livingissues: untangling some tough issues of the 20th century

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Truth & Trust: Snapshot

Modern people face new issues about who and what to trust. Worse, they wonder whether the idea of “the truth” is still valid. We look at these problems – often with the cheerful thought that there’s plenty of trust-worthiness and truthfulness in the world. And that we can spot them.

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Truthfulness – especially ours (and below that, our take on evidence and opinion)

We do not present any of this material – the stories we quote or the way we comment on them – as the “truth” and we don’t produce a consensus account.

But we do work at making our comments truthful. We honestly hold such views as we express. But more important, in a way, is our belief that quite often alternative views are worth discussing, granted the way so many people – even educated and serious people – seem to cling to “liberal” orthodoxies as though it were self-evident that no other way of seeing the world could have merit.

So we are often sceptical and even contrarian, not least because someone ought to be.

We present material that is in the public domain and is part of how people build up their view of the world and our subjects. We aim to help you sense the strength and weaknesses of the material we present.

We don’t present our views as authoritative. But we do aim to express ourselves both honestly and robustly. We are prejudiced, as everyone is. We have our biases, as everyone does. But we are frank about them and aim to argue the cases we make in such a way that people can follow our reasoning properly.

We are not campaigners or propagandists, but we are fair-minded. That’s to say, we pride ourselves on a rather traditional view of debating. We don’t especially care about winning our arguments and certainly wouldn’t want to win them by being less than frank in the way we argue. We do want to help people come to their own conclusions having had a sense of the dynamic of the argument.

You’ll often find “livingissues comment” tagged on to the stories we present. This site’s editor and its writers are mostly keen on the free market and Richard D North, in particular, identifies himself with what are conventionally called “right-wing” views. But that’s a complicated business, and in any case, the sites don’t exist to promote a particular set of opinions. Our comments are intended to present challenge, not a point of view. They are supposed to make sense, and be useful, rather than just be controversial.

Evidence vs Opinion

Evidence is material which has a decent claim to be factual. That’s to say: it has the backing of empirical research or of inquiry conducted according to seriously impartial investigative methods.

Of course, a statement can claim to be good evidence without its being the truth. Often, researchers are trying to understand how a thing works, and come up with theories about it. These theories may be backed by good evidence, but still not be proven conclusively. The truth may never be known, or be found (often quite quickly) not to lie where it was thought most likely to. In other words, people with the best will in the world often research and present evidence which they think leads to a certain truth or other, only to find that they have misinterpreted their evidence, or the evidence was less strong than they thought.

Often, very partisan people – campaigners and politicians, for instance – present evidence which supports a case they wish were true. Their evidence will often look convincing, and yet we may treat it with some scepticism because we understand the bias of the people presenting it. Still: as evidence, it can be checked out and debated for its quality of being (or failing to be) factual. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether evidence is presented by industry or campaigners: it should check out (or fail to check out) on its merits as evidence.

Unlike evidence, opinion does not necessarily claim any relationship to truthfulness, nor need it rely on facts. What’s more important: expressed opinion may not be honestly-held. But when a person lies about what he thinks or believes, he is not really giving us his opinion. Do deserve the name, an opinion must be honestly-held. It’s a bit like belief in that way. To deserve the name, a belief must be honestly-held, even if it’s nonsense or unproven or unprovable.

Obviously, much opinion has a strong underpinning of reasonableness. Much of it is well-based in evidence. Indeed, it is interesting to wonder how free people ought to be to hold or deliver opinions which are simply lazy or wilfully ignorant. Try this test. Do you think you would be right to hold an opinion on, say nuclear power, if – to be honest – you know little about it? But in the real world we have to have opinions about stuff we know litte about, or on which our opinion is – frankly – not very valuable.

After all, we ought to vote, and often we’re voting on things we know very little about. Actually, that is why democracy is best when it’s about electing people who are more likely to come to decent conclusions than we are ourselves. Of course, we choose people who impress us - and that’s quite a peculiar and rich assessment process.

This site is inclined to believe that many people now confuse opinion with evidence. That is, they think facts don’t matter and that opinions don’t have to be backed up by evidence. Often, people seem to think that a person’s opinions matter if they are strongly held. But passion doesn’t ever make an opinion true, and may not make it valuable.

Sorry – the world’s a messy place.

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