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Entry 1428, on 2012-08-20 at 20:54:06 (Rating 4, Politics)

Truthiness seems to be a term which has been gaining some prominence recently, although it has been around for many years. It refers to the idea that many people think certain things are true simply because it seems like they should be: they make sense to them, they are just inherently obvious, or are supported by anecdotes.

As a skeptic I am highly suspicious of this sort of thing, of course. So many things which were previously thought of as obvious have turned out to be not true. And everyone has built-in biases which are likely to lead them to an "obvious" conclusion which might not be obvious to someone with a different bias. And anecdotes are notoriously unreliable. As all skeptics know: the plural of anecdote is not data!

So no important decisions should be made on the basis of truthiness, but so many are. These occur at many different levels in society, including government. A good current example here in New Zealand is Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's insistence that drug-testing beneficiaries is a good idea. When asked what support she had for the policy she replied with "I just don't feel that we need to trawl through evidence and give that much kind of evidence to something that is just so obvious." and she was acting on information from "the visits, from face to face meetings, I don't know, from some of the international research I've seen ..." Well there is one part of what she said that no one will disagree with, that's the part when she said "I don't know". The rest is highly suspicious!

In my experience right-wingers like Bennett are far more susceptible to truthiness than many others although I would certainly never suggest there isn't a similar phenomenon at work on the left. But it seems to me that the left does tend to hold academia in somewhat higher esteem and rely more on expert advice rather than pure instinct.

There is one other factor worth looking at here too. That is that Bennett is more likely to be engaged in a political maneuver rather than a genuine attempt at improving the welfare system. And in this case her instinct is probably quite accurate: many of her political supporters will love this move because it fits in with their opinions that beneficiaries are all useless drug addicts.

You might have noticed in this post that I have been a bit guilty of truthiness myself. I have used the phrase "it seems to me" and "seems to be" and "in my experience" for example. But I am presenting this post simply as an opinion. If I was going to formulate a policy on this issue I would research real evidence from experts. That is the difference between someone who wants to know how they can really achieve the outcomes which they are allegedly pursuing and someone who simply wants to carry out a political agenda.

Truthiness is everywhere in the current New Zealand government's policies - particularly in health, education, and social welfare. If they just listened to people who know something about what they are trying to achieve instead of listening to their own dogma then the country would be a far better place.


Comment 1 (3317) by Rob on 2012-08-21 at 18:47:26: Seems to me that makes sense.


Comment 2 (3318) by OJB on 2012-08-22 at 10:47:19:

But the problem is that in many parts of society there is an intense distrust of experts. And in some cases that distrust has some merit. Look at where the experts in economics and finance have got us for example. Of course I have argued that economics isn't a real academic discipline because it is so tied up with dogma (libertarianism, free markets, etc) that is loses all credibility. I realise that there are economists who base their ideas more on reality but are they listened to?


Comment 3 (3319) by Rob on 2012-08-23 at 02:38:31:

Tell me about it. My Dad would rather listen (and believe) what Rush Limbaugh has to say on a subject concerning science rather than an expert in the field. Of course his vote counts as much as mine. He believes taxes and regulations (especially environmental and safety regulations) are killing the US and the average Joe. "Why quit using CFCs and why can't I pour my crankcase oil in the stream?"

Of course, when I ask him if he'd rather have a cardiologist that barely finished high-school to one that finished top of their class at Stanford Medical School with years of experience then he wants the expert.


Comment 4 (3320) by OJB on 2012-08-23 at 13:19:09:

Yes, the distrust of experts only goes so far. When it comes to something which is really going to affect the person's life they tend to suddenly trust them again. That said, there are cases where even that doesn't happen: people who trust homeopaths and psychics instead of doctors for example. At least you can say they are consistent. Consistently wrong!


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