Credibility & Other Demons

The past few months have made me wonder what is the value of truth in a culture, or more expansively in any culture. How is it produced and how is it identified as truth? Not truth with a capital T of the transcendent sort that is of interest to theologians and metaphysicians. But the more basic, factual, statements that can be discerned without an extravagant expenditure of energies. The kind of statements that most observers would agree form the basis of everyday living. Small truths. I brushed my teeth today. She wore a black dress on Wednesday. New England Patriots play American football. The sort of statements that we use to annotate everyday life to communicate with each other. A collection of such facts — some easily verifiable, some less so — become what we collectively identify as reality.

Yet the more I think about the concatenation between occurrence of events, description of the same event, and communication of the event — the harder it is to lay my finger on what is it that we are talking about when we mean ‘truth’. These thoughts rise to the fore, particularly, in the age of Trump. If there is a singular marker of the current administration, it is how “facts” are put in service of the creation of a mood or a prejudice. Yet what these facts — not just Trump’s facts about reality — tells us really is that the real issue at hand is the question of ‘validity’ of statements that constitute any description of reality. If you can convince others of the validity of your statement, then thanks to the fact of others deeming your claim valid, that statement is reclassified as belonging to class of statements that we call ‘truth’.

Unlike ‘transcendent’ truth, this means three things:

(a) if another set of evidences can be brought to bear, this ‘truth’ can be undermined (“she didn’t wear black but it was a blue dress”)

(b) any truth claim must always allow for the possibility that in another state of world, reality might be described differently (“she may have worn a black dress, but I believe it was blue”)

(c) truth is born out of a marriage of credibility of speaker and validity of the statement. (“since I am known to often speak truth and my statement seems reasonable, this statement is thus true”)

Viewed thus, truth is thus the manufacture of a social consensus. Amidst these preliminary thoughts, I happened upon something Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, had thought and written about for long. She wrote that so intimately connected are methods by which societies distributes credibility with society’s moral self-conception that if we can describe these methods of credibility production, we can describe a culture itself. To understand America’s claims about itself, its culture, one way is to understand how it produces credibility. Viewed thus, our daily lives become continual efforts to accrue the ‘technical’ wherewithal to be seen as more credible. Our moral lives, in turn, are then self-aware exercises to make our claims more credible to ourselves. Scientists, we tend to believe, have a relatively more agreed upon procedures to arrive at such credibility (the four fold prerequisites of the Edinburgh Strong program shows how subtle production of scientific truth can be) . Politicians on the other hand have to resort to other means to generate validity. Authoritarian politicians rely on generating validity by repetition of their message from sources they control; while democratic politicians rely on producing validity by repetition of their message from sources they can’t control.

Such a view of ‘truth’ — a representation of reality induced by validity and credibility — is that it allows us to question what is mass marketed as ‘truth’ itself by looking into how credibility about statements is produced. For students of economics, sciences and mathematics — each of these disciplines makes progressively stronger claims of infallibility — the idea of socially produced truths sits uncomfortably. Nevertheless, the more I read history of science, the more persuaded I am. Steven Shapin, whom I greatly enjoy and admire, writes that Shakespeare’s Cordelia is closer to the modernist ideal of science as the uncovering of ‘truth’ (Cordelia didn’t flatter her father or exaggerate her love for him, for she thought all that mattered what the truth of her love). In contrast, Lear is representative of how reality is understood by us, by societies. Imperfectly, contingent on the nature of the persuader, with frailty, as an admixture of incomplete comprehension and prejudice, that is ‘human, all too human’.