Saturday, June 3, 2017

Model Truth Telling

A talk by Carl Baker at the March for Truth
Pasco, Washington, June 3, 2017
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our founding document begins with the idea that power in this country is held by the people.  That we are to govern ourselves. And that the government that we have built is our tool that we use to govern ourselves.

I know that many of you think that the government that we have today is no longer responsive to the people. That it's been corrupted. And I agree. But I contend that the core idea of self-governance cannot be removed. It is still present.  The constitution still starts with "We the People". And we can return our government to its proper role as a servant to the people rather than as a tool for their exploitation.  The tools are there if we will do the work. And we are doing the work. We are marching and protesting and organizing and running for office.  And we are calling and writing and emailing and talking to our elected representatives and reminding them that they work for us.

And I'd like to add to this work by asking that we take a minute to ask how we got here. To step back in time and consider the historical context in which the words "We the People" were originally penned. Because this was a unique time in the history of the world. We've labeled it as the Enlightenment. And it was a time in which the thinkers of the day were recognizing the importance of the idea of truth. That it was possible (even easy) to be fooled about what is and isn't true about the world. And that it mattered. That if you believe things that are not true about the world, you have no defense against behaving in ways that cause harm to yourself or to others.

René Descartes quote "Cogito ergo soom" is an important element of the early Enlightenment. These are words that many of us have heard many times. But what do they mean?  They translate to "I think, therefore I am".  But that's hardly helpful, is it?  What is Descartes doing here? He seems to be making an argument, the conclusion of which is "I am".  How is this any kind of satisfactory or sensible conclusion?  "I am"?  I mean, of course you exist. How is this a question?

The answer is that these are the words of a man seeking to know the truth. A man who was so obsessed with finding the truth that he was determined to make no assumptions. To question everything. Including his own existence.

This idea that the truth matters pervades the Enlightenment. One might say that it is the Enlightenment. And it forms the basis of all of our intellectual enterprises. In science, and mathematics and philosophy and history and other endeavors we find this dedication to the truth.

And to discover the truth, we've built institutions dedicated to finding it. Human institutions that try to compensate for our tendency to fool ourselves.  Systems that try to winnow the good ideas from the bad.  Institutions in which ideas are put forward and examined and corrected or discarded. And these systems allow us to make progress toward learning what's true. They are human institutions and subject to human failings, but the do make progress.  Over time, slowly and clumsily, they fumble along and bad ideas are discarded and good ones retained.

So this is where we come from. This well-motivated, high-minded passion for the truth has brought us these clunky, ponderous, failure-prone, but ultimately effective institutions that help us find what is and isn't true about the world.

And this actually pretty good, right? Because by figuring out what is and isn't true about the world, we've come to understand that:

You shouldn't invest with Bernie Madoff.
It's not ok to own black people as property.
Vaccines do prevent disease and don't cause autism.
We can have an adverse effect on our environment.
We can fix the problems that we cause to our environment.
It's really true that we are exploiting immigrants and not the other way around.

The idea that I'm sneaking up on is the idea that our government shares its heritage with our other truth-seeking institutions. That it is one of these cumbersome, ponderous, adversarial, failure-prone, but ultimately effective processes for uncovering the truth.  And yet, today, we live in a world of "post-truth politics".  A world of "alternative facts".  A world in which the President of the United States can contradict himself multiple times within a single sentence, and it's considered normal.

So what do we do about this? Well, get out your smartphone or tablet, because the "ask" is coming up. Or you can respond on paper later at that table over there. But here's the idea. We're going to start by modeling the behaviour that we want to see in our elected representatives. We'll adopt the idea that the truth matters, and we'll act on it. This is actually the hard part. Because if the truth matters, our own ideas about it have to take second place. When we present an idea, and someone challenges it, we have to ask "could they be right?"  "Am I wrong about this?".  And when we're shown to be wrong,  we have to correct ourselves. Which is something that humans have a huge psychological resistance to. Especially at first. But it gets easier with time.

Here is what the research suggests we need to do to get people to do

- fact-check information before believing it
- share only verified, trustworthy information
- retract information that they shared that proved false
- encourage others - even your allies - to avoid sharing false information
- defend others - even your opponents - when they share true information
- ask others to retract false information
- celebrate when others acknowledge they are wrong

So we model the behavior. And we ask others to do the same. Including our elected officials. And we hold them and ourselves accountable when we fail. We start with ourselves and our local officials and we move to state and federal officials and we change the culture. We discard "post-truth politics" and "alternative facts" as failed ideas and we return the truth to its rightful place in our political system.

So if you're on-board with this idea, I'll ask you to go to and take the pledge. Do the things I've talked about and the longer list of things that are on the website and the posters at the table.  And once enough of us have done this, we can go to our local elected officials and ask them to sign on. Point out that their constituents care about the truth and that we want our officials to do the same.

An important element of this project is that there is an accountability aspect to it.  We're asking those who have taken the pledge to be public about it. And substantive violations can be reported to the organization for evaluation and corrective pressure applied. This won't apply as much to individuals, but more to elected officials.

This effort needs volunteers and organizers as well. If you're willing, you can help recruit others to sign on. You can lobby your elected officials to sign on.  You can be part of the organization promoting this culture shift. There are places on the website to volunteer to be part of the effort in various ways. Or you can just sign up.

I'll close with a quote from a Facebook comment by a friend of mine named Mike Blackford: "We must always remember that the behavior of free people in a democratic society can only be controlled by the manipulation of what they believe.  A totalitarian regime doesn't need to be very concerned with what people under their control believe because their behavior is directly controlled. A theocratic regime imposes itself upon what the people are allowed to believe and often punishes heresy with death.

When the very nature of Truth itself is under attack, and facts are buried under a pile of lies, falsehoods, deceit, myths, and frauds, and when hypocrisy is rewarded while integrity is assaulted, our liberties in a democratic society are in serious jeopardy.  Those who peddle falsehoods and lies are enemies of our democracy itself."


Keith Sewell said...

Hello Carl,

I’ve just finished my second read through your excellent essay ‘Model Truth Telling’. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m ready to take the Pro-Truth Pledge. But, outrageous as I know it is going to sound, I think that we might more effectively further the Pledge’s agenda by entirely abandoning our ‘truth’ concept. If our side really could win by doubling down even harder on our commitment to ‘truth’ then I think we would have done so a couple of hundred years ago. Basically, the Enlightenment would not have stalled, and would not now be embattled on all fronts.

The underlying problem, as is pointed out ad nauseum in my own writings, is that our truth concept itself is an epistemic quagmire. Very simplistically, and high level, what we mean by ‘truth’ is 180 degrees different from what our intellectual opponents mean by it. We mean, mainly and primarily, on-demand-repeatable physical observation based knowledge; while they mean, mainly and primarily, emotionally seductive and socially bonding knowledge that was passed to them during early childhood.

There just isn't the time now, or probably even the will or understanding from either side, to sort this mess out. The simpler and more effective cure will instead be for us, unilaterally, to start directly stating our beliefs from the basis of our actual reasons for holding them as beliefs. I take this to be, in essence, the core of your Pro-Truth Pledge’s request. What I’d like to show you, if you will humor me for the needed few pages, is that we can do this most powerfully without any direct reference to truth. Our opponents need ‘truth’. All of their stuff finally depends completely upon it. But we don't. I've explained this about as well as I can in my essay 'Hacking the Root Problem' (at, so I would beg you to read that.

The bottom line is that we're now 20 points down, in the fourth quarter, and we desperately need a game changing strategy revision. The European Enlightenment really was our species' last best hope, and it's now being undermined from all sides in ways that we just can't fight from within our ancient 'truth' confusion. Please, and for the sake of what we both want to achieve, give some consideration to my essay’s alternative. And then, if you’re willing, let's talk.

Thanks for listening here, and all the best,


Gleb Tsipursky said...

Keith, I hear your concerns. As one of the lead authors of the Pro-Truth Pledge, this is something we thought about when we decided to use the term "truth." We are trying to reclaim and clarify what "truth" means. We decided to not cede the ground to our intellectual opponents who would say that whatever they believe is the truth. That's what FAQ 2, "what is considered misinformation," is all about :-)

Keith Sewell said...


Thanks for your kind reply. But, as I suspect you've anticipated, we're just going to have to agree to disagree. I think that the ground we'd be ceding, in explicitly abandoning our 'truth' concept in favor of direct allegiance to on-demand-repeatable physical observation, is basically polluted ground. Ground on which we've never been able to win.

I fully understand truth's emotional appeal. How good the concept feels in our thoughts and speech. But, as I've tried to explain in my essays and book, we can now understand WHY it feels that way; and that the 'why' is entirely in evolution's service rather than in ours. If we are finally resigned to nothing grander than playing out evolution's script (the 'bacteria in a petri dish' build up, and then the horrible crash) then truth will continue to serve us. But if we want something more, then I am very sure that we are going to have to see through and outgrow our 'truth' concept.

Though I wish it from a heavy heart and deep skepticism, good luck on your path, and I'll hope to be wrong.

Keith Sewell said...


Just one quick question. Was your reply specifically to my post at the blog, or had you also read the linked essay?

All the best,


Gary Wersing said...

I also think the mechanics of the Pro-Truth pledge are exciting and can form the basis of a sound epistemology. But I agree with Keith that doubling down on truth is not the way to go. The Pro-Truth pledge itself seems to admit this when it talks about how we need to be open to revising our beliefs in the face of new information. If our beliefs are subject to revision, then whatever we had, it wasn't Truth.

But I would offer a much more *practical* reason for ending the Truth talk. What you have is a Pledge, and pledges assume the signatories will exercise discipline in meeting their obligations. Without Truth, one does not need discipline to be a model. (Policing of others will still require discipline.) Without the pretense that I am expressing reality in reality's terms, as opposed to reality in human terms, I had better know what the human sources of my belief are. There can be no "I don't care what you say, X is true." For the person operating without Truth, X must be referenced to some human observation like "I believe X because both Politifact and Snopes vouch for it and they are trusted sources." I don't need to be taught or cajoled, except for the useful details you provide like which fact-checking sites are the most reliable. But those "useful details" are really outside the present discussion because they call into question why I trust *you*, which is something I could explain if called upon.

I'm not saying you should take Truth out of the Pro-Truth pledge retroactively; you're too far into it for that and wouldn't mind me anyway. But just as a thought experiment, if you had it to do over again, I would also not insist that you shout from the rafters, "TRUTH HAS NO PLACE HERE." Just throw away your crutch and quietly go about your business. I did, and was amazed at how much stronger I became.

Hodor said...

Thanks for the kind words and thoughts, everyone. Sorry I've been slow to contribute to the conversation. I've been away on vacation and while I've been digesting these thoughts. I've taken some time to have a read at Keith's essay, and I have to admit I'm having trouble following the argument. Most of the ideas presented in the essay are known (if relatively new) ideas in neuroscience and philosophy. And it seems to me that acceptance of those ideas is what's behind the pledge.

Maybe it's a definition problem. Lots of folks seem to want the word "Truth" to mean "fixed and unchallengable ideas". This seems like a useless definition to me, because no idea is beyond challenge. As noted in the essay, our cognition is unquestionably (ha) flawed, so all ideas are at least a little bit wrong. I prefer to use "truth" to mean something like "an idea that corresponds as closely as we know to reality".

The idea behind the pledge (and good espistemiology) is to maintain "doxastic openness" - to be open to the idea that one might be wrong. While maintaining the idea that there is an objective reality. And that one (at least this one) prefers that one's beliefs align as closely as possible to that objective reality.

Keith Sewell said...


Thanks for taking the time to read the essay and then send your good comments. I'd agree that the essay contains little that is scientifically or philosophically cutting edge. My hope is rather that people in our community will find its 'action item' recommendation - which I believe to be based on taking an honest look at all of those known puzzle pieces together - new and exciting.

For the reasons mentioned in the essay, and in far greater breadth and detail in my book, I do not believe that we have any real hope of salvaging our 'truth' concept. I understand well what most in our community mean by it; but, as I tried hard to communicate, we can clearly see ourselves not to need it for conveyance of that meaning. We have more honest and less dangerously loaded concepts that we can use in substitution. Our intellectual opponents cannot follow us on this road. The inverse square law can be embraced and propagated merely and exactly from our ability to demonstrate it. Christ's resurrection can be embraced and propagated ONLY as an item of 'truth'. If it needs to be justified through reference to any of our objective or rational knowledge then it fails utterly. It is clearly ruled out by our entire vast and coherent edifice of such knowledge. What I'm desperately trying to show to you and the rest of my atheist/humanist compadres is that in continuing to cooperate with our intellectual opponents in maintenance of a concept through which fully irrational knowledge proposals can none-the-less be legitimately embraced we have been deeply sabotaging our own agenda. I think we've run out of time for this. That we've got to take off our gloves at the epistemic level, in the sense of finally and clearly showing our intellectual opponents that their 'truth' emperor has always been bare-ass naked. There is, of course, another of my little essays specifically on how to open the dialog for that; called 'Crystal Blue Persuasion'. I will send it if you're brave (or foolhardy?) enough to ask.

All the best,