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4.0 out of 5 stars Why Truth Matters ... And Why the Question Needed to be Asked., 2 Nov 2011
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This review is from: Why Truth Matters (Paperback)
Why does truth matter? Why is it necessary to ask this question at all?

The answer is because truth has fallen out of fashion in some quarters the subject here isn't the reactionary political and religious right. It's about the academic left, the sort of people who once welcomed science as a weapon against oppression but have fallen out of love with it. Instead science has come to be seen in these quarters as a buttress of capitalism and oppression - science `legitimates bourgeois ideology'. Hence what counts for scientific truth is nothing of the sort. What we hold to be true is not the outcome of reason, evidence and debate. One claim is as good as another; whether it is accepted as true depends on the outcome of a power struggle.

We can apply two reality checks to the most extreme post-modernist claims. First of all, they end up refuting themselves. The claim that all claims are equally true, because all claims are as good as one another, is a statement that claims to be true. But if the statement is true, it is in fact false. Second, there is common sense, that handy epistemological device we use in everyday life. We wait for a suitable gap in all too real traffic to appear before attempting to cross the road. We seek bargains and do deals based on information that we can check. The information can be trusted or disregarded because it's either true or false. And if you have been duped, you will find out. Anyone who has ever bought anything second hand can confirm the truth of this statement.

But the misunderstandings about the nature of science go beyond that and the common sense response isn't enough. One salient example is the persistent misunderstanding of Richard Dawkin's book `The Selfish Gene'. Dawkins argued that genes are `survival machines' and they are `selfish' in the technical sense that they seek to replicate themselves. The term does not describe the behaviour of a living organism, which is of course an assemblage of genes. Trees are composed of selfish genes but you would sound stupid if you describe trees as behaving selfishly. Dawkins was merely describing a biological mechanism, not a psychological one.

Genes are not emotional, cannot make choices in the sense of consciously choosing right from wrong and selfish genes theory can account for altruistic behaviour on the part of an organism. And, as Dawkin's as said on numerous occasions, no `ought' can be deduced from an `is'. Science cannot tell us how to live. Even if it could be shown conclusively that (say) race and intelligence correlates, no policy conclusions follow from this. The apprehension that if human nature or even gender difference has some biological foundation then this would validate oppression is misconceived for this very reason. In the real world, sexual and racial oppression of the vilest kind is not validated by science, but by non-scientific authorities like culture or religion, which neither demand nor require evidence.

The problem with politically engaged academics and researchers is that a commitment to an activist mode of operation necessarily means shutting down the consideration of uncomfortable evidence. The case of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, a close student of the Yanomami (an indigenous tribe native to Venezuela and Brazil) is apposite. Chagnon claimed that warriors who were successful warriors were also sexual and reproductive successes. The more men they had killed in battle, the more sexual partners and children they had. All's fair in love and war? The campaign of vituperation and calumny against Chagnon did not so much take issue with the evidence but his motives and character. But if you believe that the search for truth is power struggle, not an argument and a discussion, then there is no need to assess the evidence on its own merits. Character assassination and impugning the motives of the researcher are valid means to prosecute the struggle.

Why does this matter? There is nothing emancipatory about any of this. Post-modern theories seem to be motivated not to liberate people from fears but to create new ones: `to tell spooky stories about power, regimes, authority, status, elites, expertise that can sound bizarrely like paranoiac ravings about Freemasons and the Illuminati.' Ultimately, it's about substituting evidence for rhetoric and `rhetoric is not emancipatory because it represents the replacement of truth by will.' Such a world serves the likes of Vatican, `where the pope declares what is true about anything he is moved to declare on, and his subjects accept that without further investigation (pp. 177-178). This is a style of argument that the academic left ought to eschew but will it?
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