Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Truth, The Whole Truth

Last night’s 7:30 Report on ABC had a story that was bad enough to trigger rants on Twitter (sorry, at the time of writing they did not put the story on their website). I feel obliged to join and explain how, in my opinion, the reason for this story’s failure is the view rampant in today’s society that claims truth is a relativistic term. Allow me to explain.

The story was about communities’ fight against telcos as the latter tried to erect cell towers in their area, in particular around the vicinity of a Hobart school. They had worried mothers interviewed, they had a guy waving some sort of a meter to show how radiation rises threefold when in the vicinity of a cell tower, and they had a scientist say that thus far there is no proof for cell phones or cell towers having negative effects on people’s health. The story’s problem was it giving the same weight to the guy waving the meter and showing three times more radiation as it gave the well researched scientist. Three times nothing is still nothing, but by ABC’s account it could well be something.
Indeed, we’ve seen this film (or news report) before. Every time there is some sort of a discussion on matters of global warming, our public broadcaster insists on bringing some loudmouthed twat with totally unrelated credentials at best and give their say just as much weight as it gives the calm, and too often not that well spoken, scientist. It’s all in the name of showing the two sides of the story and providing an appearance of objectivity; but is that truly the case? Are both sides truly equal?
In matters of global warming the evidence is pretty clear; I won’t even try to pretend the deniers have any argument worth countering up their belt. The story is not too dissimilar with mobile phones, though: despite their wide use for much more than a decade now there has been no measurable rise in cancer rates. The energy transmitted by the phones is far less than the energy hitting brain cells stricken by visible light (yes, you read that right). The cacogenic effects of cell phones have been classified at the same level as coffee drinking. And the effect of the heat coming off mobile phones is meaningless when discussing the potential dangers of cell towers. (I've discussed all these arguments already, here). I’m not saying there are no potential risks from mobile phone technology; I’m saying that we do not know of such yet and I’m saying we should research the matter.
We cannot behave as if a danger already exists when we have no idea what it truly is. No one, not even the reports’ worried mothers, is saying we should rid ourselves of mobile phones. Therefore, by relocating cell towers away but still using mobile phones we are forcing the devices to emit more energy in order to maintain communication with the faraway towers. Isn’t that a more significant threat?

The point I am trying to make is not about the virtues of global warming or the safety of mobile phone usage, but rather about the idea of truth as a subjective matter. Well, it isn’t: the objective truth does exist, and if we pretend there is no such thing we are putting ourselves in great danger. For example, if you were to choose not to believe in evolution, for example, you’re putting yourself on the delusional side of things by virtue of the ample evidence supporting evolution. The same goes for the moon landing, global warming or cell phone usage: evidence matters!
Ignore the evidence and you will find yourself in a backwards world where medicine suffers (due to lack of understanding on matters of evolution), communication suffers (no cell phones), and civilization as a whole is at the brink of collapse (global warming). However, the best method for demonstrating the haziness of the subjective truth’s point of view is taking things to the other extreme: if anything and everything can be true, then why not doubt the existence of, say, Napoleon (to quote Richard Dawkins' favorite example)? After all, no one alive can claim to have seen him; he could be a fabrication.
There is a very slippery slope here. Thus far, the scientific method has proven itself to be the only mechanism we can conjure to help us separate truth from crap. We need to embrace and support it; giving equal say (or more) to every opinion out there regardless of evidence is not the right way about it. We need to discriminate, and we need to do so based on evidence. Of all the media in Australia, the 7:30 Report, prestige and all, should have known better.

To finish on a high note, here is Tim Minchin’s view on the matter.

No comments: