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Truth and Beauty

Never before in the history of the world has so much information been so easily accessible. Name virtually any topic and a quick Googie or Wickle search will yield pages and pages of information, or bytes and bytes for those too young to remember what a page is. A recent article claimed that more information was added to the corpus of human ‘knowledge’ in the last year than was amassed in the last five thousand years. While I can’t validate this claim, it is probably not that far from the truth.

But this gets us to the nub of our problem, what is truth? John Keats wrote, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," —that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

As far as truisms go this is as good as any, clad as our modern world is in the raiment of glamour. But I am getting ahead of myself. To slow things down a bit it is prudent to give our thoughts pause for a moment and contemplate some of the jargon I have just bandied about. By jargon I mean words which have no meaning, or to be fair, less meaning than they should. The words of which I write are knowledge and truth. The word truth I would like you to make particular effort to remember for I will return to it shortly. Truth, truth, remember that.

As mentioned we now have faster access to more information in the comfort of our living room than an Emperor such as Napoleon would have had in the entirety of his mighty Empire. But we should take care not to confuse quantity with quality. In fact in today’s continuous feed society more is definitely less, when it comes to the ability of a person to reach their own conclusions on the basis of what they read, see and hear. To further understand this idea let us look at what we mean by information and knowledge.

Assimilation of knowledge is different to the acquisition of information. There is a process to assimilating knowledge that is being lost with the speed and ease of finding information. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, or so Robert Louis Stevenson thought, but the net is set to ruin this proverb as it provides such an instantaneous answer that we run the risk of not understanding the true value of the answer. In much the same way that understanding the value of money is important, so too is understanding the value of knowledge.

This becomes all the more poignant, here I mean poignant in the sharply perceptive sense of the word, as on no subject does it seem possible to have only one view. So we have to choose a conclusion based on the information available. Are humans here as a result of evolution or because a divine creator made us? Was the Copenhagen summit in 2009 the first time in history that, in the words of President Obama, ‘all of the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change’ or just another round in the diplomatic junket circuit which was all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’?

Because there is so much material, much of it loaded with bias and ill informed speculation, on any one topic it would be easy for an individual to draw a poor conclusion and then act upon ‘false knowledge’ (in the last decade the second Iraq war was the most startling example of this). Again I return to this idea of knowledge, as opposed to information, for it is the information that generally remains constant but the conclusions drawn which radically differ.

Such leaps of imagination move from troubled waters into overwhelmingly Tsunami like conditions once people go beyond drawing poor conclusions and take the dangerous step of starting with a conclusion and then seeking facts which support it.

This leads us to that word, I bade you upon pain of slapping not to forget, truth. Near countless jottings, articles, monographs and books have been written on the nature of truth and it is neither within the scope of this short blog to cover the ground again nor try in a few short sentences to set a new definition. My intent is to reawaken the idea that truth is the prize and the prize is truth. What matters it how many facts we can remember, how much information we bookmark or streams of content we digg if conclusions drawn are not our own and fall at the hurdle of rigorous analysis? In short we fail when our ideas are long on information, short on knowledge and non-existent on the scale of Truth.

That most esteemed Professor of law, Ronald Dworkin, made such a point in a recent interview with the BBC. He said that it was better for a student who wrote a sound entrance examination, to an Oxford or Harvard, to be admitted over a student who scored top marks if he/she was ‘interesting’. Those who understand the reason for the answer not just the facts of the answer. He extended this line of thought further by saying that such entrance tests should seek to weed out those people who are only interested in personal gain and favor those, perhaps with lower marks, who seek to benefit society and humanity at large.

In days gone by, the slower pace of information transmission, and life in general, gave more leniency to inaccurate assessment. People had time to reflect and statements made and even decisions taken could often be revoked before too much damage was done. 24 hour news requires 24 hour responses. Up-to-the-minute reporting forces the pace of up-to-the-minute statements and up-to-the-minute decisions. Yet while our decisions are happening faster the quality of those decisions is not necessarily improving and the consequences are more far reaching given the difficulty in retraction.

The only path out of this quagmire of reason is to seek the truth. To not be content with ‘knowing the information’, but to interrogate the information. Ask if it stands the test of scrutiny. Question the reality that is presented and ask ‘is it the truth’? And always, always think critically.

John Keats by Joseph Severn is licensed under Public Domain.

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