Ophelia Benson – Why Truth Matters

July 20, 2007

Ophelia Benson is the joint-author (with Jeremy Stangroom) of Why Truth Matters and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, and Deputy Editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. In addition to maintaining the popular website butterfliesandwheels.com, she writes a monthly column for The Philosophers’ Magazine Online.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, she discusses Why Truth Matters, and her attempts to “debunk fashionable nonsense,” including post-modernism, creation science and intelligent design theory, among other fields. She also talks about the importance of truth for the non-philosopher, and how people can better restore truth to its rightful place.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 20th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe thee point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Ophelia Benson, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to be joined this week by Ophelia Benson. She’s the editor of the popular Butterflies and Wheels dot com Web site, which is a Web site dedicated to exposing fashionable nonsense. She’s the coauthor of the Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense and also her new book, along with Jeremy Stango, Room y Truth Matters. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Ofelia Benson, thank you very much. Ophelia, you were here today to talk about your book. Why Truth Matters. We’re talking about truth. It’s a heady subject for some people, especially philosopher types. Truth seems to be just a word that they use to compliment ideas that are useful to them, other people. Their notion of truth is, well, it’s something metaphysical, something really big and weighty and important, even transcendent. So let’s get right into it. Which is truth. 

As far as we were concerned, neither one. I wrote the book with Jeremy Stango, by the way, Richard Rorty like to call truth a rhetorical pat on the back as opposed to absolute truth, which people tend to capitalize capital, a capital T.. And we do neither. We think of truth in terms of accuracy and getting close to an objective account of how things are independent of human opinion and also whether humans can get knowledge of how things are or not. 

So you’re between those two extremes where truth is just a pat on the back and Rudi’s term. And on the other hand, this big idea, truth with a capital T.. 

We certainly don’t think of truth as anything transcendent or anything that needs a rhetorical capitalization or, you know, little clouds of glory hanging over it. 

Nonetheless, you’re saying that truth has been kind of dismantled, that truth doesn’t have the place it used to have in our society, that for people in the academy especially, there’s kind of this radical skepticism of truth that any idea is just as good as any other idea. Was that one of the audiences you were trying to reach with the book? 

Yeah, that was that was pretty much the major on it as we were trying to reach. I mean, in many parts of society, truth still is just as just as admired as it always was or or more so. 

So so we don’t see it as a as a sweeping phenomenon. There’s a pervasive disrespect for truth, but there are pockets of of extreme skepticism and to some extent a kind of rhetorical skepticism or a performative skepticism almost as a sort of cartoonish skepticism. One. One version is is in certain kinds of sociology. For instance, science and technology studies. And some of that is, of course, perfectly sane. I mean, it’s it’s absolutely true that that science is a social construct and that it’s very much worthwhile to look into the conditions under which it takes place and sources of funding and institutional bodies that build science, absolute unsign absolutes. And also, you know, the interests that drive scientists. And sometimes sometimes those will be financial. They’ll be you know, they can be ego. They can be fame. They can be glory. They can be all kinds of things. And it’s necessary and essential and very useful for a sociologist to look into that. But what is what has happened with certain branches of that who who sort of pride themselves on being radical and going one step further? Is to say that sociology that doesn’t go beyond that is being is being timid or weak or is sort of in dereliction of duty because scientists themselves are part of the natural world and science itself is a part of the natural world. So if science’s task is to examine the natural world and therefore it is the task of sociologists of science to examine science as a part of the natural world, they claim that it means they have to bracket evidence and leave evidence aside and consider why scientists get the answers they do purely in terms of external motivations. And this is where it tends to go off the rails. 

So that’s one of the things you take to task in your book, these skeptics of the enterprise of science, who in a sense dismiss it in the academy any way. They dismiss science as just being one mythic narrative like any other. There are priests of science just like their priests of religion. You take that position head on. 

Well, some do. Yeah. And that people who do that are actually sort of in a different branch. They’re not so much in sociology. But as in literary studies, critical theory, critical studies, various branches of postmodernism. 

So you wouldn’t put all of this under the heading of postmodernism? 

We probably would avoid doing that because because it’s such a vexed term. And many reviewers have sort of taken issue with the whole idea of criticizing postmodernism. And in fact, that kind of indicates they haven’t read the book very carefully because we actually don’t do that precisely for that reason, because it is so it is so vague, it is so broad and it is applied to so many different things. So people who talk about scientists as priests and sciences as a kind of religion and that sort of thing tend to be more in literature and in the humanities, literary theory, critical theory, critical studies, cultural studies, that kind of thing. And we do have a chapter on that. For instance, Andrew Ross, who wrote a book called Strange Weather, and he says there’s something about, you know, why why is a small priesthood allowed to decide that beliefs that a huge mass of people hold is wrong? 

The scientific elite. Why should they be given exactly how to decide for the rest? Exactly. 

It’s essentially an argument that claims that science is inherently elitist and therefore suspect. And therefore, why should it have this elitist power and this ability to decide what’s true and what isn’t true? Isn’t science elitist? Are you sure? It is. But you can present the argument so that that fact seems not natural and obvious and necessary, but but inherently suspect, which is which is what Andrew Ross rather rather slyly does. 

And you don’t think the fact that science is elitist, that there are unelected elites kind of making decisions, albeit in a community where they fight with each other over the decisions? You don’t think that that is a problem? 

I think it has obvious potential for problems in the sense that, you know, obviously not everyone has equal access to education. Not everyone has equal opportunities. You know, certainly there are all kinds of ways in which it can be, at least in theory, made possible for more people to get a good scientific education and all that kind of thing. So, yeah, it is de facto elitist in many ways, and that that could be improved. But I certainly don’t think that it’s elitist in an inherent, absolute sense that needs fixing. I think it is elitist in a sense that the best ideas went out. Exactly. And that that is not problematic and really does not need fixing, because if you try to fix that, then you just say all truths equal, all ideas are equal, all all kinds of evidence are equal. And that’s not science. 

Paradox when talking about science and you’re not on the show to kind of define what sciences. But is that it’s at once elitist in the way that we just talked about. But it’s also profoundly democratic. If anybody if they have the goods can show up and play. 

Exactly. I mean, there is this the strong tension inside it, which I find kind of fascinating that that yeah, it is elitist in the sense that you have to work really hard. I was never any good at science. And for another thing, you have to. It helps to at least start out being pretty bright, although I think, you know, I think there’s a big middle ground in which in which hard work and training really do make a difference. But at the same time, you know, it absolutely is democratic because it is wide open. It is the classic career open to the talents. And it is it is meritocratic in a good way. Meritocracy has some problems. Our democracy for democracy. Exactly. And also for sort of class structures and for the way the way privilege gets entrenched and also in the way in people’s self-image. I mean, Michael Young wrote an interesting book about this in the 50s about the way meritocracy was was starting to play out in the UK with the Butler Education Act and Saad’s for me and for our listeners. 

Tell me what the Butler Education Act was, an act that made grammar schools more open to the working class, I believe, and. The result was that the working class was they were taking a test and 11 plus tests. That meant they could they could go to grammar schools, which before had been much harder for them to get into. So that was good in a sense, in that in the you know, the working class had more opportunity. But in another sense, meritocracy was was sort of becoming an entrenched value. And that meant that people who didn’t succeed in that were less able to think well of themselves. 

They were consigned to the other half who they were consigned to the other half rise to the challenge. 

And also it was this time it was for for reasons that people take seriously as opposed to being arbitrary. So in a paradoxical way, a more arbitrary class system is sort of less destructive of people’s self esteem, which is which is an interesting side issue. 

That is it’s an interesting side issue. But since you’re tight on time, you’re going to lecture in a few minutes. Maybe we’ll have you back on the show, talk about some of these other issues. If we have time, we’ll get back to postmodernism, because that’s a doozy that we talk about a lot on the show and at the Center for Inquiry on university campuses. We kind of get it from both sides, both from the cultural conservatives, the religious right and also from the far left and their radical skepticism. So that’s a topic. It be good to address more. But I want to talk about truth for, you know, the everyday person. Your book you said at the outset was addressing not necessarily that audience, but this other audience, the academic audience who were dismantling truth from its, you say, rightful place. Let me ask for people in the workaday world, though. What place should truth truth like the kind you’re talking about? What place should truth have in their lives? I mean, you’re worried about the kids and you have your 9:00 to 5:00. Why should truth the kind of truth you’re talking about matter to them? 

Well, this is this is a question we discussed naturally a lot while writing the book. And we did have to conclude that we don’t we don’t have a knockdown argument for that. We ended up saying it does boil down to preferences for some people. It actually doesn’t necessarily trump other values. 

So if you’re the kind of person the truth is, you know, a turn on, if it’s like your hobby, other people like other things, not if it’s your preference. 

I wouldn’t exactly go that far. But but I do think preferences come into play because, for instance, if somebody if somebody has an illness, some people want to know the truth about that and some people don’t. And some people some people want to focus on on various unpalatable truths about life and the human condition and so on. And some people want to be more optimistic. And we don’t really have a knockdown case for saying that a pessimistic truth or an unpleasant truth is necessarily or inherently better. 

So you wouldn’t always say that the truth at all costs, no matter how painful, is always better to know. 

No, not that it is always better to know. We would say that in in many vocations you have a duty to put the truth ahead of anything else, because that is what you have signed on to and that but in your life, in the normal workaday world, that is not necessarily something I would generally argue to all people. I mean, that is I sort of discuss that in Chapter one because some truths just are. Nasty. 

There are truths about. About how many people died in the Holocaust that are unpleasant. 

I mean, you quote Keats. You know, truth is beauty and beauty. Truth. Now I’m going through an English romantic poets kick. So when I read that I love them. I love them. I kind of felt bad that you were jabbing at the Romantics. I like Keats. I love him to death. Yeah, but you say that that’s just plumb wrong on the face of it. They’re not the same thing. There are truths that are ugly. 

Yeah. And I you know, I don’t necessarily want to force ugly truth on on people in general. I don’t necessarily want to say that all people have to put truth ahead of a of all of the values of comfort of. Sure. These other things. Because I just have no grounds for saying that. 

So just on this point, then, let’s talk about some specific issues. Religious fundamentalism, especially when it comes to intelligent design or the denial of evolution. Seems to me that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a truth about our place in the universe, that if I were of a different ilk, of a different kind of person, a very religious person, a fundamentalist, I would want to deny it for very important kind of existential, psychological, whatever reasons. Does this fall into the category of being a kind of truth that isn’t always important to accept? 

I think for the individual it does. But as soon as it leaves the individual, that’s when it gets tricky because. Because what you believe yourself is one thing, but what you teach other people is very much another. 

Now, I wouldn’t argue that people in general have a duty to believe in truth, but when it comes to teaching their children, for instance, then then I would then I think yes, I think parents have a responsibility not to teach their children things that are not true. 

But if I have, we didn’t really speak of it in terms of rights. But if it’s my right to believe something untrue for the comfort it brings me, et cetera, why isn’t it also okay for me to share that comfort with my closest loved ones? 

Because they’re I think you’d bump into the harm principle, because I think what you hold for yourself is one thing and what you mean it. Using the word share is tricky. You can call it sharing, but you can also call it teaching, indoctrination, propaganda. You know, Dawkins considers considers religious indoctrination of children child abuse. I’m not sure I would put it quite that way, but he has a point. 

But he does have a point. And I remember resenting the fact that I’d been told that Santa Claus was real as a child. I remember thinking, what a minute. They shouldn’t have lied to me. Right. We were talking about this this last weekend. I know. And I was nodding vigorously when you said that because I actually distinctly remember once saying to myself, oh, if Santa Claus is real and God is real. So I have nothing to worry about. 

And then when you learned the converse is true about Santa. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. I always find it really funny that many religious parents teach their children about Santa and then say, surprise, I was wrong, but I’m not wrong about the big one. Yeah, about God. And you wonder how that works. All right. So you mentioned the harm principle, John Stuart Mill and is on liberty. This isn’t a big philosophy talk, but he talks about the harm principle or what has been dubbed the harm principle, which is that you have a right to believe whatever you want to believe, as long as believing it or doing whatever you want to do doesn’t impede on someone else’s flourishing. Doesn’t harm someone else. And so that’s the crux of the matter for you. It’s kind of the larger societal question of intelligent design isn’t just believing it because it makes you feel better about your place in the universe. But if you’re spreading it around, then you’re harming other people. 

Yeah, that is exactly it. Now, of course, this obviously gets into huge tensions because in a sense, parents do have a right to teach their children anything they want to. And I would have absolutely no idea how to enforce any kind of prohibition of that. And I you know, I wouldn’t want to. And yet I do think just as as a principal, that that it is wrong for parents to teach their children things that are not, in fact, true. 

So you might not be able to enforce that, but you can argue against it in your book. Let’s talk let’s talk about religious fundamentalism more broadly construed, not just when it comes to I.D., but seems to me there’s kind of I’ll get scolded for saying this, but an anti intellectual bent among many religious conservatives, they are very skeptical of the overly learn it. I mean, you don’t even you to say overly learned. There’s a skepticism of the intellectual of the learned some televangelists rather than talking about seminary. They talk about symmetry. You know, the minute you go and get more theological training, the spirit dies. Right. Do you think this anti intellectual ism. It’s it’s kind of pervasive in that movement. Is this an audience that you were challenging? 

Oh, I would I would love to challenge that audience. I mean, this is an anti intellectual ism has interested me for a long time. Richard Hofstadter’s book. I think it’s just classic, you know, the fool has said in his heart, there is no God. I mean, religious fundamentalist in a sense, have a natural interest in being anti intellectual because to to question is to doubt. To get to think is to doubt Hitler. Hitler said to thinkers to doubt. And it’s too bad that Hitler said it because. Because it’s such a good thing. 

The apostle Paul, I think it was said that not many wise men now are called God chooses the foolish of the world to confound the wise. That Erasmus is in praise of folly is all about exactly that. Right. 

So how do you pierce through that bent? Well, that horrible mixed metaphor. But how do you how do you get through that frame of mind? I mean, they’re not reading your book, Ophelia. You know, your book is not begoing rounds in the evangelical fundamentalists are not reading a book. 

That is true. 

How how you pierce that veil for for everybody? I don’t know. I think. I think it probably takes a large cultural shift. I’m always hoping for a change of fashion. I’m hoping ardently that the fashion for for Islamism goes out and all of a sudden everybody says, oh, no, wait, this is this is not cool and this is not fun. And we no longer want to do this. And now we want to be all secular and jaded. 

I love that you, you know, linked secularism and being jaded. 

Well, that seems to be what it takes. I mean, in some sense, it’s you know, I used to be I used to be a lot more sort of attentive to things like like consumerism and advertising and that kind of thing than I am now. And now it now it seems to me that, you know, being being kind of empty headed and consumerist and hip is a whole lot better than being than being a committed, ardent, murderous fundamentalist. So if it’s one or the other, if that is if that is the choice. Yeah. Yeah. 

You described something as fashionable. Islamic extremism is kind of fashionable, I think. 

I’m very much is a fashion. I think an awful lot of of the power it has is actually as trivial as fashion and as people just reading newspaper stories about people blowing themselves up and thinking, gee, I want to be that famous. 

I want to be that powerful. I want to be that that, you know. Explosive. I really think that’s. For instance, with the July 7th bombings in London, I think I think that inspired a lot of people to go out and do likewise on on basically trivial ground. It’s like copycat crime. Exactly. 

You run a Web site devoted exclusively to fighting fashionable nonsense, butterflies and wheels dot com. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can both get a copy of Y Truth Matters through our Web site Point of Inquiry, Gheorghe, and find out more information about butterflies and wheels on this Web site. Ophelia, you don’t only treat heavy philosophical questions, you go straight to the issues of fashionable nonsense. 

Yeah, well, it has the news aggregation, for one thing. And it has it also has a lot of articles and it has a dictionary and of rhetoric and so on. 

It’s a really popular Web site. It should be said. A lot of people are. It is very popular finding it there. Go to place for the next puncture of the pretensions of fashionable nonsense. 

It is it surprised us from the very beginning how how well it’s done. And Paul Kurtz said to me yesterday that the thing that I probably most want to hear about the Web site, that is that it just it has a certain combination of stuff that you can’t find anywhere else. And that’s you know, if there’s anything I want to do, it’s that it’s just get get the right combination. And I’m interested in the way fashion works. I’m interested I suppose I’m interested in memetics. I’m interested in the way people can do extremely silly things on just on the grounds that everybody else is doing it. And, you know, because they want to they want to fit in. Because it seems hip, because it seems the newest latest thing. It seems edgy. It seems, you know, more radical than now. 

Do you think some of the reasons for the displacement of truth in our society has to do with the fashionable ness of it and the Academy post modernism, even though that’s probably more broad a category than you want to talk about? 

I very much do. And I’ve read I’ve read plenty of plenty of accounts of it that that say exactly that. You know, first person accounts of people who enrolled in graduate school, you know, to study literature or cultural theory and left after a year or two, which, of course, could mean they’re a biased audience because they were they were turned off at the beginning. But all the same, their experience is that there is just an incredible amount of groupthink in operation and that you cannot buck the trend. 

And if you do, you get almost ostracized. You get you get frowned on. 

I think it’s really as base as being ostracized for not having the right tennis shoes in high school. 

I’m afraid it is. Rebecca Goldstein has an extremely amusing idea about this in her brilliant first novel, The Mind Body Problem. She has a continuum of presentation of self among academics and mathematicians are the furthest at one end because because they have the most secure knowledge, they have absolutely no need to present themselves in any in any particular way because they don’t care. 

They always have. They always look like they’re shuffled. Yeah, exactly. They always look like disheveled mathematicians. 

Exactly. There’s love. And on the other end. At the far end. At the other direction is is literature because they essentially have nothing they can establish. So it’s all presentation. 

So they’re wearing their cravats and they’re affecting their acts. 

You know, Steven, Steven Greenblat said at at the MLA convention about three years ago, tongue in cheek, ironically, but in a sense, he meant it. 

He said the literary types were the snappiest dressers. And I thought that was a dead giveaway. 

That’s that’s funny. And you’re saying that, ah, you were alluding to Rebecca Goldstein. The reason they do that is because they’re shoring up their intellectual foundations. 

Yeah, because. Because they have nothing really established. So they have to give there. They have to give their field a kind of clout. I mean, you know, it’s notorious that that literary theorists who are afflicted with what’s called physics envy. 

So we just have a couple minutes before you have to head to your lecture. Should be said that you’re here at the Center for Inquiry this summer as part of our summer institute session on religion and belief. It’s entitled Beyond Belief. Well, Ophelia. Last question, then. If a listener picks up your book and digs in and says, OK, truth does matter, it’s not just a hobby for me. On the other hand, it’s it’s not imbued with all this metaphysical meaning, but it just matters on the face of it. There are real implications to what you believe. Truth does matter. What should they do next? 

It sort of depends on what kind of work they’re in, but most are at least a great many jobs do depend on truth. I mean, forensics, law, medicine, just a great many intellectually based idea based jobs. Well, let’s depend on true. 

Let’s take it away, though, from the vocational aspect. Let’s let’s just talk about normal life, you know, living in the world. And I don’t want to sound too existential about it, but were were thrown into this world. Why should truth matter to us? 

Well, one thing you can do is just keep your critical faculties on on a state of high alert, especially when you’re especially when you’re consuming anything in the world, when you’re consuming anything from billboards to newspapers to radio programs to TV programs, to to come to conversations, to books, you need to be reading with a critical eye and be alert for whether or not you’re being conned, manipulated, tricked, lied to. 

And you’re saying ultimately that will pay off. 

Yes, I think it is safe to say that that there is no downside to doing that. You may not you may not need to believe in. Believe truth trumps everything in your in your personal beliefs. Inside the depths of your own head. But when you’re out in the world consuming what it throws at you, you you definitely do want to be aware that not everyone is offering you the truth, and that is that it definitely pays to have the faculties turned on Ophelia. 

Benson, thank you very much for joining Round Point of inquiry. Thank you, DJ Grothe. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.