Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Guardians of Information


Apparently, one of the blogs in the philosophy carnival of a few days ago contained some misinformation - at least the accusation has been raised. While I am of course shocked and disgusted that anything of the sort has made its way into the blogosphere, one recognises a certain inevitability to the event. And, on the other hand, a quick reading of the article revealed no gaping holes to my mind. Of course, the post was about something with which I am totally unfamiliar (the "PGR" ranking scheme for philosophy courses) and I was only able to dedicate about 6 minutes to checking the accuracy of the entry, but that's still something, right?

When one is using a philosophical process to break down an issue, understand a situation, etc, one must of course require a certain degree of rationality and truthfullness to your own assumptions and implications. However, why is it that we seem to require truthfullness from others? Why is truth seen as being a "good" thing, even in situations where perhaps the truth of the matter is not really relevant?

The PGR article for example, insofar as it contained factual information drawn from a particular report, seemed to be quoting correctly. Beyond that, an argument was simply presented. The accusation here seems to be not that there were inaccuracies of fact, but that some other kind of fallacy was present in the posting - either a bad argument being presented as correct, or some poor assumptions, or simply a disagreement with the basis of the quoted report.

The danger, presumably, lies when one accepts a published article as fact, when in fact it may contain errors innocent or otherwise. Humans seem wired up to largely believe reportings of fact given to them, and as such they become very angry and resentful when they encounter a lie in a place where they expected truth.

But is there more to it than the biological reaction? In the end, it becomes a question of how you ground your ethics. A rationalist might simply view it as a question of economics - the truth is usually more efficient, and its goodness lies in its efficiency. An efficient lie would do just as well. However a spiritualist or moralist might hold that lying is per se wrong according to a doctrine or due to its betrayal of morality.

And still, incorrectness is not always lying. It is very slippery to come to grips with what is wrong with being wrong. After all, you wouldn't want to be wrong about going to war. But where a spiritualist holds that falsehood is wrong per se, it is less common to hold that inaccuracy is wrong per se. Most people, spiritual and rationalist alike, would agree that the wrongness of inaccuracy is a problem of efficiency and context. It is perhaps morally wrong to be inaccurate when life is at stake, but less imperative when nothing at all is at stake - such as being wrong about whether a coin will land heads or tails - in absense of other major consequences of course.

All in all, a troublesome area, pointing once again to the value of taking everything you read, er, philosophically.


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