Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Fragility of Truth

Still musing on Wikipedia, I am revisiting Mill's On Liberty which has a fascinating insight into the nature of truth:

But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries. [...] It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it. (On Liberty, Chapter Two).
Quite right. The truth, being recognisable as true, will pop up again and again, and be suppressed again and again, until a favourable accident allows it to prevail and flourish. It is a piece of Wikipedia nonsense that the magic pixie-dust of 'crowdsourcing' will instantly drive out falsehood and all error. The crowd is often wrong. It is often right, of course, but even then it can rarely be bothered to go to Wikipedia to correct the error. Only the obsessive and the insane are likely to do that, and the truth is mostly lost on those.

No comments: