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Are All "Truths" Equally Valid? Comparing the AoAers to Kesey’s Cuckoo

November 26, 2010

It seems a silly question to ask, given the self-evident answer: we know that all beliefs and opinions are not equally valid. Obviously, it’s important to acknowledge that the person who believe something believes it to be true, but it doesn’t mean it is.


The reason I raise this question is that most of us in the skeptical community patently reject the assumption that all “truths” are equally valid. What matters is evidence. Where there is no clear answer, rather than assuming a position of absolutism regarding “truth,” we tend to adopt a “wait and see” approach or an honest “I don’t know” approach.


This is not the case in most areas. Truthiness is often more important than truth.


Chantal Sicile-Kira has a Thanksgiving post up at Huffington Post that troubles me. The part, I suppose, that bothers me most is this idea of truths, as if everyone’s version of reality is equally valid and true. She writes, “The autism community has it’s differing opinions, because all of our perceptions and experiences are a part of the mystery that is autism: we share a similar label but our personal stories, perceptions, beliefs, and truths are different. And this needs to be respected” (punctuation intact). Had she left it at perception and beliefs being different and needing to be respected, I believe I could endorse that. In order to communicate with others on similar journeys but with radically differing perceptions, we’ll have to respect that those perceptions are different or no communication can occur. 


It’s this idea of truths, though, that pricks at me. Truth. I’ve used this line from Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest several times over the last few months as I work my way through to understanding other people’s realities: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”


True. It’s true to me if I believe it. This suggests that there is a wide gap between how scientifically and empirically based people would use the concept of truth and how the general public uses it. Indeed, there’s a wide gap in the actual definitions of truth and how Sicile-Kira uses it here, and in how Kesey used it in his book. Theirs is a personal truth, not an empirical, grounded-in-objective reality truth. It is a subjective truth, one that can walk at complete odds with anyone else’s subjective experiences. 
truth

“1. the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
4. the state or character of being true.
5. actuality or actual existence.
6. an obvious or accepted fact; truism; platitude.
7. honesty; integrity; truthfulness.
8. ( often initial capital letter ) ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience: the basic truths of life.
9. agreement with a standard or original.
10. accuracy, as of position or adjustment.
11.Archaic . fidelity or constancy.—Idiom
12. in truth, in reality; in fact; actually: In truth, moral decay hastened the decline of the Roman Empire.”

The saying “and the truth shall set you free” decries this personal, subjective and independent-of-reality truth. Kesey’s narrator, Chief Bromden, relates his truth, his subjective, hallucinatory and often delusional experiences, and throughout the story moves back towards sanity and reality by backing away from the self-imposed isolation of a separate reality; his quest towards liberation and reality setting him ultimately free from the self-imposed silence and fog and reconnecting him with the wider world. Sure, it’s an ambiguous ending in that he leaves the institution and strikes out, his future and future truths unknown. At the very least, though, the reader has a sense that there will not be a return to his fog or self-imposed exile. He will see the world from a more objective perspective.


Not all people who create a reality distinct and separate from what mainstream society recognizes as close-to-objective reality will retreat from the fog, though, and it seems clear as time passes and more studies are done that show no link between vaccines and autism, that some parents and indeed, autistic individuals, as well, are retreating deeper into the fog. They, too, see the world in similar terms as Chief Bromden: there is a Combine out there attempting to coerce and force a rigidity of behavior and beliefs; for these individuals, it is not the institutional setting enforcing it, but the combined machinations of the pharmaceutical industry and the governmental complex working through the use of vaccinations to at best, damage an entire generation of youth, and at worst, engage in a eugenics program. It’s their “truth” even if it really isn’t happening.

The question becomes, then, for those who see this as foggy behavior, how do we interact with people divorced from objective reality? Do their beliefs deserve respect? I think not. Do the individuals themselves deserve respect? I think that depends on how we’re using the term respect. They deserve compassion, certainly. But I don’t think we need to elevate distorted thinking and conspiracy theories as equally valid to scientific and empirically validated truths.

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