Thoughts from the Castleton Library’s Panel: The Truth is Out There: How We Know What We Know

In early March, I was asked to provide my thoughts on a panel hosted by the Castleton University Library about “Truth”. Here were the questions panelists asked to consider:

What is truth, how do we know what’s true? How do we (academia, publishers) strive for accuracy? What about scientific literacy, the scientific method, how knowledge is constructed. What should we as citizens do to stand up for science/truth or educate ourselves further on this?

Below are the thoughts I shared, as a survey researcher and applied sociologist:

The thoughts that I would to share on this topic come from two distinct but related areas: one as a consumer of social and scientific research and the second as a sociologist.

I think it makes sense to start with the more micro-level ideas, the way in which data and facts are presented. As a professional whose job entails the collection of opinions and data, which are regularly presented as facts, I am often uncomfortable with the way in which these are presented publicly–frequently as precise, hard-truths, with no context or limitations.

When people ask me, “How did the pollsters get the most recent presidential election ‘so wrong’?” my response to them is that they didn’t. For example Nate Silver’s FiveThrityEight poll aggregator before the election had Trump with a 29% chance of winning the Electoral College. That’s right: 3 in 10. If you were to go to a casino with those odds, you’d feel okay, but you wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t win-same for the election. The problem is that many polls and aggregators came up with a similar result, with Clinton likely to win, and this ended up being reported and shared as a certainty, rather than a probability.

Many of us who collect data, view our work as providing insight to a specific aspect of public opinion or behaviors for a specific population and at a specific time in a specific context. The quantitative data we collect is intended as an estimate or statistical probability.

There is error. Social scientists acknowledge error. The error is both known and unknown. We have measures of some sources of errors—like with margins of sampling error—those plus/minus percent rages that you see in the footnote of some reports of polls. Other types of errors are unknown or not easily observable or quantifiable, like measurement error and nonresponse error.

With the data we collect, we know all the details are important. It matters how the question is worded. It matters who is asking the question. It matters who is asked to respond and who is willing to respond. It also matters when you are asking. Public opinion isn’t true forever. Things change. The data being presented is a tied to a point-in-time, with a particular population, asked a particular question, with error both known and unknown built in. All of this is why you often find me and others like me asking for more details about how the data was collected, so that we can better evaluate the source and likely errors for ourselves.

We know that sometimes even the act of asking a question, can create an opinion. And depending on who is asked the result can be different, which brings me to the second idea that I’d like to discuss, which is at a much more of a macro-level.

As a sociologist, I have a difficult time discussing the concept or idea of truth without exploring social constructionism. For this, I turn to the work of Berger and Luckmann. We exist in a social world. Objects, symbols, language, and interactions all have meaning because we, collectively, have assigned meaning to them. The meaning that is assigned is based on our shared social understanding—we’ve created it.

Some tangible, simplistic ways this is clear to us is when the same symbol conveys a different meaning in a different culture. For example the hand gesture of “the middle finger” is an insult in the United States, but its equivalent in the United Kingdom is a V with the palm facing in.

This created, shared reality goes beyond simple cultural misunderstandings. We use this reality to create our institutions, grant power, legitimacy, and authority. Through the process of socialization, we internalize this reality and view it as natural and objective.

When we act as essentialists and do not acknowledge that these things are constructed and only are real because we’ve assigned them meaning, we further legitimize those that we’ve given authority to and those institutions, which can lead to discrimination and oppression. However, because we are all social actors and can partake in the construction of this shared truth, we can alter our structures, institutions, grant power, and legitimize diverse viewpoints.

This is why inclusion and diversity is so important. Whose reality, experience, and ideas are accepted as the truth matters. Who we ask and who we don’t ask matters. Who gets to be at the table and talk matters. I might add that I think it matters even at Castleton during an N-period panel about truth.