks you for your thoughtful comments. Apart from Trumpism on a macro scale I have become aware of this lack of critical thought and reflexivity on a smaller scale particularly amongst students. I don’t think we do them/anyone a good service in not being challenging. It is very sad in what you say, that you can’t talk about these things amongst friends. I have a friend in the pub and we have very different views but we can still have a good conversation and in doing so I sometimes see things differently. You are right, to me it is the wider ability that we are losing that is worrying – from Brexit to Trump we attack the person first, rubbish what they have to say and have lost and generosity to see if they have a point, and from that to build a bridge with our own. From what I understand of the US political system it was intended as an imperfect system which forced people to get along with each other – it would be a shame for us all if that were lost.

    • We ought to be able to exchange our thoughts and feelings with each other in a candid manner yet with respectfulness and sensitivity for differing views. If we engage others in meaningful conversation rather than simply seeking to assert our own agendas it is possible to maintain relationships with a wide range of people who hold opposing views to our own.

      “Truth is not a virtue but a passion”. Albert Camus

  3. Rob, thanks for a thoughtful and timely post on the problem of so called fake news and how we can sort out the reliable and valuable from the garbage. I apologize for the time it took to collect my own thoughts and compose a rather long winded comment, but the loss of civility and balance in our political discourse won’t go away any time soon.

    I certainly have never seen anything like the unhinged hyperbole and outright nastiness being put out even by what I used to consider respectable publications, let alone the junk on social media. Although some see this as a new problem, the collateral damage of recent, contentious elections and other divisive political processes, biased or outright fake news has been around as long as news has been around. Politics is an ideological enterprise. It’s about beliefs and attitudes, rhetoric and persuasion, justification and rationalization—not about rational analysis and a quest for truth. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, we shouldn’t expect to find anything like objective truth in the political arena. Biased news and “spin” can take many forms–for example, ignoring, downplaying or discrediting relevant information that doesn’t support a preferred narrative, or exaggerating information that does–and are, therefore, more insidious than outright lies.

    One of the difficulties in debating these contentious issues is the tendency of partisans to couch consequences in apocalyptic terms and as resulting from simple cause and effect relationships: human activity causes climate change so London and New York will be under 4 meters of water by the end of the century; Trump (who hasn’t even taken office yet) is a dictator who’s destroying our republic; Brexit will destroy the British economy and the European project. That makes it easy to trash opposing points of view as inevitably causing disasters. At either end of the political spectrum, proposed solutions to identified problems are also ideological rather than scientific (no matter how much they claim otherwise), with no concern for the inevitable unintended consequences. One would think that academicians, of all people, would know better and would encourage free and open debate, but it appears that many academics are among the most ideologically driven and intolerant partisans of all.

    It seems to me this inserts real fear into political discourse. In addition to the fear of being ostracized, personally attacked or ridiculed for one’s opinions, there are more serious, career limiting consequences to free expression of “wrong” ideas in certain settings: not only in academia, but among entertainment celebrities, in bureaucracies, in news media, in certain high tech companies and so forth.

    While social media create many more outlets for political hyperventilation, unfiltered by any editorial process, I’m not certain an editorial process necessarily produces a more credible product. All of our actions are shaped by our own ideologies, and, as you say, people tend to gravitate towards others of like minds—harmony is always more comfortable than conflict. Editors and editorial boards are no less immune to bias and groupthink than the rest of us, and I believe there is good evidence that the editorial boards of many academic journals and business publications tend to favour articles that reinforce a certain world view or orthodoxy. While I was doing the DMan, I became aware of criticism of Ralph Stacey in some circles because he published almost nothing in peer reviewed journals (not in any of the prestigious ones, anyway). The implication was, of course, that Ralph and his views were not to be taken seriously. While I consider Ralph an original thinker of the first order, how likely is the Harvard Business Review to publish an article by an outspoken critic of system thinking hailing from an obscure (to US readers) university in the UK?

    I agree completely with your main point, however. It is up to each of us to sort through and make sense of the cacophony, so we can make responsibly informed actions and avoid getting sucked in to the madness. But I believe the reflexivity for each of us must begin with a long, hard look in the mirror, and that is, I suspect, the greatest challenge. As you say, most of us find some comfort and confirmation in the views of the like-minded, and so are inclined to judge those sources of news and opinion as more reliable and useful. You go on to say, referring to those sources, “What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views?” Shouldn’t we substitute “we” for “they” as a starting point—to try, at least, to reflect on our own biases first? Beyond that, I think it’s important to read widely and with an open mind, including news, opinion and commentary from sources that challenge our own world view. I appreciate a well agued position, even if I don’t agree with it, and sometimes I’m persuaded to change my own thinking.
    What to me has been most unfortunate in all of this has been our inability to have civilized conversation around political issues. Some of more extreme reactions to Trump’s election—the excuses, conspiracy theories and hysteria–have been laughable. The republic will survive—and he just might turn out to be a good President. I yearn to tell some people “Grow up and get over it”—but I don’t. Feelings are so strong and so inflexible that my wife and I banned political conversation from our dinner table over the holidays, and we avoid discussing politics with friends we know are in “the other camp” or bringing politics up in situations where we’re not sure where others stand. It’s just not worth losing friends over this stuff, especially when one is disinclined to assume climactic, financial or political doomsday is upon us.

    Thinking in more processual terms would be helpful in sorting through all of this. We know that, despite the occasional lurch, complex processes, both social and natural, evolve over time, with lots of interaction among the participants/agents and lots of opportunity for random events to shape trajectories. A catastrophic volcanic eruption would cool the planet almost overnight and completely change climate dynamics—and the discourse about how to save ourselves–for months or years. In addition to ignoring mitigating factors “built in” to social and natural processes, there seems to be a complete unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of good outcomes: Trump just might do a good job; historic warm periods have benefitted agriculture and made normally colder places inhabitable (at least in Europe); there are signs that the British economy will do just fine in the years ahead.

    I’m hoping things settle down in the new year—but I’m not overly optimistic. I think your Queen gave some good advice—it’s time to step back and take a deep breath. Perhaps sheer exhaustion with the shouting and finger pointing will encourage more open mindedness and civility.

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