Thursday, October 12, 2006

Truths are stories made to connect facts?

This comment on the xenophobia issue is from Colin Hannaford, known to many of you at the NCF:

Recently I was invited to a conference in London organised by the Next Century Foundation and the Church of St Brides, Fleet Street. The participants, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular, were concerned by the waves of xenophobia and conspiracy theories being reported in the media and threatening to drown rational discourse.

When asked to comment, I pointed out that just three centuries ago science had been in a similar predicament. It then seemed impossible to disentangle the innumerable theories about the working of reality, each one being upheld by its adherents as the only possible truth. The success of Newton’s cosmology appeared to offer a complete alternative, one directed and overseen by God, but also not susceptible to conflicting claims on His attention by sacrifice or prayer. But then, I continued - for I was allowed only a few minutes to comment on the main speeches - science fell into the same trap as others. Scientists began to believe that the purpose of science is to discover Truth.

But truths, I said, have to be understood as stories which connect together chosen facts. Exactly the same facts may be also connected by different stories. Conspiracies then form, each favouring the truth of one particular story over the others.

Sooner or later, in science - as occasionally also in life - a fact appears of obviously great significance, which no degree of modification of some conspirators’ stories can connect with the other facts. Then these conspirators will be forced to abandon their particular story - at least, ostensibly; at least for the time being.

I proposed, therefore, that the solution to their fears is to realise that the media is simply a major part of a society’s education system. If social consensus is to be prevented from collapsing under the weight of so many conspiracy theories; and - far more important - if open warfare is also to be prevented, schools must teach children what scientists now accept: that all truths are stories made to connect chosen facts. The facts themselves are often important, demonstrable, immutable. But all these stories must be treated to an appropriate degree of scepticism. All must be treated - just as science now treats its theories - as contingent and provisional until or unless action is called for. If this then occurs, the action must also involve accepting responsibility for any consequence.

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