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Thursday, 19 March 2009

WHY DOES TRUTH MATTER? SURVIVING VERIPHOBIA

WHY DOES TRUTH MATTER? SURVIVING VERIPHOBIA

‘There are no universal truth to which our construction is a more or less good approximation’. (Egon Guba and Yvonne Lincoln, 1989)

‘What counts for truth in physical education? Whose truth is it anyway? and Why do they hold it as true?’ (Doune Macdonald and Richard Tinning, 2003)

'Leisure spaces (heterotopias) for women provide spaces for rewriting the script of what it is to be a woman, beyond definitions provided by powerful males and the discourses propagated as truth in contemporary societies'. (Betsy Wearing)


These quotations provide examples of a growing condition affecting educational and sports research: a general aversion to talking about truth and its associates, such as fact, knowledge and evidence. This aversion is so widespread in some settings that it is taken for granted. I’ve learned from first hand experience that questioning the assumption that truth is a big con leads to looks of disorientated alarm.

In one of those rare articles that people actually talk about occasionally I called this position ‘veriphobia’, or fear of truth. I’ve since learned from colleagues better educated than me that I’ve managed to compound Greek and Latin words, which apparently is a linguistic crime. But I still think it is a neat word!

In my earlier paper, I defined Veriphobia as ‘a denial of the merit, or even the possibility, of truth’. It expresses itself in numerous ways, such as the rejection of traditional research concepts and values, and excessive use of plurals, speech marks, parentheses and word-processing effects – realities, “truth”, (re)search, facts.

Veriphobic thinkers come from across the academy, but predominate among the social sciences. They go by many names, such as postmodernists, social constructivists, pragmatists and eco-afro-feminists, but they are characterised by a shared denial of the traditional goals of research and enquiry, including the pursuit of truth, objectivity and the growth of knowledge. In the words of one group of concerned on-lookers, ‘a fluid scepticism now covers the intellectual landscape, encroaching upon one body of thought after another. We are told by Guba and Lincoln that ‘there is no universal truth’, by Scott and Usher that ‘instead of only one truth, there are many’, and by St Pierre that, if it makes any sense at all to talk of truth, we ought to recognise that it is ‘multiple, historical, contextual, contingent, political and bound up in power relations’. We are also warned of the dangers of tolerating those who resist the lure of veriphobia, although the severity with which they should be judged is a matter for debate. So, some writers like Richard Rorty feel pity for these poor souls, describing them affectionately as ‘prigs’, or dismissed as living under an ‘illusion’ of an objective reality. Others are more harsh: the ‘anarchist philosopher’ Paul Feyerabend denounced truth-seekers as ‘conceited, ignorant, superficial, incomplete and dishonest’.

In case the reader assumes that these are merely embittered rejections of the mainstream from those at its edges, it ought to be noted that each of the cited authors are well-established figures within the academic world. Veriphobia is no longer an alternative to the mainstream; in many different parts of the academy, including the social sciences of sport and education, it is the mainstream.


VERIPHOBIA ONLY AFFECTS OTHER PEOPLE
An interesting feature of veriphobic writing is a failure to recognise that the logic (for want of a better word) of its critique undermines its own position. That is to say, if veriphobia’s claims were accepted, they would also have to be rejected.

Consider an example from the philosopher of education, Wilfred Carr. Following an extended critique of the ‘Enlightenment’ distinction between the ‘knowing subject’ and the ‘objective world’, he goes on to suggest that, ‘the subject’s knowledge of the world is always preinterpreted: it is always situated in a conceptual scheme … knowledge is never “disinterested” or “objective”’. But surely there is some difficulty with this line of argument. On the one hand, Carr is making a claim about how things really are, and on the other hand, he is explicitly denying that it is ever possible to make such claims.

Thomas Nagel refers to this situation as the ‘impossibility of thinking from the outside’. Sociological insights into the practice of research serve a valuable role in raising our awareness of the context of our work, and may even lead us to change our practice. But such insights lose their force if stretched too far. It is useful to be reminded that our education, our background and our cultural origins all influence the way we approach the world, but it is nonsense to assume that just because our knowledge of the world is situated in a conceptual scheme that these things do not exist. The difficulty that veriphobes face time and again is that truth is difficulty to banish from our discussions of the world, as it is presupposed in such discussions, even of to the claim that there is no truth.

So, when writers such as Michel Foucault assert that claims of truth merely represent regimes of power and domination, they are making, whether they like it or not, make claims of truth. In the same way, Rorty’s reduction of truth to agreement does not only derive from his upbringing or position, but from his belief that he is stating something that he believes to be the case, that is, true. And, this problem is not solved when they claim that they are not offering us a ‘theory’, but only an ‘interpretation’ of event. Why should we listen to them and their claims of inequality and unfairness, at all, unless they are supposed to represent the way things really are?

There is nothing new in this response to veriphobia. Indeed, its origins can be traced back to Plato, who was the first to show the difficulty of throwing truth out with the sociological bathwater. Truth keeps coming back.

In practice, both consensus and domination veriphobia leads to a bind. The medicine, science and technology that each of us takes for granted as we make our ways around the world are premised on a conception of truth that it is not merely a matter of time, place or personality, but that is objective and universal. Richard Dawkins captured the flavour of this difficulty for the veriphobes when he wrote: ‘Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I will show you a hypocrite!’


VERIPHOBIA IS FATAL
If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out (poet Tim Minchin)


It is a peculiar irony of the current popularity of veriphobia among educational and sport researchers that the condition is so harmful for research. Research is inherently related to truth, and a denial of that connection leads to the sorts of contradictions that litter the work of veriphobes.

The consequences of veriphobia for researchers can be profound. Truth offers a sense of direction and purpose to enquiry, and without these, research becomes a decorative activity, filling the time of academics, but making no contribution to society or its understand of the world. In the words of great American philosopher, C.S. Pierce, ‘man loses his conception of truth and reason … (and comes) to look about reasoning as mainly decorative. The result … is, of course, a rapid deterioration of intellectual vigour.’ Although he was writing before the emergence of contemporary styles of veriphobia (and apparently before the invention of women), Pierce has spotted a pattern in much such writing. Indeed, one of the founding fathers and heroes of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard held his hands up and admitted: ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I’d never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s a bit of a parody’.

So, veriphobia too easily descends into trivia. But, there can also be sinister consequences of the abandonment of the pursuit of truth. Veriphobic theorists present their ideas as radical or progressive, but their denial of truth leads them to consequences that are fundamentally reactionary. The casual manner in which some writers denounce traditional forms of enquiry, like science, as inescapably sexist, racist and classist (such as Sandra Harding), if accepted, immediately creates a barrier for the participation among marginalised groups, warning them that they are destined to fail. Aside from the dishonesty of this approach, it is also deeply offensive to those groups. By denying the vital distinction between truth and falsity, fact and fiction, veriphobia disempowers the very people it claims to represent.

Truth is the only salvation for the minority view. Without it as a clear and unapologetic goal of enquiry, the lies and deception of the tyrants, the liars and sometimes the majority will remain forever unexposed. Researchers can and should be should troublemakers in the realm of ideas, and their most potent weapon in this context is the ability to stand up with authority, and say: ‘That is not true!’

3 comments:

Science in golf III said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Bridge said...

Hi Here's a song for this blog - http://www.indabamusic.com/songs/show/5507
M ;-)

Richard Bailey - Education and Sport said...

Who knew there was a song called veriphobia? Thanks Matt!