Monday, November 19, 2007

Trustworthy

Last week, Slacktivist commented on how some of the discussions connected to the "Intelligent Design" debate bring up the idea of who one "trusts" for information. Although Slacktivist moves rather quickly from religious issues to how this notion of "trust" has changed the way that journalists do their reporting (given Slacktivist's occupation working for a newspaper, this makes sense), I'd prefer to stick with the religious issues category.

The original post Slacktivist cites goes into some considerable detail as the issue of "trust" relates to the "Intelligent Design" debate. More than I care to read through with any attention to detail — just skimming through it all makes my eyes gloss over — but that's really the point. Most of us can't take the time to learn all the details necessary to truly understand many of these disciplines, and so we are forced to choose which sources to trust as reliable at some point or another.

But what really surprises me about all this is that both Slacktivist and tristero seem to think that bringing up the issue of trust is some new tactic that religious believers are using to bolster weak arguments. No doubt some religious believers do use this tactic as a diversionary tactic, but even there, it's hardly new. I've heard this kind of thing for many years now. For example, the old chestnut about how Jesus is referenced in more ancient documents than say, Socrates or Julius Caesar (in fact, I feel that I've mentioned this one before, but can't find the reference at present). This is an attempt, whatever else it's doing, to suggest that if we trust our history professors (or whoever) enough to believe that Socrates and Caesar existed (and why shouldn't we?), we should believe that Jesus existed, as well. And that's all well and good. The fact that most (not quite all, but pretty darn close) of those documents are themselves religious documents may or may not be meaningful to that discussion, but either way, it brings up the trust issue, and it's been used for years.

But the fact that the issue of trust has been misused for diversionary purposes does not negate the truth of the claim behind it: our knowledge is dependent upon which sources we choose to believe are reliable. This is inescapable. One certainly hopes that people are being trained in critical thinking enough to be able to evaluate potential sources for their reliability, but at some point or another, one still has to make a choice: do I trust this source or don't I? This has implications for every part of our lives: religious, journalistic, political, whatever.

I find it ironic that the self-proclaimedly liberal Slacktivist is the one who decries the current trend:
...promoters of junk science deliberately seek to push the dispute away from questions of fact to questions of trust. Tristero thinks that tactic has to be confronted explicitly — that this is a game we should refuse to play. I think he's right about that.... That way lies madness — treating the world like a game of "Family Feud" in which there are no true or false answers, no actual facts, only the arbitrary opinions of "100 people surveyed, top five answers on the board."
I find this ironic, because I'm so used to hearing the conservatives argue that it's the "liberals" who seek to deny the objectivity of truth. Not so, here. The "liberal" is (rightly) accusing the proponents of a conservative religious line of thinking of promoting the idea that one cannot or should not worry about the facts.

I think that both are right, and both are wrong, here. There is such a thing as objective truth, but I'm not at all convinced that facts and figures can be interpreted wholly objectively. Just look at how candidates for political office spin facts and figures to suit their own ends. We do well to treat these statements, however many facts and figures are tossed our way, with a critical eye.

In any event, I agree insofar as we should be encouraging people to weigh arguments on the basis of their inherent strengths, and that there are indeed "facts" to consider when doing this. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that if we have all the facts, that we'll all finally agree on their interpretation. Human nature simply doesn't work that way.

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