People are strange, and I certainly include moi in this overarching statement. Here's one of the weird things that we do:
Trying our best to make inherently fuzzy aspects of reality all crisp, clear, and coherent, while blurring up inherently sharp facts about the way things are.
Now, I realize that what I've just said is open to challenge. And I'll agree that "What's up with this inherently business?" is an entirely appropriate question. Am I justified in viewing reality in such a black and white (or rather, fuzzy and sharp) manner?
Sure, I answer. It seems obvious that we humans know quite a bit about some things, and we're decidedly ignorant about other things.
The trick is knowing the difference between what is known, and what isn't.
Unfortunately, people often confuse what belongs in each category, believing that truth is firmly in hand when it really is up for grabs, while simultaneously tossing away facts which should be grasped.
Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word…
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President [George W. Bush] because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…
Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.
Recently I was reading about how fuzzy the concept of "life" is.
There's no agreement about what makes something "alive." Is a virus a living entity? It can't exist apart from its host, which it requires for reproduction. Yet some scientists consider viruses to be living organisms, while others don't. Likewise, nanobes currently can't be definitively classified as living, or not-living.
But when people debate the morality of abortion, hard and fast rules about the nature of life are thrown about with undue confidence. Such as, "Life begins at conception." That's a truthiness masquerading as a truth, a fuzzy question costumed as a sharp answer.
However, at least we know that a human being begins as a fertilized egg. When it comes to God, spirit, soul, heaven, afterlife, and other supernatural notions, we're way beyond ordinary fuzziness.
We're in the farthest reaches of woo-woo land. Yet true believers will make amazingly dogmatic assertions about entities which (1) probably don't even exist, and (2) are exceedingly poorly known, even if they do possess some inherent reality.
On the flip side, these same religious true believers (plus their secular counterparts) will ignore evident facts about some well-defined issue, choosing to blur their vision rather than see a truth clearly.
Anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is an example, as is evolution. Another is the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing disease, death, and disability. The January 15, 2011 issue of New Scientist had an excellent article on this subject, "Irrationality vs. Vaccines: Fighting for Reality."
After discussing how clueless parents mistakenly came to believe that various vaccines were more dangerous than the problems they prevent, science writer Chris Mooney says at the end of his review of three books about the anti-vaccine movement:
This isn't a game anymore. Children are dying out there because of anti-vaccine misinformation and those who act on it. Offit states the matter starkly, referring to "the breakdown of herd immunity in the US at the beginning of the 21st century". It is a phrase that carries with it a terrifying implication: the body count is going to grow.
..."Cognitive relativism", or "truthiness", as US talk-show host Stephen Colbert termed it, "has become the defining intellectual trend of our time", writes Mnookin. The most profound problem underscored by the anti-vaccine movement today is the terrifying implication that there is no longer any truth out there that we can all agree and act on - that in the end, subjectivity wins.
Thanks to the modern media, the internet and the quirky architecture of our minds, writes Mnookin, we live in a world with "increasingly porous boundaries between facts and beliefs, a world in which individualised notions of reality, no matter how bizarre and irrational, are repeatedly validated".
For that, these three books are a wake-up call indeed, and not just regarding vaccine deniers and their threat to public health. Rather, they are a call to arms against the broader phenomenon of tilting against reality, or making up one's own version of it, and clinging to it fiercely despite all evidence and consequences - a condition also referred to as human nature.
Irrationality can be a very dangerous and communicable disease - and we still don't know how to adequately inoculate against it.
Sadly, that's true.
But those of us who are committed to seeing reality as it is, rather than as how we'd like it to be, or believe it to be, can keep on pointing out when fuzzy viewpoints are missing a sharp truth, and also when crisp dogmas are mistakenly embraced rather than a hazy "who knows?"