OxBlog

Sunday, October 26, 2003

# Posted 6:26 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT IS TRUTH? Ex-blogger Mark Butterworth is taking a very creative approach to the issue of accuracy and balance in the media. He is simply asking journalists to provide their personal answer to the age old question of "What is truth?" Mark is also asking a number of bloggers to answer this question, myself included.

While I answered Mark's question the best I could given my lack of philosophical training, I thought it would be a good idea to get some more feedback from what I wrote, which is as follows:
Briefly, I'd say that the simplest kind of truth is factual truth. Much of it is directly observational. This is a table. This a chair. Water is blue.

But, of course, water isn't blue. We just honestly perceive it to be that way. And even tables and chairs aren't really tables and chairs. Those are just made up names we give to loose categories of objects.

Even so, there tends to be so much basic agreement on these loose categories that only philosophers bother to contest them. The NY Times and the National Review, George Bush and Osama bin Laden, can all agree on what is a table and what is a chair.

The utility of this principle extends rather far, enabling us to describe historical events. Germany did invade the Soviet Union in 1941. All of the nouns in the sentence can be endlessly broken down into fragments. The verb "invade" is especially problematic since it is impossible to describe an "action", which doesn't really exist. There was an infinite sequence of lesser actions, each of which can be characterized in many ways. Thus, higher-level verb contain much generalization and interpretation.

Actually, the same is true of nouns. One could substitute "the Nazis", "the fascists" or "Hitler" for the word Germany in the above sentence. Each gives a distinct coloration to its meaning. Even so, those who object to that coloration tend to accept what they perceive as the basic fact of the matter and consciously object to its coloration.

So what does all this have to say about the truth of the news that we read daily? What's very good about it is that you can usually deduce a set of accepted facts even from articles which one believes to be biased.

But you never can know what's being left out. And casual readers tend to be far more influenced by coloration than by "facts". Non-blogging friends of mine tend to see the occupation of Iraq as a catastrophic failure. Yet because they are casual readers, they can't cite the facts on which this observation is based. Rather, the interpretive cues
that appear in almost every NYT article suggest to them a certain interpretation of the matter.

Finally, on top of all this, you have add the complications that come from ethical/ideological disagreements that have nothing to do with what is "true". So the whole situation is something of a mess. But I think the "truthfulness" of the media could be signficantly imporved if journalists were more conscious/honest about the ways in which the presentation of small truths influences our perception of larger ones.
How that's for starters?
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