Different types of truth part 4: politics, economics, social

My last three blogs have been about scientific and religious truth – subjects where I have personal experience and, in the case of science, professional experience. In other fields I am ignorant and therefore I don’t feel qualified to provide a meaningful analysis. However, I can’t leave this initial overview of “truth” without discussing political, economic and social truths. What I provide instead is some observations from the outside. 

We are a social species and we live in communities. In the modern world we live in extremely complex communities at all sorts of scales: from the family, to the neighbourhood, to the town or borough, to the city or region, to the nation, to the continent or trading block to the world. We have other communities too: our work colleagues and collaborators, people who share our imterests or hobbies, our faith communities, and so on. As a society we develop systems and ways to organise outselves, to share, to support each other at times of need or ill health, to deal with offenders who break the rules our society has chosen and so on. 

In a modern western world this is achieved through a political democracy (differently implemented in different countries), social welfare systems (very differently implemented in different countries), economic processes, legal frameworks, civil servants, markets, schools, courts and prisons, hospitals, churches, synagogues and mosques, employment laws and company procedures. 

All these structures, organisations and processes are run and organised by experts, people who have studied and understood their methods. They have rules that govern them and those rules can be studied like science. 

Economical models, which model how the stock market works are even based on the same mathematical formulation as physics and many of my fellow physics students went on to apply quantum mechanics equations to stock market fluctuations. Like using the quantum mechanics equations for physics, these models are not the stock market, but models that point towards what the stock market does. Unlike quantum mechanics, however, they are not modelling something that has a reality independently of humans. Their work affects the stock market. It also is based on the stock market continuing to exist in a framework our society operates. We can all imagine human societies where there is no stock market (indeed there are many that exist!); but, there is no meaningful concept of a universe where the rules quantum mechanics point towards don’t exist (note I’m distinguishing our model from the scientific truth it points towards, see previous blogs).

The second way in which these types of disciplines borrow and benefit from scientific methods is in “Evidence-based policy making”, a buzz word in the UK that is used for scientific investigations on, for example, which educational intervention technique leads to higher scores on the end-of-year standardised exam, or which advert encourages more people to do exercise, or which prison programme leads to the lowest reoffending rates. 

Here the methods are robustly scientific. In the best examples the methods of blind tests, placebos and null hypotheses are taken from the medical sciences. But the questions they answer are very specific and care must be taken not to over interpret them. If a evidence-based policy study concludes that a particular method of teaching produces better results on school exams, it does not necessarily mean it produces “better educated children”, because we can recognise that “higher score on the standardised exam” is a quantitative concept, but “better educated” is qualitative. Different viewpoints lead to different interpretations on what “better educated” means. Such debates are absolutely essential for a working society, but cannot be answered by scientific methods searching scientific truth. 

This is where we must distinguish the questions where science is the right way to answer and those where it isn’t. “How is the climate warming as a result of human CO2 emission?” Is a question for scientific investigation and analysis and should be argued using scientific methods of argument. “How do we reduce our worldwide CO2 emissions?” Is a question that needs other disciplines, other methods to answer and which is argued in the way those disciplines debate. 

Finally I want to talk briefly about politics. Political debate is our society’s method for dealing with the fact that different communities benefit differently from different policies. Any policy that makes one group richer, healthier or better educated (however we’ve defined that!) tends to make another group poorer, less healthy or more poorly educated. Traditionally, the political parties have represented the different vested interests, with different parties championing the cause of their own group. Occasionally in the past, and perhaps more commonly in recent years, there have also been parties of people championing the cause of others (for example upper middle classes supporting Labour?, which has perhaps introduced tensions in some of those parties…). 

Almost by definition such a system will divide people into “them and us”, “insiders and outsiders” and create groupthink within the party. That is ok, if politics as a whole is an open, balanced conversation between these groups where they listen to each other, thrash it out and compromise. I think it starts to go wrong when the balance goes and too much power is in one group. A group that doesn’t feel heard will become resentful and angry. A group that doesn’t listen will polarise into its own groupthink. 

All these types of discussion involve experts developing models that point to their truth. But these truths are not like religious Truth (pointing towards something beyond us which is by definition paradoxical and “edgy”) nor like scientific truth (pointing towards something that has an impersonal reality and can be tested independently). These political and economical and social truths depend on how the question is phrased, depend on the viewpoints, depend on the structures society has chosen. 

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