Fake News and The Manifest Truth Delusion: Part 2 of 3

Nineteen Eighty-Four Parallels

The most well-known dystopian novel of the 20th Century, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, featured a Ministry of Truth, the centre of mind-control, with tentacles sprawling over news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The BBC recently expanded into education and wishes to “partner” with other major British institutions, such as the Royal Society. Ought one to feel uncomfortable with such an expansion and its potential unintended consequences? Could it herald a dilution of mutual criticism between such institutions that entered into such association, laying the groundwork , brick-by-brick for a monopoly on truth-claims?

The Manifest Truth Delusion

What little plausibility a Ministry of Fake News has depends in part on what Karl Popper called the “Manifest Theory of Truth”. The idea of manifest truth is that if anyone just pays proper attention, then when presented with the truth, they would accept it as obvious. If truth were manifest, fake news would be opaque. In that case, the systematic identification and extirpation of all and only fake news would be feasible even if expensive. But it is a delusion. It is an old authoritarian theory of knowledge that can be traced back at least to Aristotle.

All Assumptions — Including our Prejudices and Biases — Are Conjectures.

Karl Popper countered the manifest truth idea by arguing that capturing truth is possible, but it is often a hard-won gem. Truth is captured — if at all — through guesswork followed by ruthless and relentless criticism. This is Popper’s method of conjecture and refutation. In an attempt to solve a problem in explaining the structure of the world, a scientist creates a hypothesis. Typically, the scientist then works out what logically follows from this hypothesis in conjunction with other conjectures, often comprising initial conditions and background knowledge. Ideally, there ought to be many competing hypotheses. At any stage we are always only in possession of conjectured truth. Even the observational test reports are laden with conjectural theory. Science starts, not with unprejudiced or unbiased observation, but with those very prejudices and biases.

Truth Outside the Head

There are three main theories of truth. There is the pragmatic theory, which teaches us that truth is usefulness: a view is true if it advances your interests. Then we have the coherence theory, which teaches us that truth is a consistency: a view is true if it holds together logically with what you already believe. Finally, there is the classical theory: a view is true if it corresponds to the world. This is the main contender for what is our common-sense notion.

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Dr Ray Scott Percival

Written by

Author of the book The Myth of the Closed Mind and director of the documentary Liberty Loves Reason, starring David Deutsch F. R. S. and Prof. Paul Levinson.

Conjecture Magazine

Conjecture Magazine is dedicated to progress through ever better explanations, criticism thereof, and avoiding appeals to authority in all its guises.

Dr Ray Scott Percival

Written by

Author of the book The Myth of the Closed Mind and director of the documentary Liberty Loves Reason, starring David Deutsch F. R. S. and Prof. Paul Levinson.

Conjecture Magazine

Conjecture Magazine is dedicated to progress through ever better explanations, criticism thereof, and avoiding appeals to authority in all its guises.

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