“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” This well known saying is variously and unreliably attributed to a number of persons, from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill. But as long as one is not trying to steal the words for one’s self, it is less important who said a true thing, than that the thing said be true. Credit should be given, of course, when credit is due, and identifiable. But just because, say, Abraham Lincoln said a thing, that thing is not automatically true, any more than if Richard Nixon said something, it is automatically false. Now, it is not an ad hominem to call a liar a liar, nor is it a fallacy to question the credibility of a person whose credibility has been shredded by repeated abuses of the truth. Still, one must be very careful when it comes to either accepting or dismissing a statement merely on account of its source. If you dismiss an alcoholic’s statement that drinking is bad for you, on account of the fact that the person making the statement is an alcoholic (who is still drinking), you’ve committed the tu quoque version of the argumentum ad hominem. If anything, the alcoholic is better situated to speak with genuine expertise on the damage of alcoholism than, say, a more sober member of society.
But to return to our original point, there is an intransigence to falsehoods that is not easily dislodged by anything so inconsequential as reason and truth. There are many psychological studies (I’ll not link to any – they are easy to find) that point out that, for example, climate change denialism – devoid as it is of any shred of valid or scientific justification – nevertheless becomes more stubborn when it is confronted with logic and facts that admit of no rational dispute. The lie, as it were, digs in its boots. I’ll skip over any discussion of those rhetorical techniques that do seem to work, because such methods are not my interest here and it pisses me off that I’d ever have to resort to them. Rather, I want to look at those factors that let the lie out of the starting gate before the truth even knows that there is a race today. In particular, what is it that makes the lie so easy, and the truth so hard?
Let me open with some anecdotal accounts. These are not proffered as evidence, but as narratives intended to place what follows in what will hopefully be an heuristically effective context. Many (as in 30+) years ago, I had a job as a technician that required traveling a great deal to customer sites to work on the equipment sold by my parent company. (By “traveling a great deal,” I mean over 40,000 air miles a year; racked up a free ticket to Tahiti, I did … ) Anyway, I landed in Las Vegas with a colleague for a job, and we had some time afterwards to do a bit of travel. So we ran out to Hoover Dam on Lake Mead, for the amazing view. Parked on one of the overlooks, my colleague asked me how long I thought it would take for the lake to empty if the dam were breached. (This was not incipient terrorism, so just untwist your knickers.) I refused to answer the question. First off, there are the empirical factors: What is the volume of water in Lake Mead? What is the pressure of that water on the dam, and how does that pressure vary with the size of the breach? What is the proper way of assembling these (and all the other) relevant factors into a differential equation? None of these factors were at my finger tips, and even if they had been, my capacity to solve (as opposed to merely understanding equations that other people have already solved) the differential equations is minimal at best (though not entirely non-existent.) My colleague was profoundly annoyed with me because I refused to manufacture an answer to a question I could not possibly answer in anything like an intelligent fashion. I tried explaining this fact to my colleague, but he found my explanation wanting. He wanted an answer, and didn’t care if there was any reasoned justification for that answer.
Similar experiences (with less visually dramatic backdrops) have reprised themselves over the subsequent decades. Friends, even lovers, will insist that I fabricate an opinion on some topic or other of which I have no possible, rational insight. I will refuse the assignment. As a younger man, it was simply a matter of my nature. Having gone through graduate level education in philosophy, such refusal has become an entrenched discipline and ideal. I have nothing more than contempt for mere opinions; if I can do no better than a mere opinion, than I refuse to do even that. Experience suggests, however, that my approach is not a popular one.
People tend to want fast and decisive answers, without much regard as to whether the logic, principles, evidence, and facts actually justify such answers. This is one of the reasons why the format of a public “debate” is so problematic. As Donald Trump (and Mussolini and Hitler) so thoroughly demonstrate, the “winner” of a debate is not the one with the most cogent responses, but the one with the most dramatic appeal to the audience.
A debate is a performance, not a search for the truth. Consider, for example, the famous “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on the subject of evolution. While there are technical details that scientists continue to work out on the subject (evolution is a living science, and not merely a dead entry in an encyclopedia), no thinking person could possibly be confused about the fact – the manifestly irrefutable fact – that there is nothing to debate between creationism and evolution. Creationism is childish, ideological twaddle, while evolution is well established science with an extraordinary level of data density. It was wildly – arguably, unforgivably – foolish of Nye to “debate” a person as demonstrably incapable of rational thought or inquiry as Ham. All Ham had to do (and all he basically did do) was “Gish Gallop” his way through the “debate,” spewing an unbridled tsunami of falsehoods the whole time, that Nye would be buried (as the definition says) under, “so much bullshit in such a short span on that [Nye couldn’t] address let alone counter all of it.” It only takes a sentence to spout a falsehood or a lie, but it takes at least a paragraph to refute that falsehood. By the time that paragraph is articulated, the lie is halfway around the world.
But one need not go to such egregious examples to find, well, egregious examples …
Almost two years ago (March of 2014, in fact) the scientists at the BICEP2 triumphantly declared that they’d discovered gravitational waves, a long sought after phenomenon. This “discovery” was Headline News, trumpeted across the media as an unparalleled achievement of science. The fact that it was completely wrong scarcely got a mention, however. The fact that it took some eleven months for the final stake to be driven through the heart of this noisy declaration meant that the retraction of the claim was made with scarcely a notice under the shoe-advertisements on the back page of an unread newspaper. The falsehood was halfway across the world … This kind of thing is becoming common place in science, because it is more important to get the headline than to get the facts straight. It takes time to get the facts straight; time for the truth to get its boots on. And why invest in discipline when Glory is at stake?
So now we see the folks at LIGO pulling the same stunt. Rather than presenting their results to the scientific community for peer-review, they went to the press to kerygmatically declare their unchallengeable success. Now, it seems reasonable that the LIGO results are more robust than the BICEP2 claims. For one thing, LIGO is looking at a much narrower range of evidence, whereas BICEP2 was basically trolling the entire CMBR for data. But that doesn’t change the fact that LIGO decided to get halfway around the world before anyone could actually check their results. They decided that being first was more important than being right.
It should be recalled at this point that gravitational cosmology is, for all intents and purposed, empirically vacuous; any prediction built from the Standard Model of Gravitational Cosmology is predicated upon a model that has more free parameters than independent observations. And it is a forgone conclusion that the triumphalist gatekeepers will make no effort to compare the current results with alternative theories to the Standard Model. They are already halfway around the world.
Let me be emphatic here: I believe there is an excellent chance the LIGO results are important. But there is also an excellent chance that we really don’t know what they mean. Triumphalist declarations bury the the truth in Gish Gallop. Real science is careful, disciplined, and modest.