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on 17 January 2010
This elegantly argued work examines the reason why and the ways in which modern thought and culture dispensed with the primacy of truth, whether that of historical fact or science. Differences about the best way of discovering or defining truth are as old as civilization but the existence of truth itself was not in doubt. Benson and Stangroom defend objective truth, reason and rationality, making an inspired plea for restoring truth to a place of honor. Their arguments encompass examples from inter alia anthropology, psychology, feminism, politics and assorted philosophies.

The late twentieth century saw an assault on truth like never before. The legacy of the Enlightenment fell out of fashion and in its place came a bewildering tumult of irrational pseudo-philosophies like deconstruction, postmodernism, relativism and multiculturalism. A variety of ideological and political agendas gained prominence, various fundamentalisms resurfaced, pseudoscience & superstition sneaked into academia and the denial of historical fact became commonplace.

Seeking truth is a preference. Some people feel comfortable with ideological/religious authorities thinking for them. Others choose to inhabit a mental sphere where notions about truth are flexible and constantly shifting, mixed with emotion, wishful thinking and daydreaming. Then there are those who genuinely prefer to pursue truth even when it leads to the disturbing, painful or unpleasant. The authors argue that people who do not hold truth in high esteem are the ones most likely to believe that the ends justify the means.

The Enlightenment legacy is being challenged today by an array of fundamentalisms who wish to protect their doctrines/ideologies from critical scrutiny, by skeptics of the counter-Enlightenment who assert that myth, claims of revelation and even hallucination are the equals of rational enquiry and by obscurantist postmodernists who deny the existence of objective truth altogether.

In their discussion of philosophy, the authors point out postmodernism's origin in the skeptical tradition where reason and evidence were dismissed as mere custom. Divorcing truth from reason and reality, postmodernists claim that it is whatever a community considers socially acceptable. To them, everything is a "construct": science, law, art and rationality are illusions purveyed by rival interests in the pursuit of power.

Stephen Hicks' illuminating analysis Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault is highly recommended. Despite it having been mocked by amongst others Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont in the Sokal Hoax and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, this mindset has made deep inroads in the humanities, media and popular culture. The sinister result is that the distinction between good and evil is simultaneously undermined, leading to indifference or even inversion.

It becomes impossible to discredit that which is harmful when solidarity displaces truth. And when emotion is raised above reason, civilization is disarmed of its most potent protection against the baser instincts: the shield of evidence. The book exposes a rat's nest of toxic thoughts espoused by the enemies of science from the romantic poets to the social constructivists like Richard Rorty and Bruno Latour.

The authors' observations on the interaction of ideology, science and politics encompass discussions of social Darwinism, eugenics and Holocaust denial with reference to the notorious David Irving. They explain why & how "Theory" courses based on conceptual or linguistic contortions multiply in academia, consider the many ways that truth can be distorted and examine some of the causes.

Postmodernists portray their anti-philosophy as a heroic struggle on behalf of the oppressed and non-western when it is really a betrayal, since reason, logic, evidence and the scientific method belong to all humanity. The actual tyranny is to permit authority to enforce its version of "truth" without reason or evidence, giving absolute power to tradition, instinct, tribe, nation, race or class. As for tradition, it has its merits as explained by Michael Polanyi in Science, Faith And Society.

Asserting that although truth is not demonstrable, Polanyi explains how it is indeed knowable. Because knowledge & understanding are filtered through language and culture we do not have simple access to objective reality. Benson & Stangroom advise those who think that matters of fact should be decided by evidence rather than ideology to view theories which establish a neat correspondence between the desired and the real with the utmost suspicion.

The authors conclude that truth matters because curiosity, interest, investigation, inquiry and enthusiasm are intrinsic components of human happiness. Humanity is the only species with the gift of conceptual thought. What a waste not to employ our capabilities in the pursuit of truth, which may be considered as both a goal and a search. The enemies of science accuse it of reducing the mysteries of life but the opposite is true -- it increases mystery by forever bringing new ones to light.

For further information on the intellectual enemies of the Enlightenment, I recommend The Reckless Mind by Mark Lilla, Experiments Against Reality by Roger Kimball and Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel.
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on 29 January 2007
The shocks of The Great War of 1914-1918 spawned a social movement known as "nihilism". Values once held meaningful were rejected by those who felt the conflict demonstrated such beliefs to be invalid. The Second World War may be considered the foundation for a similar movement arising in post-War France - "postmodernism". A close cousin of nihilism, the "French philosophy" strives to place all cultures on an equal footing. That equalitiy, moreover, is absolute - any declared stance must be granted equivalent respect with any other. Accompanied by many synonyms such as "cultural relativism" and "post-structuralism", the pestilence quickly spread in Western Europe where its symptoms are clearly seen in media presentations. More significantly, it became firmly established in the US, particularly in universities where it generated such programmes as "Women's [in a variety of spellings] Studies", "African Studies", all with a strong anti-Enlightenment and anti-science orientation. Benson and Stangroom here apply some vigorous therapy to counter the assault on rational thought. Although brief, this book is direct and incisive, clearly exhibiting the malaise infesting our universities and political institutions.

The purpose of this book is to re-establish that "truth" is indeed a valid concept. Postmodernism's contention that there are as many "truths" as there are tellers of it cannot be sustained. Benson and Stangroom, who founded the Website "butterfliesandwheels", explain that truth is empirically based and not a highly variant cultural phenomenon. Because our species appears to be the only one that can define truth, the authors address such fields as anthropology, evolutionary psychology, "women's ways of knowing" and various philosophies in describing how truth has been both supported and distorted.

Certain figures loom large in their presentation, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and Sandra Harding, among others. The authors show how "cultural relativism" has attempted to discredit research in human behaviour with the objective of achieving "political correctness". In anthropology, for example, the episode of Napoleon Chagnon's work among the Yamomano of South America being falsely challenged raised a storm of controversy in the discipline. Although Chagnon was finally vindicated, the controversy brought suspicion on the science and besmirched Chagnon permanently. A related circumstance lies in the pronouncements of Sandra Harding that empirical evidence can have a gender bias and that a "feminist empiricism" should replace long-standing work. Harding, who still teaches at UCLA, has produced a population of graduate students who have fanned out to their own teaching posts and public affairs roles. Among other criticisms, the authors point out that even Harding admits her "philosophy" leads to a wide range of "ways of knowing". Women have indeed been excluded from science, but revising the methodologies isn't going to grant women more places at the lab bench. For all Harding's rhetoric, "E" still equals "mc2".

These examples indicate how knowledge, long and often painfully gained, can be cast aside in the name of some minority's demand for "respect". The authors make it clear that tearing down established knowledge and the methods of attaining it does not enhance or restore elements of society who feel they are victims of injustice. Part of the work of empirical research is to examine those injustices and right them. Their cause, however, isn't due to truth being false, but being misused. The fascisti mis-applied Charles Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest", but that, the authors insist, doesn't reflect a flaw in the basic premise. The danger in not knowing how to make the distinction only results in repeating that kind of history under a new guise. Such distortions are being perpetrated in North American universities on a daily basis and carried into the public realm.

Postmodernism, the authors contend, is more than just a "philosophy". It is an assault on knowledge itself. By contriving the results of research into "tools of oppression", the postmodernists conveniently overlook not only how science works, but who is actually doing the "oppressing". Bench scientists aren't imposing social conditions resulting from their work. Science, no matter how haltingly and hesitantly, is the one means to establish what is valid. Its answers are authoritative because they can be proven correct or not. To undermine those answers through treating them as options instead of data, is simply to falsify the results. The Enlightenment began as a means of overcoming false mythologies. It's depressing to see how a new wave of such mythologies has required a re-starting of Enlightenment principles to overcome it. That long-held standard will prove the needed therapy. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 2 April 2012
This book is in the same vein as "Intellectual Impostures" by Sokal & Bricmont, but is an easier read and more wide ranging in its targets. Others have provided comprehensive reviews, so I'll limit my review to passages which I found particularly interesting and informative.

Chapter 3 Truth Radicals starts with an interesting account of the political/philosophical origins of postmodernism and relativism, which are seen as "collateral damage" of justifiable struggles against inequalities in the 1960s. The authors go on to identify an "Until Now" self-congratulatory note in postmodernist writings, which encourages outrageous claims. Postmodernists target science because it represents the most authoritative form of knowledge, so must be undermined regardless of its claims to truth. The chapter concludes with a detailed look at three postmodernists: Sandra Harding, Bruno Latour & Andrew Ross.

Chapter 5 Politics, Ideology and Evolutionary Biology was for me the most fascinating chapter. It recounts the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, and its unpleasant and sometimes horrific consequences, which led to a strong mid-century reaction against such ideas. But by the 1970s there was renewed interest in biological explanations of human behaviour, as exemplified by E. O. Wilson's book, "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis" and Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene". What is fascinating is the furious reaction this provoked - particularly, but not exclusively, from biologists with left-wing sympathies, such as Stephen Rose. Most extraordinary is the philosopher Mary Midgley's reaction to the Selfish Gene. Several pages are devoted to the Dawkins-Midgley controversy, and Midgley comes out of it badly. Her obtuseness in misunderstanding Dawkins' arguments is breathtaking. I've since heard her on the radio still stubbornly defending her position. The lesson of this chapter is that participants in scientific debates are heavily influenced, if not blinded, by their personal ideological beliefs. The authors identify a mindset "which undermines the proper examination of sociobiological arguments" and "subjugates science to political and moral commitments", involving an almost childish wishful thinking.

This wishful thinking phenomenon is examined in more detail in Chapter 6. Although not a monopoly of the left, wishful thinking depends on the belief that human beings are "blank slates", which has been thoroughly refuted by Stephen Pinker in "Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature". Benson & Stangroom skilfully show how wishful thinking has resulted in confused thinking and absurd beliefs in politics, feminism and academia.

The question in the book's title is answered in Chapter 8. Truth "matters because we are the only species we know of that has the ability to find it out. In a way that makes it almost a duty to do so." I found this quite moving. It reminded me of Einstein saying that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible. Surely then, we have a responsibility to strive for the truth.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 November 2011
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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 4 August 2007
Apologies in advance to academics wanting a review as thorough as Stephen A Haines' below.

This book came up on my Amazon recommended list after I read books on the subject of the modern relevance (or irrelevance) of religion, by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lewis Wolpert, so I gambled on it and was mostly disappointed.

I'd have to disagree with some of the other reviews and say that the readability and accessibility of this book varies from chapter to chapter. In places it is very strong, particularly when it considers 'hot topics', for example the teaching in Mormon-run American schools or the money ploughed into pro-smoking 'scientific' research.

However I found that for my un-academic tastes, too much of this book was ungrounded philosophy for academia's sake- considering a bunch of other recent books on postmodern philosophy and criticising them. It feels like part of the ongoing treadmill, in which future publications will quote and criticise "Why Truth Matters" and collectively they all keep themselves in a job without coming to any conclusions that have any real impact to the casual reader.
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on 1 September 2011
This book is about Truth in our day to day understanding of the word. Thus it is not a philosophical dissertation on the nature of Truth, which I thought it was when I bought it. That said however, I was not disappointed. The whole book is a fascinating and informative read. It deals with if not all, but nevertheless, the vast number of instances where Truth has been avoided, manipulated, distorted, disguised, invented for a purpose, or used purporting to be the basis of a highly questionable viewpoint.
The book has obviously been well researched and is a very good account of the vicissitudes of human nature where truth is concerned.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 August 2009
Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum, 2006, 212 ff.

Exploring the concept of truth
By Howard A. Jones

Overall, this book is probably more suited to serious students of philosophy than for the general reader because it uses many terms, concepts and references (universalism, neopragmatism, cultural relativism, nihilism, etc.) the significance of which can only be appreciated by a fair amount of previous scholarship. Incidentally, nihilism is not a movement that originated from the carnage of The Great War. It is a term that has been applied to the scepticism of Pyrrho, the atheism of Nietzsche, and even to the anatta of Buddhism.

We all think we know what `truth' means: congruence with the way the world is. But the authors show that there are many shades of truth: `any kind of political theorizing is . . . likely to include an element of wishful thinking' - as when we were told that BSE could not harm humans and that contaminated meat was safe to eat. Indeed, our mistrust of politicians is partly because of their extensive use of `spin', a euphemism for lies, deceit and distorted truth.

As with Humpty Dumpty in his confrontation with Alice, there are many for whom the word `truth' means whatever they want it to mean. Thus, religious fundamentalists believe in the truth of their scriptures and the words of their respective prophets: adherents of other religions would disagree. The authors discuss the academic freedom of staff at Brigham Young University in the light of religious prescription. Benson and Stangroom also urge caution in assessing the truth of data when research is funded by commercial organisations.

This is a thought-provoking book that makes many valuable points, often in quite witty fashion. It isn't an easy read, but those who do get through it will be well rewarded.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.

What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed
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on 2 March 2012
This is an important and timely book which confronts a lot of fashionable relativistic nonsense. Working in academia and sometimes in danger of being swamped by postmodern claptrap, this book was a lifeline.
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on 5 July 2016
This was a present purchased for my husband, with which he was pleased
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on 5 April 2015
A stunningly good book-I have re-read it several times.
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