38. Truth is what we agree about?

I have always been interested in philosophy. I was interested in the big problems – the ‘What is life about?’ kind of thing with, as a special subject, ‘What is truth?’. How can we know whether something – a sentence, a theory, a mathematical formula – is true? And I guess because I was a mathematician and a physicist early in my career, I was particularly interested in the subset of this which is the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science. I read a lot of Bertrand Russell – which perhaps seems rather quaint now. This had one nearer contemporary consequence. I was at the first meeting of the Vice-Chancellors of universities that became the Russell Group. There was a big argument about the name. We were meeting in the Russell Hotel and after much time had passed, I said something like ‘Why not call it the Russell Group?’ – citing not just the hotel but also Bertrand Russell as a mark of intellectual respectability. Such is the way that brands are born.

The maths and the science took me into Popper and the broader reaches of logical positivism. Time passed and I found myself a young university professor, working on mathematical models of cities, then the height of fashion. But fashions change and by the late 70s, on the back of distinguished works like David Harvey’s ‘Social justice and the city’, I found myself under sustained attack from a broadly Marxist front. ‘Positivism’ became a term of abuse and Marxism, in philosophical terms – or at least my then understanding of it, merged into the wider realms of structuralism. I was happy to come to understand that there were hidden (often power) structures to be revealed in social research that the models I was working on missed, therefore undermining the results.

This was serious stuff. I could reject some of the attacks in a straightforward way. There was a time when it was argued that anything mathematical was positivist and therefore bad and/or wrong. This could be rejected on the grounds that mathematics was a tool and that indeed there were distinguished Marxist mathematical economists such as Sraffa. But I had to dig deeper in order to understand. I read Marx, I read a lot of structuralists some of whom, at the time, were taking over English departments. I even gave a seminar in the Leeds English Department on structuralism!

In my reading, I stumbled on Jurgen Habermas and this provided a revelation for me. It took me back to questions about truth and provided a new way of answering them. In what follows, I am sure I oversimplify. His work is very rich in ideas, but I took a simple idea from it: truth is what we agree about. I say this to students now who are usually pretty shocked. But let’s unpick it. We can agree that 2 + 2 = 4. We can agree about the laws of physics – up to a point anyway – there are discoveries to be made that will refine these laws as has happened in the past. That also connects to another idea that I found useful in my toolkit: C. S. Peirce and the pragmatists. I will settle for the colloquial use of ‘pragmatism’: we can agree in a pragmatic sense that physics is true – and handle the refinements later. I would argue from my own experience that some social science is ‘true’ in the same way: much demography is true up to quite small errors – think of what actuaries do. But when we get to politics, we disagree. We are in a different ball park. We can still explore and seek to analyse and having the Habermas distinction in place helps us to understand arguments.

How does the ‘agreement’ come about? The technical term used by Habermas is ‘intersubjective communication’ and there has to be enough of it. In other words, the ‘agreement’ comes on the back of much discussion, debate and experiment. This fits very well with how science works. A sign of disagreement is when we hear that someone has an ‘opinion’ about an issue. This should be the signal for further exploration, discussion and debate rather than simply a ‘tennis match’ kind of argument.

Where does this leave us as social scientists? We are unlikely to have laws in the same way that physicists have laws but we have truths, even if they are temporary and approximate. We should recognise that research is a constant exploration in a context of mutual tolerance – our version of intersubjective communication. We should be suspicious of the newspaper article which begins ‘research shows that …..’ when the ‘research’ quoted is a single sample survey. We have to tread a line between offering knowledge and truth on the one hand and recognising the uncertainty of our offerings on the other. This is not easy in an environment where policy makers want to know what the evidence is, or what the ‘solution’ is, for pressing problems and would like to be more assertive than we might feel comfortable with. The nuances of language to be deployed in our reporting of research become critical.

Alan Wilson

April 2016

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