February 10, 2011 at 7:50 am Leave a comment



Excerpted from his book ““How to Avoid Armageddon”&#8221

“The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.”
– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, 18th century scientist

The source of most human misery is falsehood. Rogues, tyrants and would-be-saviors feed on the inability of most people to recognize falsehood when it is glibly camouflaged by promises of material reward, national glory or spiritual redemption.

The ability to recognize the lie or the half-truth would have stopped many a demagogue from sewing the seeds of racial discrimination, exploitation, poverty and war. For example, if more Germans had recognized the half-truths and spurious assertions in Hitler’s ranting about Teutonic superiority and the accusations against the Jews, he probably wouldn’t have risen to power and plunged the world into a dreadful war which caused the devastation of his own people.

Life is full of similar examples, where because of gullibility, falsehood is accepted – either as naïve belief or because it’s expedient – while the truth is rejected, leading to tragic consequences. The current issues of pollution, climate change, inter-racial hatred, religious fundamentalism and wars in various parts of the world, offer clear examples.

Till now the spread of falsehood and its complementary side, gullibility, have been limited to periodic regional devastation and misery – bad enough in itself. But because of the intensity of environmental damage and the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by tyrants and religious fanatics, the consequences could mean the end of life on this planet as we know it within the near future – either through nuclear warfare or at a later date through the irrevocable destruction of the earth’s eco-structure as a result of continuing, unwise energy production, short-sighted exploitation of natural resources, and industrial and vehicular pollution.

So, the dire need of the moment is to maximalize our ability to recognize falsehood, especially when it is used to promote political, ideological, religious and commercial interests – and then, when perceived, it must be soberly opposed. Granted, this is a very complex expectation. We must learn the difference between really knowing the truth about something and just believing an assumption; we must understand the pernicious comfort lurking in wishful thinking and learn to recognize demagoguery and glib propaganda; we must withstand the charm of smooth speakers and pay attention, not only to their appearance and style, but to their actual words – what is really being said, what is omitted, what is inconsistent with previous statements, what is unsubstantiated, what is illogical, what appeals to our sense of wishful thinking? Above all, we must be critically honest with ourselves.

The oft-repeated phrase that everyone has his own truth is one of the biggest cop-outs for serious challenge to time-honored, but questionable beliefs. What everyone has in actual fact, is his or her own notion of truth, which frequently lacks pertinent facts and includes half-truths and manifestations of wishful thinking. Nevertheless, every single thing, every item, whether visible or invisible, every recorded or unrecorded event and every concept, has its own set of truths, based on reality, facts and conventions. With some things, the truths are readily ascertained. A table, for example, is incontrovertibly and truly a table. It possesses certain clearly and easily assessed truths such as size, weight, shape, color, materials from which it is made and its functions. These are truths, which if ever relevant to some cause or debate, are easily verified.

However, science is a different matter. In all its many branches, the study of science has been a long process of continuous probing, discovery and exposure of more and more hidden truths, proven conclusively through repeated theoretical experimentation, often substantiated by practical application. In most of these cases, scientists and other interested observers and commentators can say unanimously: “About such and such we know that it is a fact; it is a truth.” On the other hand, while heeding the parameters scrupulously used universally to define and authenticate scientific suppositions, there have always been, and probably always will be disagreements as to whether some claims remain hypothetical, or conclusively proven truths, or unfounded assertions. In such cases, the appropriate remarks, even by those who accept the supposition as the truth, would necessarily begin with something like: “There is a theory about such and such …” or “Even though some researchers reject this theory, I believe that it is valid.” These qualifying phrases in themselves would lend truthfulness to the remarks.

With subjects such as religion, politics and history, it is usually much harder to conclusively determine the truth about something in the same practical and objective way as a table or a scientific principle. Indeed, there are many questions that defy ascertainment of the truth. Often, the best we can do in these fields is make an assumption. We can have a belief about something. But no matter how deeply felt, if it is merely a belief, we cannot claim to really know the truth about whatever it is that we believe.

For example, the Bible says that Moses saw a burning bush in the desert, out of which came the voice of God. Now, I can believe this statement – even with deep emotion, and base my life upon this and all the other statements in the Bible. But in all honesty, the only thing about this statement that I can acknowledge as The Truth is that: “the Bible says that Moses saw a burning bush … out of which came the voice of God.” I can only believe that the Bible is the word of God, and again, if I want to be absolutely honest with myself, all I can really know about God is what other people have written. I might have powerful feelings on the subject; I might even conduct an ongoing monologue with a numinous image of something seemingly divine. But I cannot know … in the same way that I can know that a certain object is indubitably a table. I can only believe. And that’s fine, as long as I realize that what I have is belief. This in itself, is a very important realization.

* * *

The question sometimes arises, what should one do in the case of controversy regarding a serious question that calls for taking a stand, but also about which we have not been able to form an opinion because we are not sure of the facts? A pertinent example is the continued, massive use of fossil fuels? For years, scientists have been warning that the extensive use of coal and oil for our energy needs and transportation is causing global warming that will have catastrophic consequences in the future. Clearly, this is a very serious issue. But I keep hearing other scientists, albeit a minority, who argue that the whole issue of global warming is a hoax and that fossil fuels have little or no bearing whatsoever on climate change.

So what am I to believe? My high school knowledge of science, picked up many years ago, is not nearly comprehensive enough for me to know which argument is more valid. I have read the pros and cons, and both assertions have points that seem to make sense to me. But I need to decide to take a stand either way and make a value judgment. So, I can either ignore the problem, because some scientists tell me it’s a false alarm or that global warming is indeed taking place, although it has nothing to do with the use of fossil fuels, but rather because of changes in our solar system over which we have no control? Or should I heed the warnings and advice of the alarmists?

It seems that for a serious question such as this one, I should make an effort to understand the issues involved and come to a reasoned, personal conclusion whether there is cause for concern, and what, if anything, I can do to help on a personal basis? Even though I might have scant knowledge in the related fields of chemistry, meteorology and other environmental sciences, I can nevertheless get a layman’s grasp of the subject by some personal study and consider the different points of view. In the end I can only rely on my common sense, which might or might not enable me to conclude that intensive use of fossil fuels causes climatic change and endangers life on earth. It’s just a belief that I can have, so I cannot in all sincerity claim to know indubitably that this is so. Or I can reject the warnings. This too, constitutes a belief.

I am, however, aware of the fact that wishful thinking also has a bearing on our beliefs and we all tend to indulge in it more than we realize. Clearly, the extensive use of fossil fuels has been very convenient for us all. We enjoy a comfortable lifestyle by consuming huge amounts of electricity, which in many parts of the world is generated by coal. Also, the various means of transportation at our disposal, undreamed of a few generations ago, is possible through the intensive use of fossil fuels. In our homes and offices, the extensive utilization of plastic offers thousands of practical and decorative items that couldn’t have been so reasonably priced using non-fossil materials. So, I must be wary of wishful thinking. I need to be as objective as possible. I must consider the claims of those experts who are skeptical of the dangers of fossil fuels, and weigh these claims against possibility that these people might simply be contrary by nature, or financed by vested interests or themselves badly misinformed. I can’t really know for certain, but I reckon that it is better to be safe than sorry.

In deciding for myself what to believe, I am mindful of the fact that there are over a billion cars on the roads of the world, in addition to all the other sources of pollution. Each car emits a few tons of hydro-carbons and other toxic gases, as well as soot into the air every year. This is an easily verifiable vital piece of information. Also, there are power stations that run on coal, and factories pour enormous amounts of pollutants into the air, sea, rivers, lakes and valleys.

At a certain point in my speculation, I need to ask myself the question that should always be asked about any issue, but especially if there is any doubt: Does it make sense? Does it make sense that all this pollution won’t have an effect on the earth’s eco-structure? And conversely, does it make sense that all this pollution will have an effect on the earth’s eco-structure?

I choose between which answer makes more sense, while being wary of falling prey to wishful thinking, and come to my own personal conclusion. My conclusion should have little to do with whether it matches the stand of whatever political or ideological movement or even religious denomination I follow. If it matches, then well and good. If not, I need to consider the issue on its own merits.

(Actually, whether global warming is really taking place, or whether it is not even caused by us, is not the whole problem. Clearly, we are polluting every part of our world. This is not just mere belief. There is extensive, verifiable data. And pollution in itself is very bad. So, for this reason alone I am able to make a pragmatic decision that I need to adjust my personal lifestyle in order to help reduce the use of fossil fuels and other chemicals and materials that are hazardous to the environment.)

This brings us to the converse of truthfulness, which is falsehood. To a large extent, people everywhere subscribe to falsehood without realizing it. Falsehood is not only a question of uttering lies or half-truths, or indulging in selective omission in order to cover up something. When we choose – because of convenience, expediency or bias – to ignore or downplay a negative phenomenon or danger, or allow a blatant, potentially dangerous untruth to go unchallenged, we are in fact subscribing to falsehood by allowing it to prevail. This is what we should consider when contemplating what to do on a personal basis regarding global warming and pollution, or any other important issue for that matter. In our stand, are we following the principles of truthfulness or are we, heaven forfend, pandering to falsehood.

* * *

Actually, there are very few things that we can know for certain or understand how they function. Even ordinary, every-day things. To a large extent it is belief that determines our routines and attitudes. As mentioned earlier this is clearly so with history, politics, the courtroom and religion.

Regarding every-day issues, my beliefs are largely based on empirical experience. I turn on a switch and a light comes on, even though I might not know anything about electricity. I can get to my office by 9 o’clock in the morning if I catch a bus at 8.20 because I have done this hundreds of times – even though I might not know for sure if the driver got up in time or whether the bus is working properly. I believe that the bus will arrive on time because it has happened so often before.

In fact, I am being truthful about this belief. I truthfully acknowledge that I need to be at the bus stop before 8:20, otherwise I might miss the bus and be late for work. My truthfulness is based on an empirical premise. If I lie to myself, suggesting that it’s fine if I get to the bus stop a few minutes after 8:20, because of my untruthfulness to myself, I could end up losing my job.

This is a small, very mundane example of the importance of truthfulness on a personal level. Employed as an unbreakable principle for every aspect of our lives, as well as for society as a whole, the practice of truthfulness can redeem the world.

Ralph Dobrin’s book “How to Avoid Armageddon” is available through Amazon or Old Line Publishing.


Entry filed under: dangeous lies and halftruths, In order to survive. Tags: , , , , , .


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