Monday, December 29, 2014

Should anyone be offended by "objective truths"?

The following quote has recently been circulating:
"Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them." (Neil deGrasse Tyson, quoted from here.)
It sounds good and rational and noble for a moment, but only for a moment: objective truth alone is not a sufficient motivation for making a statement. As parents, of course, we've had this discussion with our children many times.
"Look, that girl's bigger than me and she still has to ride with training wheels!" 
"Don't shout that across the playground, sweetie, you might make her feel bad and then she might give up and not improve. It's also boasting about being better than other people and that makes you sound unkind, which isn't fair to yourself." 
"But it's true, she is bigger than me!" 
"Of course. But there are some things that are true that we don't say, because they are unkind, and saying unkind things can hurt other people and ourselves." 
And so it begins, and continues as we develop and mature. Outward appearances are an obvious place to start: if someone has a physically obvious blemish or disability, you don't remark upon it when you're introduced. If someone's giving a presentation and you see a spelling or grammatical error in their slides, you don't interrupt just to point it out. If someone farts in a meeting, you don't point across the table and say "he just farted".

Why not? Why do we have to abide by all these sensitivities? It's because communication is about much more than conveying facts. Communication has a host of complex purposes in developing and maintaining social relationships. In an increasingly complex society, we depend on these relationships and must nurture them carefully. If it is necessary for some even more pressing purpose, we may present some unpleasant-but-true statements that risk upsetting people, but this is not something we should do lightly.

Gradually we learn a range of more subtle and intangible sensitivities. When we learn someone's racial or national background, we don't list facts about how those people have been oppressors or oppressed at various times. There are several words related to sexuality and race that we are told not to use at all, even in the objectively true statement "People like you used to be called such-and-such". If some such observation is a relevant and important contribution to an ongoing conversation (for example, in a discussion about the language used by authors from other periods), we try our best to find a polite and sensitive way to proceed.

More subtle still are statements that are true but distort the truth. For example, most people can't program computers. No problem so far, most people haven't learned. It pretty much follows that most men can't program computers, and that most women can't program computers. Now, suppose I start a conversation with "Most women can't program computers". Being true doesn't make this statement good - the fact that it's true makes its use to promote a groundless sexist judgement even worse.

I'm guessing - at least, I hope - that if the reader has made it this far that we're in broad agreement. "It's true" is not normally considered a good excuse for deliberately upsetting people.

Sadly, these norms are sometimes ignored when we discuss politics or religion. As a case-in-point, consider a popular scientist's messages on Christmas Day (quoted above), saying that it is Isaac Newton's birthday (which it is), in the USA it is a "shopping holiday" (somewhat true, but a partial distortion), and that people should be enlightened not upset because this is objective truth. Much of the rest is predictable: people vilify one another, some Christians end up with a worse impression of science than before, and those who dislike Christianity say the whole thing is the fault of Christians because obviously Christians can't think rationally.

If you don't see anything wrong here, consider similar actions with a different target. For example, we celebrate Passover at home. Public figures never intrude by publishing messages saying that in the USA it's an "eating holiday". If they did, there would be an outcry: not because the statement is false, not because it causes material harm to people, but because it's going out of ones way to insult Jewish families.

If you change the nouns used in an argument and no longer agree with the conclusion, then the argument is a fallacy. That is the very bedrock of logic. So if you think such a statement made to Christian families is jolly good fun, but made to Jewish families would be reprehensible, you must question your motivation.

This behavior is bad for at least two reasons. First, it's a bit cruel. As the messages were published, millions of American Christians were celebrating with their families, staying home, and bothering nobody else on this particular day. If they're not hurting anyone, a cheap put-down brings but a moment of glee, paid for by a lasting increase in resentment. That's a bad deal for everyone. Secondly, it fuels a contemporary presumption that scientists and other rational people should not be religious. With this comes some nasty put-downs, which are a disgrace to the legacy of great scientists such as Copernicus, Newton and Einstein, who were not only deeply religious, but are also remembered as showing great compassion for others.

We need to promote the use of science to guide the survival of life on our planet through the coming centuries: to honor the great scientists of the past, there can be no more fitting and no more pressing tribute. For this to work, we all have to find common ground and work together. If scientists use their position to insult large groups of people, are they striving for a good outcome for everyone, or like so many politicians, are they satisfied with a bad outcome so long as they can blame it on "the other side"? If you want religious people to hear the word of science as clearly as they hear the word of God, stop putting them down.

If we truly revere Sir Isaac Newton (as well we should), let us follow some guidance from one of his many tracts in his lifelong quest for true religion:
"We must love our neighbour as our selves, we must be charitable to all men for charity is the greatest of graces, greater than even faith or hope & covers a multitude of sins."