2/3/2011

Truth and the Postmodernist

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:42 am

I’ve talked about myself as a postmodernist here, claiming that all grand narratives (meaning frameworks) can be deconstructed in terms of their internal logic, and therefore truths are contingent, situated in time and place and culture, rather than absolute. (Or, slightly more carefully, that if absolute truths exist we have no direct access to them.)

And yet… it really annoys me when people don’t tell the truth!

Discussions around climate change recently on a forum. (Yeah, I know…)

One person claimed repeatedly that the world is cooling, not warming, and is cooler now than it was in 1979.

My response:

temperature graph

(I’d already addressed this blatant lie here)

Another posted a scurrilous text floating around the web that the Iceland volcano negated all carbon dioxide reduction efforts so far, and that the Mt Pinatubo eruption released more carbon dioxide than all human activities ever.

On the second point I noted that Mt Pinatubo released 43 million tonnes of CO2 while human activities release 27 billion tonnes every year. On the wonderfully named Eyjafjallajoekull volcano, this link shows that its net result was a *reduction* in emissions: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/planes-or-volcano/

Of course, none of the ‘skeptics’ (and ain’t *that* a misnomer!) has taken a step back and said “Oh, apparently I have been misinformed…” They’ve just ignored the refutation and moved on to reporting the next lie…

My point here is not to rant about dishonest people, or to make points about climate change, but to explore my own philosophical positions.

On the one hand, I’m a convinced postmodernist. On the other, the truth matters to me.

Perhaps (and I know this is a pretty superficial analysis) part of the truth is encoded in the statement: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” There could be different units and different ways of measuring, but no grand narrative (with the possible exception of insanity or mendacity) can make Mt Pinatubo’s emissions exceed those of human activity. The universe insists on some things…

10 Responses to “Truth and the Postmodernist”

  1. Mark says:

    That thing about Pinatubo could obviously come from people mishearing the units and starting a rumour.

    Isn’t modernism the view that Truth is available to our enquiry and it will eventually come out? And postmodernism to some extent a reaction to failure of the ideologies of the 20th century, those ideologies being the result of the arrogance of modernism in insisting that “we know” the right way to do things (communism, nationalism, capitalism, westminsterism)?

    The line from facts to opinions is reason and paradigms. So if two people fully versed in the facts come to different conclusions, we should step back and think about the paradigms involved, right?. And yet paradigms themselves serve as filters and interpreters of the facts.

    E.g., to play devils advocate, that graph you showed, how can we know its real significance? Couldn’t we varied the technique used to get those figures and produce different curves of the earth’s temperature? Does the expression “the earth’s temperature” even have a simple meaning? We use samples as a proxy for the total.

  2. Glenn Weare says:

    I was reading John Gray’s (Professor of European Thought LSE) ‘Straw Dogs’ a couple of weeks ago – couldn’t help but notice this quote (pp54, 55 in my paperback edition)-

    “Postmodernists parade their relativism as a superior kind of humility – the modest acceptance that we cannot claim to have the truth. In fact,the postmodern denial of truth is the worst kind of arrogance. In denying that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs about it, postmodernists are implicitly rejecting any limit on human ambitions. By making human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are effectively claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness…….postmodernism is just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.”

    I hear you above struggling with this and I concede that there are probably different flavors of post modernism. I’ve never pretended to understand postmodernism – just interested in your reaction. I suspect you just like/want to get away from the arrogance of truth claims such as we confronted earlier in our lives.

  3. Aran says:

    What are the green bars?

  4. Bravus says:

    The green bars are the 95% confidence interval error bars. That is, the statistical measures can say with 95% confidence that the ‘real’ value lies within those error bars. There are lots of data points, so the error bars are quite small. And the size of the actual warming dwarfs the margin for error.

    Glenn and Mark, I do want and plan to get back and take up the points you raised, but life is crazy just at the moment. Hopefully tomorrow, or the weekend at the latest.

    Mark, just very quickly, I guess it’s possible to imagine a world where ‘global’ means ‘local’ or ‘warmer’ means ‘cooler’. Apart from that kind of inversion of language and logic, I don’t think there’s any meaningful way to claim the globe is cooler than it was in 1979.

    • Mark says:

      Of course, Dave, I was talking about the measurements used to show it. Come on, you’re capable of more nuanced thinking than that. I was playing devils advocate, questioning the appropriateness of the proxy. I think they are probably right.

  5. Bravus says:

    Yeah, John Gray is massively overstating the case, at least for all but the most extreme and rhetorical forms of postmodernism.

    I quite like Ernst von Glsersfeld’s image of being lost in a forest in the dark. By trial and error we can find our way out, and not all ways out will work: some run into trees or go off cliffs. But all we can claim is to have found one possible way out, not to have found The One True Way out. Similarly, not all theories will work to explain the universe around us. Some will work, but we can’t claim that those are True, only that they work. It’s Don Polkinghorne’s postmodernist shift ‘from metaphors of correctness to metaphors of utility’.

    As one example, Heisenberg has one set of equations for quantum mechanics and Schrodinger has another one. They both work – predict the actual behaviour we observe in experiments – but they assume completely different things are going on to make those results come out that way. It needn’t be that one is right and the other is wrong and we will eventually find out. They’re just two different ways that both get us out of the forest.

    There *is* a truth about whether the globe is warming or not.

    • Mark says:

      Hey, that’s very interesting about the difference between Heisenberg and Schrödinger’s assumptions. Is it possible to explain it briefly? Or does it take most of a textbook?

      Your forest analogy is interesting. Is it describing the rejection of religion and ideology? If so, how can you be both a convinced lefty and a convinced po-mo? Isn’t the ideology of the left a sort of one correct way? I don’t see you as hard-line, i.e. you don’t let ideological purity overrule common sense (whatever that is, of course), so maybe being po-mo means being syncretistic and eclectic in what you believe.

      Which I have a lot of sympathy for: reality is too complex and confusing to really sort out, and there are lot of competing ways of thinking vying for my loyalty. It is only honest to accept them on my own terms, otherwise I’m just a pawn in a system I don’t know well enough to give that sort of loyalty to. But I am keen to hear well presented reasons for how other people have arrived at their opinions. I don’t expect to be convinced, but to be influenced, provoked into examining my thinking with the insight of that person’s observations and knowledge.

      However when you say so boldly “There is a truth about whether the globe is warming”, there are a lot of assumptions: that it will continue, that it is anthropogenic, that the consequences are worth worrying about. It has overtones of a bigger ideology. Often when people quote facts they are using them to point to a bigger picture that they want you to accept.

  6. Bravus says:

    I choose my words very carefully: I didn’t assume that the warming will continue, that it is human-caused, that particular actions will stop it or any of those things. I stated the fact – warming is happening. It *is* a fact, and no meaningful reframing will make it not a fact.

    All of that other stuff is more debatable, although in my opinion the vast preponderance of evidence suggests that humans have a partial but very important role in causing it. I can make those arguments… but they’re separate.

    I think you’re right in saying that I’m not a doctrinaire lefty. I see it much more as a matter of (a) common sense and (b) compassion than of ideology. That is, I think the market does some things well but does a remarkably poor job of making society more equitable – the latter is a verifiable fact – and that making society more equitable is a desirable thing to do for pragmatic and compassionate reasons.

    That is not a grand narrative that explains everything, though, which is what makes me postmodernist (and I’m not really sure what a ‘convinced postmodernist’ would look like…) ‘Syncretism’ is a very good word: I select bits and pieces from religion and science (including social science) and philosophy and experience.

  7. Bravus says:

    LOL – I only later re-read the original post and realised I had used the term ‘convinced postmodernist’ about myself! What I meant, I guess, it that it’s the framework that makes the most sense to me. And given that it can in theory ‘contain’ all other frameworks, I don’t have to give up the good features of any of them (just their exclusivity claims which I regard as spurious anyway) to be able to use postmodernism: best of all worlds.

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