Honors Symposium Explores Concept of Truth

A well-filled auditorium populated by students and faculty embarked on a quest for the truth at the Honors Symposium on Truth across the Disciplines on Thursday, April 5. The symposium included presenters from the Science, Literature, Psychology, Journalism and Media Studies, and Philosophy departments.

“In science, we don’t use the word truth,” Laurel Senft said.

According to her, there are always more tests and data.

“In science, it’s really important to keep an open mind,” Senft said. “Your brain is bad at figuring out what’s real. Our subjective experience often isn’t what is actually happening.”

According to Patricia Sehulster, truth in literature is very complicated and the critical mind can find it in memoirs and autobiographies.

“A memoir is a written record of a person’s knowledge of events or of a person’s own experience,” Sehulster said. “But it will be that individual’s own truth.”

“The classic definition of journalism tells us that while journalism is not going to provide an absolute, objective truth, because that is simply impossible, it should strive to provide the best approximation of the truth that is possible in the time available.”— Eric Luther, Curriculum Chair for Communications

Sometimes our perception can greatly vary from the person who is sitting next to us, witnessing the very same situation.

In the pursuit of truth, “question it, always,” was the advice Sehulster left students with.

When tackling the topic of truth from a psychological standpoint, Kamil Hamaoui suggested that instead of hitting truth dead in the eye, we only ever get closer and closer to it.

An example given by Hamaoui was the question whether or not President Trump is a narcissist. The way people tackle an answer to this question, their quest for the truth, very much depends on their political view.

According to Hamaoui, if they identify as republicans, they will need a large number of facts to convince them that Trump is a narcissist, with the possibility of never reaching that conclusion at all. Democrats, on the other hand, are likely to need only a few facts to convince them.

“The threshold line is not fixed and depends on predisposition-bias,” Hamaoui said.

Scientists try to be objective about gathering truth but people may not do this in real life, but instead people have a cognitive bias: perception, memory, and reasoning is easily distorted by our expectations, assumptions, and beliefs.

“We are very quick in seeing other people’s biases,” Hamaoui said. “And critical thinkers acknowledge that.”

Our confirmation bias also plays a big role in determining what the truth is as we look for and remember facts that fit our beliefs. “We remember the ‘hits’ and forget the ‘misses,’” Hamoui said.

On the mention of fake news which are not real but seem like the truth, Eric Luther took over to talk about truth in journalism.

“It’s not like journalists sit on a bucket of truth and are deciding how much of it to give you,” Luther said. “The classic definition of journalism tells us that while journalism is not going to provide an absolute, objective truth, because that is simply impossible, it should strive to provide the best approximation of the truth that is possible in the time available.”

According to Luther, fake news is still a vague term that needs working definitions. For example, fake could mean factual but not important enough to be a news story, or fake news could be a story that is factually wrong, partially or completely, but still well-intionted.

Closing the symposium, Dr. Dwight Goodyear pointed towards a philosophical explanation of the what truth is through the correspondence theory of truth. This theory states that a statement can be quantified as true, if what is said corresponds to a fact.

“If I state the proposition, ‘HIllary Clinton became the 45th president of the United States’ then my claim is false since it doesn’t correspond to a fact,” Dr. Goodyear said. “If I stat the proposition, ‘Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States’ then my claim is true because it does correspond to a fact.”

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