- If a fact is true, but has no citation…wikipedia entry may be removed. What is truth? Social agreement/peer review (@adellefrank)
- What is truth right now even experts are having a hard time agreeing (@mfrisque)
- “Always open to deliberate manipulation by an organized subgroup…so form a subgroup to prove your truth” Bruckman (@adellefrank)
- Bruckman said, “but there’s a strange correlation between our perceptions. Our best guess at reality is what we agree is true. (American Libraries)
A proposition X is true if and only if social group S has agreed to accept that X. Call this the naïve consensus theory of truth. Unfortunately, at the heart of this theory is a simple conflation of “is true” with “is believed to be true”, which is the calling-card of relativism. Are we really to accept that both young-earth creationism and Darwinian evolution are true, because they are accepted by certain social groups? Belief systems ranging from a geocentric universe to aether theories to the genetic superiority of Caucasians have, at various times, been accepted by sizable social groups, but that doesn’t make them true. (A point-by-point refutation of the naïve consensus theory of truth would take me too far afield, and the philosophical literature has adequately handled it already, cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need a refresher).In sum, social agreement simpliciter is an insufficient metric for determining the truth of a proposition. It would be intellectually dishonest to ascribe this straw-man view to Bruckman.
A proposition X is true if and only if X is consistent with the negotiated linguistic rules of social group S. Call this the neo-Wittgensteinian theory of truth. For example, look at the Wiki article on the tallest buildings in the U.S.; was the World Trade Center taller than the Sears (Willis) Tower? Well, are we measuring to the top of the antenna? Highest occupied floor? Highest architectural feature? Highest above sea-level? This is a clear-cut case wherein the truth of the claim “X is the tallest building in the United States” is a function of the various definitions accepted by competing groups. So, the meaning of the predicate “is the tallest building” is a function of the linguistic rules of a particular group (e.g., architects, politicians, engineers, or tall-building enthusiasts). Moreover, the very terms “floor”, “antenna”, and “architectural feature” vary in meaning, depending on which social group you ask. Ultimately, we can’t escape that language is a social construct, so it follows that “is true”, as a predicate in the language, must be a social construct. This is a complicated position, and warrants a lengthier discussion, but the brief response is that the extension of a term is one thing…the truth of a proposition is another. The extension of a term is often determined socio-linguistically (see, e.g., Putnam on the division of linguistic labor or Kripke’s causal theory), but that does not mean that the truth of a proposition containing that term is also a socio-linguistic construct. In fact, if the socio-linguistic determination of extension translated into the social determination of truth, it would entail that the various social groups are incapable of communicating with one another because “truth” becomes limited to intra-theoretical discourse. Put another way, if we want to talk about linguistic frameworks other than our own, we must be realists about truth. Read Putnam’s The meaning of ‘meaning’ (1975) for a better explanation.
A proposition X is true if and only if belief in X is warranted under the accepted justificatory mechanisms of social group S. This is akin to Habermas’ consensus theory of truth. Briefly, the consensus theory holds that truth is determined by appeal to the methods of justification described in the discursive practices of a community. For example, the statement “electrons have a negative charge” is true because the scientific community–through a common discursive practice–came to the agreement that electrons are, in fact, negatively charged: scientists agreed on the proper tests, the nomenclature, and the theoretic framework for the atom and the result is that it is true that electrons are negatively charged. Likewise, according to the Wikipedia article, Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf in 1929, and this is true because the many, many editors who have crafted this article have worked within a discursive practice (i.e., Wikipedia article creation guidelines) in which their agreement that Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf in 1929 (as determined by external sources) is sufficient to show that it is both a product of a rational justificatory mechanism and that it is, in fact, true. But, in point of fact, this consensus theory is not a theory of truth at all. Rather, it is a species of process reliabilism about justification. The common discursive practice of the scientists is not ad hoc, rather, it is the description of a series reliable justificatory mechanisms (the scientific method, experiment and observation, falsifiability, peer-review, etc.). That scientific claims are agreed upon is one thing, that they are agreed upon because they are justified is quite another. We can say that we are justified in believing the truth of certain propositions in Wikipedia because they are the product of a reliable process (appeal to external sources), not simply because there is simple, social agreement. Put another way, truth is not the product of social agreement, social agreement is the product of truth. We should not care how many people have edited an article, how many people are monitoring it, or how many sources are provided. All we should care about is whether the methodology that leads to agreement about the content in the article is a methodology that tracks the truth. Further, what makes certain content in Wikipedia truthful is not social agreement. In fact, social agreement and poor research routinely perpetuate falsehoods in Wikipedia. For example, it was a faulty justificatory mechanism that insisted Jaron Lanier was a filmmaker, despite evidence to the contrary. Where Wikipedia tracks the truth it does so because it follows a process for justification (seeking verifiable, external sources) that has been found to be reliable at tracking the truth and that avoids mere social agreement. But, being justified in believing that X is not the same as X being true, as any first-year philosophy student will tell you.
Moral of the story?
Really, I’m surprised I even had to say that. But, then again, look at the tweets listed above.