Sunday Nibble #16: Truth and fiction

Here’s an appropriate version of the telephone game. You’ve no doubt heard one of these quotes. Your job is to identify which was actually said by the person so named:

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots.” — Fisher Ames
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— Mark Twain
  4. “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” — Winston Churchill

The quote may or may not sound familiar, but who seems like the most likely source? I’ll get to that later, but the important point is that no matter which one of the quotes above is the actual one, each one of them does say something important.

Lies will spread like wildfire, and that’s especially true nowadays with the internet, social media, and the instantly shareable image macro, “news” post, or meme. We can see this every day when the latest outrage share or “shocking” news story goes viral (pardon the expression) before the debunking begins, but by then it is often too late.

It’s a problem that affects all political beliefs and I’ve seen both sides do it, which is why there are a few very important things you have to remember to ask yourself before you share that story.

  1. Does this offend my political sensibilities and confirm all the worst things I think about (insert hated foe here)? Then you may be getting played. Do a search, especially with sites like Snopes or Politifact, and especially if the claim seems too over the top. Hint: flip it so it’s your preferred person doing it, and see how plausible it sounds.
  2. For alleged news stories, always check the sources to make sure they are reputable outlets, and not places like shitpostnewslol.com or joeschmoemedia.me. A lot of satire sites will identify themselves as such, but you have to click the links and go to their “about” link, where it will clearly say, “Hey, we made this up.” And if you don’t know that the Onion and Borowitz report are mostly satire, you shouldn’t be online. Finally, while Forbes itself is reputable (if biased), if an article is under the URL forbes.com/sites/, then it could have been contributed by anyone, and shouldn’t be trusted.
  3. Avoid weasel words or stories without clearly identified parties. “Experts say” or “scientists believe” mean nothing. The same is true in a lot of “this injustice will outrage you” stories that happen to omit things like the location, at least the names of a local official or citizen interviewed. “Family kicked out of local diner for praying over breakfast” is a nice outrageous headline, but what does the story say? If all you get is “a local family of six is considering legal action” and “unidentified diner,” and not a lot more, don’t trust the story.
  4. You can ignore random opinion polls, because they can be made to say anything, depending on how the questions are worded and answer options are given, and the results can be spun as well. For example, the question, “Politicians accused of eating babies should: a) Be given a fair trial, per their rights; b) Executed on the spot because accusations are truth.” This can easily turn into the shock headline, “60% of Americans Support Politicians Eating Babies!” Again, ignore.
  5. Most science stories promising either miracle cures or killer asteroids are bunk, especially the latter. If you see a headline that says something like, “Mayo Clinic Breakthrough: Toe Jam Stops Cancer!” then you should look for the original study and ignore the story, because the reality was probably more like “toe jam kills 4% of foot cancer cells in vitro, peer review pending.” Translation: “Toe jam don’t kill cancer, and a petri dish isn’t a human body anyway.”
  6. Remember, most of all, that the authors of stories aren’t the ones who write the headlines, and the headlines are written to make you click. So do yourself the biggest favor of all, and don’t just read the headline. Read the entire story, and then research it further if it seems fishy.

Because… well, here are the quotes from above and the actual sources for them. Did you pick the right one?

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — actually Jonathan Swift, 1710
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots,” — attributed to Fisher Ames by William Tudor, North American Review, 1821
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— attributed to Mark Twain by Burris Jenkins, in the Denver Post, 1921
  4. “‘A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.’” — attributed to Winston Churchill by Ernest W. Lefever as quoted by Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, 1981

Hint: although a lot of people think it was Mark Twain, it wasn’t. The closest to an actual and verifiable first-person citation we can come is… Jonathan Swift, whose quote isn’t at all like the others in wording, but which is identical in sentiment.

Don’t help the lies fly. Help the truth get on its boots and run.

Friday Free-for-All #12

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What is the best path to find truth: Science, math, art, philosophy, or something else?

I suppose it depends upon how you define “truth,” but if we take it to mean objective facts that cannot be refuted by any subjective evidence, then the hands down answer is math, period.

Yes, our terminology for things is arbitrary, but what’s happening beneath it all is objectively true. 1 + 1 = 2, although you could just as easily express it as pine cone + pine cone = melon, blarf + blarf = smerdge, or whatever.

Note that those are metaphorical pine cones and melons, of course. The idea is that the symbol for a single thing plus the symbol for another single thing equals a total of a double thing.

The circumference of a circle has an absolute and fixed ratio to its radius, easy as pie. The sides of a right triangle will always compare to each other in the same way in Euclidian geometry — likewise with trigonometric functions. And it doesn’t matter what kind of numbering system or base you use.

When it comes to simple math, you’ve probably seen those online puzzles that will show something like two ice cream cones equal ten; an ice cream cone and a hamburger equals seven, and so on. Well, this is just simple algebra, except that the typical Xs, Ys, and Zs are replaced with emojis.

That doesn’t make any difference, and you’re still going to get the same answer once you solve it all out.

Let’s try one right now — although since I can’t embed emojis easily here, we’ll stick with the classics. Just imagine hotdogs, eggplants, peaches, whatever. Solve the last equation:

X + X + X = 15

X + X + Y = 13

Y + Y + Z = 10

X + Y = Z + ?

It’s all a lot simpler with reductions. The first equation is the same as 3X = 15, so X is obviously 15/3, or 5. In the second, 2*5+Y = 13 is exactly the same as 13-2*5 = Y. 13-10 = 3. In the third, 2Y + Z = 10, or 10 – 2*3 = Z, so Z = 4.

And in the last equation, 5 + 3 = 8, which is 4 + 4, or Z + Z.

Math like this has given us a way to measure the world, but it doesn’t give us the “why” behind any of it, just the “what.” This is where the next step to truth comes in, and that is science, which stands on the back of math.

The job of science is to ask questions, and then use all of those irrefutable truths of math to get to the next level of truth, which is not objectively true, but which is demonstrably true until falsified.

Note that math gives us a way to measure, because that is very important in science. Science is all about measuring. It’s about coming up with the hypothesis of “The degree to which A happens is affected by both B and C,” and then creating an experiment to test that, then measuring the results over and over.

For example: The hypothesis is dead cats bounce higher if the person who dropped them donated to the Calico party.

How to test it: Get a bunch of people to drop a bunch of dead cats over and over. Record which party they donated to, correlate to how high the dead cats bounced, gather enough data points to establish a pattern, publish results.

Preliminary theory: Yes, donating to the Calico party seemed to have an effect that made the dead cats bounce higher.

But let’s say you’re skeptical of that result. How to make sure it’s true? Time for a double-blind study. First, we make sure that the people dropping the cats have no idea that we have any interest in which party they donated to, so we ask them a ton of innocuous questions for “demographic purposes.”

We might even lead them to think that we’re interested in their hair color.

Second, we make sure that the people recording the results have no idea what we’re looking for either.

Finally, we make sure that we don’t know who falls into which category by issuing each test subject a random and anonymous ID that is tagged to their party, but locked away until later.

Then the cat dropping commences.

And guess what? Once the results are tabulated back to the data on party donations, it actually turns out that party donation has absolutely no effect whatsoever on how high the dead cat bounces.

But at this level, in order to get to the truth, it took a lot of maneuvering around human bias and whatnot to find it. And — surprise — all those steps in creating the double blind procedures came from… math.

And you hated it in eighth grade? Don’t worry. So did I. It took me a long time to understand why it’s so important.

Anyway… with enough of the scientific method going on, we can get to a pretty good semblance of the objective truth, although really not quite, although a bunch of it sticks.

For example, the theory of gravity. You’re not about to step off of a tall building to test it, are you? Nope. You’re going to trust that this would just lead to a short, fast fall, a hard splat, and death.

This brings us to art and philosophy, and I’ll frankly dismiss the latter as just so much intellectual jerking off, no matter who’s doing it. The only school of thought I could ever come close to agreeing with was Empiricism, which basically felt that knowledge could only come from direct experience.

Or, in other words, I can only know it if I’ve experienced it through my senses, or humans can only know it if they’ve measured it. That is, science. So the empiricists basically managed to establish their own field as complete BS. Nice job, really.

As for art, it will never discover any objective truths, because that’s not what it’s about. But what it can do is take the objective truths of math and science and turn them into relatable and subjective truths for their audiences, and do it by creating an emotional reaction in that audience.

The scientists who have spread the truth the best have also been artists in that they have performed and created an emotional reaction. Just look at Carl Sagan and how he enflamed interest in science with his series Cosmos, or how Neil deGrasse Tyson repeated that success in the 2010s.  And everybody loves Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

But, again, why? Because art swoops in to popularize science. And while art only ever leads to subjective truths, art in service of science education will always lead to objective truth.

So… what is the best path to find truth? If you happen to be mathematically or scientifically inclined, then those. But if you’re artistically inclined, follow those artists who create a lot of stuff about science, and you’ll get led back eventually.

Most definitely, though, ignore the person on the soapbox who is saying that their way is the only way without backing it up, because they are a philosopher, and they are just yapping to hear themselves talk.

Trust me. I met their kind at university, and it wasn’t pretty.