Truth, fiction and belief in secular times
What is the truth? The question of what we should believe has become complicated in recent years as the debates about ‘fake news’ and the ‘lying press’ (‘Lügenpresse’) show. Although our society has become more open and enlightened, we can hardly claim to live in an age that has overcome all prejudices and fears. History and modern sciences have discredited many of the most backward ideologies. In our internet age, we are no longer confined to a few newspapers or a limited number of books (or even just the Bible) to make sense of the world. But this new freedom has also been accompanied by new insecurities.
Some say we suffer from ‘information overload’, which makes us unnecessarily worried and insecure. Has our world become more dangerous, or do we only feel more scared because we are better informed about possible dangers than our parents’ generation was? Then there is the problem of contradictory information. Science offers us many precious insights, but anyone who wished to organise his or her life around scientific evidence would quickly run into problems. Is coffee good for us or not? Which parenting style is best for a child’s development? It would also be naïve to believe that all the evidence presented to us is true. In April, Die Zeit ran an interesting article about statistics, surveys and mathematical projections. The article, titled ‘Can this be true?’, exposes some of the ‘statistical lies or half-truths’ presented to the German public in the past few years – including statistics on the number of prostitutes, jobs replaced by computers, patients killed in hospitals or nursing homes, people living in poverty and people wishing to abstain from driving cars.
With all the evidence and information offered to us, we still need to make decisions based on our own rational reflections, combining both factual knowledge and moral thinking. Can ‘fact-checking’ help us or is the obsession with evidence misplaced because it leads to a ‘tit-for-tat’ interpretation of statistics? Sometimes we hear that there is no such thing as an absolute truth, but would abandoning the attempt to find commonly agreed truths leave society rudderless?