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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 1, No. 19 September 6, 1938

Tests of Truth

Tests of Truth.

When the radio set at home goes out of action do you just thank God for peace on earth or do you want it working again? If you want it working again do you get it fixed up or do you just look at it and listen to everybody's theories about what's gone wrong, and chant that everybody is entitled to his own opinion? Naturally (unless you're a God-thanker wallowing in voluptuous quiet) you get it fixed up and you know that the only man who was entitled to his opinion was the one who diagnosed the trouble correctly. A case like this clearly shows the absurdity of the pseudo-democratic illusions that all opinions should be respected, no matter how wrong they may be.

But in discussions of social problems the criteria of objective validity are ignored and we are told that every man is entitled to his opinion. The modern mind, trained to respect all opinions, sets aside any narrow, biassed, prejudiced and intolerant considerations of validity. By a mockery of liberal impartiality a groundless judgment is considered as good as a rational one. It is like the impartiality of Sir Samuel Hoare when he speaks of a friendly government and the invaders on its territory who are rebels on land and pirates at sea as the "two factions" in Spain; or the impartiality of Mr. J'aime Berlin when he speaks of the "two parties" in Czechoslovakia, or the impartiality of the significantly blindfold figure of Justice who cannot see whether the scales are weighed down by legal or moral rights or by corruption, influence, class prejudice, oppressive legislation, financial ability to brief more cunning counsel or other irrelevant factors.

Surely the important thing to consider about any opinion is simply whether it is right or wrong. Truth is one and indivisible. Nobody denies this when it is a question of employing the findings of the physical sciences for profitable construction or destruction. It is in the field of the social sciences that the attack on reason is made. We are asked how we can expect to improve on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of all mankind? How we can be confident when the experts differ among themselves? The fallibility of human reason is demonstrated by elaborate pieces of reasoning. We are beset by jesting Pilates. Conservatism exerts its best efforts to cultivate a defeatist attitude to the challenge of unnecessary poverty, war and fascisation. Obscurantism and flippancy become the keynotes of a machine civilisation. Economics is reduced to trivial discussions of how to improve things without changing them; political science becomes a barren description of administrative institutions; psychology treats opinions as expressions of interests and emotions unaffected by external reality; social psychology, sociology and anthropology do nothing to disprove that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds; academic history neglects the materialist interpretation that can alone integrate the chaos of historical facts; but perhaps it is in philosophy that modern mysticism reaches its peak of absurdity, when Eddington and Jeans abandon the rational patterns of thought they learnt as physical scientists and find that the universe is a mere symbol of irrationalism in the mind of a mathematical God. From there it is but a short step to the burning of the books.

We are told that we can't really find the truth, for the experts can't even agree themselves. Can't we distinguish fallacy and sophistry from legitimate thought clearly enough to reject Jevon's view that depressions are caused by spots on the sun, and Pigon's view that they are due to a mere uncaused subjective want of confidence; can't we differ from Fisher and Keynes, who think everything would be all right if money didn't vary in value, from Hayek, who wants to cut wages in order to increase profits, and from Hobson, who wants to cut wages in order to increase profits, and from hobson, who wants to increase wages at the cost of accelerating, intensifying and prolonging the coming slumps? when do we have our say? Must we allow our minds to atrophy merely because the most publicised savants and pundits restrict their constructive thought to mere gestures of reform that land them in unsound positions, internally inconsistent and mutually contradictory? The reason for the patent falsity of their conclusions is the narrowness of the field in which their creative imaginations can operate without conflicting with the traditional taboos that they are emotionally unable to reject because of their life-long association with a privileged class that has much to lose and cannot appreciate what it has to gain. They lack the breadth and the insight that make sincerity valid; their subjective illusion of sincerity is based only on the spontaneous sensitivity of a social being uncritically responsive to social stimuli.

The psychologist is rightly concerned with motives: the overemphasis on them is partly his own fault and partly the fault of the scavenging layman who picks over scientific discoveries and lifts them out of their content if they are capable of misuse for reactionary ends. For instance, the explanation of a reformer as somebody in conflict with his environment is true but incomplete: it assumes that the highest type of human being would be in harmony with that environment; it sees no significance in the fact of the conflict or in its statistical commonness; it does nothing to explain why the energy roused by the conflict is directed to the fields of economics and politics; and of course it is not so biassed as to enquire whether the reformer's views are sound or groundless.

There is this slight plausibility in the sinister attempt to cripple our innate capacity for rational thought: the social sciences can seldom use the method of experiment and can seldom reduce their findings to quantitative terms. The standard rules of scientific method are, however, still applicable, and results can be established with impeccable validity. The tests of truth are objective tests referring to the real world; does the analysis fit the facts? Will the remedy cure the defects? And the answer is always yes or no.

Untruths should be subject to conviction in a court of law, and it should be a serious crime to repeat a convicted lie. To quote one instance: we all know that man has been on the earth for a million years and that capitalism has existed for 150 years; the statement that we can't abolish capitalism because we can't change human nature is the type of lie that should be convicted.

Faced as we are by insecurity, social violence and regimentation, we must not maintain an attitude of academic detachment. It is easy to find some fault in the policy or practice of every social movement, but if we withhold our support merely on such grounds the subjective result will be the creation of the illusion of moral and intellectual superiority, and the objective result will be inaction—that is, a free hand for the reactionaries. But eternal vigilance, etc.

To attain the intellectual clarity that is within reach of us all and that must be grasped by every conscientious citizen, it is necessary for us to apply the tests of truth on all occasions. We must beware, above all, of our tendency as social animals to share the popular illusions that obliterate the criteria between valid and groundless opinions, between sane and insane thought.