How to Understand Truth – A Theory and a Definition of Truth and Related Terms
We explore the nature of truth, the different types of truth, and the different types of entities who report truth to better understand the nature of information.
Here the nature of truth is defined by mathematicians and philosophers, like Gödel and Aristotle, who key us in to the different types of information: what we can know about physics, logic, ethics, and metaphysics, what we can’t know for sure, and how we can use logic, reason, and skepticism to know more.
With that in mind, the “types of truth” include types of real and counterfeit information ranging from: facts, to myths, to factoids, to lies, to truths, to half-truths, to statistics, to theories, and more.
Meanwhile, the different types of entities who convey truth include journalists, philosophers, scientists, propagandists, and everything in between.
By understanding the nature of truth, the types of truth, and the purveyors of truth we can better understand the information that shapes our reality on a daily basis and the influencers who help to weave that narrative.
TIP: The tools we use to approach knowing the types of truth are: Logic (rule-sets and judgements), Reason (combing rule-sets and working with the results of judgements; general critical thinking and rationalization), and Skepticism (questioning everything). Learn more about logic and reason.
- In a strict sense, truth is something that is provable, objective, and not “opinion.” It is verified not to be false in any objective way, based on logic, reason, and/or empirical evidence. Of the truths, the empirical and logical truths are the most concrete, while the ethical and metaphysical truths tend to contain a degree of uncertainty. For example, the laws of motion are solid logical and empirical truths, while the idea that all have “a right to life, liberty, and happiness” are a less tangible ethical and moral truth. In both cases we can use indirect empirical evidence and reason to approach knowing, but certainly that which is empirically provable is the most certain (assuming our senses aren’t lying to us). TIP: Everything is either true or not, yet not everything that is true can be proven true. If you can’t handle that paradox(-ish) quality of truth, good luck mastering the types of information, not all information is designed to inform or clarify.
- A belief is something a person thinks is true, it may or may not be justified, and it may or may not be proven by facts.
- A justified belief is a belief based on reason, backed by facts, theories, logic, and empirical evidence. A justified belief isn’t necessarily true, but it is reasonable, and thus is proper to employe in debate, analysis, and rhetoric (although it should be treated as a justified belief and not fact; presenting truth dishonestly is a type of misinformation / BS / spin). TIP: Justified beliefs gleaned from the pairing of “pure reason” and “empirical evidence” are very valid non-statistics-based “likely truths.” In the sciences we call these “theories”, a theory isn’t always right, rather it invites skepticism, opinion, and debate. A well oiled theory is a valid argument, until proven false.
- An opinion is a belief based on data of any kind.
- A fact is something that is proved to be undoubtedly true.
- A myth is something that is proved to be undoubtedly untrue.
- A factoid is something that appears true but is unverified.
- A lie is something that appears true but is untrue.
- A half-truth is part lie and part truth, either oscillating between multiple claims or mixing fact and fiction in a single claim.
- There are also types of “counterfeit information” designed to provide inaccurate information or instill emotion and influence opinion, these include propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation (i.e. they are not information, which is fact and truth designed to inform, they are disinformation designed to influence). Misinformation is designed to misinform someone and usually uses half-truths, it can include information a person believes to be true (they are misinformed and spreading misinformation). Disinformation is purposely designed to misinform someone and usually uses intentional lies (it can use false logic and logical fallacies). Propaganda is designed to convey emotion rather than fact and can be comprised of truth, lies, half-truths or no information at all, it is designed to spread belief not truth.
- BS describes a wide variety of counterfeit information designed to manipulate opinion; it can be comprised of truth, lies, half-truths, or any other type of claim. Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are all types of BS.
- Spin is a PR term that means “twist the truth” to make something look good. It is a type of BS and a type of propaganda, and is sometimes called “alternative facts“. It, like BS , can be half-truth, truths, and/or lies. The goal is influence, not information.
- A statistic is any quantifiable bit of data. We can find likely truths with algorithms like Bayes’ theorem by pairing the science of logic with statistics (watch out though, not every statistic is created equally, reason must be applied and skepticism is healthy when considering sources).
- Mathematical truths, such as proofs, are a type of truth that can be proved “on paper”. See Types of Truths Arithmetical, Geometrical, Logical (Analytic), Synthetic, and Ethical Truths.
- A talking point is often a factoid meant for the purposes of BS (but not always). It is typically a type of propaganda that is often also a type of disinformation or misinformation. It is designed for influence, not information, but certainly it can contain information.
- A hypothesis is a testable educated guess. A theory is the ends of a hypothesis shown to be reasonably true with facts. A scientific theory is one that has never been proven false. See an essay on theories.
- A conspiracy theory is a theory formulated based on a limited set of facts. Here some facts may be right, but the overarching hypothesis, conclusion, and some connections may not be (thus a conspiracy theory is like the “half-truth” of theories; generally well intentioned, sometimes justified, but ultimately relying on assumptions rather than proofs to some degree). See an essay on conspiracy theories for more detail.
- Common language words like folk tale, common belief, etc. describe types of factoids (claims that aren’t specifically verified as true).
Journalism vs. Opinion vs. Propaganda
Not only do different types of truth exist, but different types of “reporters, or purveyors, of truth” exist too.
A “good” journalist seeks to report “the best obtainable version of the truth,” fact-checked and verified, framed in an honest way, delivered ideally with both sides of the argument presented and free from emotion.
Real journalism isn’t opinion and emotion, but it can exist alongside opinion and emotion if presented in an honest way.
Opinion is, as above, a thing that ranges from justified to unjustified belief, it is a mid-way point between propaganda and fact. Opinion can augment truth telling, information giving, and journalism, and has a place at the table, but it isn’t the same as conveying pure information and should be framed as such.
On the other end of the spectrum is propaganda, conning, and other types of counterfeit information and its presentation.
A propagandist or con artist may use opinion or fact, but that is an aside. More so, they focus on half-truths, misinformation, and disinformation in an effort to convey mindsets and opinions via emotion rather than fact.
A journalist can report on propaganda and use opinion, and a propagandist or conman can use journalism and opinion to construct their half-truths, and a opinionist can use journalism and propaganda, but despite the grey areas, these are different and distinct ways to report the truth (each with a differing degree of quality and purpose, each relating to the types of truth discussed above).
Thus, unlike with information, the informer is subject to additional rules, such as integrity regarding the way information is presented and framed.
Some reasons why we differ on opinions even though there is only one set of facts (and why it is hard to sway the opposition): People’s deepest held world-views, when perceived to be threatened by skeptics of their beliefs, make contrary facts an enemy to be slayed. Show a flat earth theorist facts that point to the world being round-ish, and you’ll get pushback. Show a 9/11 truther some facts that point to there being no malicious intent, it could make the truther believe in their theory even more! According to an article by Michael Shermer in Scientific American, this power of belief over evidence is the result of two factors: cognitive dissonance (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change) and the backfire effect (a type of confirmation bias where, given evidence against a belief, people reject the evidence and believe even more).
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND ENGAGE PROPER DEBATE: In words, when we confront a difficult issue (theory about Kennedy or 9/11 for example), let us not try to debunk that head on. Let us instead discuss what biases and mechanics are at play in human cognition regarding the formation of conspiratorial theories, and then address specifics with that in mind. When we approach a difficult issue from the side, like one might approach a wild dog, we diffuse some resistance. Maybe in this we can avoid some of the pushback of which propagandists and conmen create, but which it is the duty of a “lover of wisdom” to undo. For more reading, see: How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail.
Episode 1.3: Deductive and Inductive Arguments. Understanding what real information looks like is a good first step, understanding how to think critically and construct compelling arguments grounded in the facts is the next step after that one.
CRITICAL THINKING – Fundamentals: Introduction to Critical Thinking [HD]. Understanding what real information looks like is a good first step, understanding how to think critically and construct compelling arguments grounded in the facts is the next step after that one.
Deductive and Inductive Reasoning (Bacon vs Aristotle – Scientific Revolution).
How to Argue – Philosophical Reasoning: Crash Course Philosophy #2. This is to say, knowing the facts is one part of healthy debate, knowing how to argue about the meaning of facts is another. Browbeating the opposition with disinformation until they tap out is a manipulation tactic I call “the bed of nails principle“, this tactic might work, but it is based on counterfeit information and is thus not ideal regarding truth seeking.
Some Metaphysics of Truth
Below are a few key points that, while not provable via fact (they are theory, opinion, and metaphysics), should be none-the-less insightful:
- The Arete of Information (“information of the highest order”): One could say, a journalist who presents facts and theories, noting differing opinions, and shedding light on confusion and propaganda with the purpose of informing is “of the higher order.” A Journalist, and by a wider definition, teacher, scientist, economist, PR person, etc, in their best light, is the arete of information giver, just as truth, theory, and pure information when presented in the correct way, is the arete of information. Generally, no state or group can define better rules for truth and truth proveyors than nature has already assigned herself. Truth isn’t purely empirical, but enough of its nature is empirical and mathematical to weed out most grey areas.
- Information “of the lowest order”: In the modern era, everyone has a pen and a soapbox. Back in the early days only certain entities could be influencers, and those eras gave us people like Bernayes. Today, everyone can play journalist, opinionist, and propagandist via the web and personal networks, and everyone can help spread truth, half-truths, and/or lies. Today we each have a responsibility, and a choice: Do we act as “the new journalist” or do we act as “the new propagandist.” If we act as the latter, it is as human as Aristotle’ rhetoric, but we still need to root our thinking in true and pure information. A propagandist who doesn’t have their facts straight (one who is themselves a victim of counterfeit information) is arguably “of the lowest order” (in the context of information; they are a “useful idiot” so to speak).
- The Information economy: Why don’t people believe in Climate science? One reason may be propaganda, but another reason may be more about different types of “information consumers” with different needs in the “information economy” (the free-or-not exchange, supply, demand, etc of information). So, to back this idea up with facts, one thing to note is that liberals and conservatives have different types of brains (oddly enough, yes really). Pair this with the observable and testable hypothesis that different types of truths that resonate with different types of people and their biases, and we start to see how perhaps different people are primed to respond to different types of truths. The statistics from NASA sway me, but the 97% talking point may seem like BS to those looking for empirical evidence and turn another person off. Just as their are different purveyors of truth and different types of truth, we can think that there are different audiences with different demands for truth. They are the buyers in the information economy.
Why People Don’t Believe In Climate Science. A philosophical musing on “why the heck can’t we all agree on the climate science data”. Why couldn’t we all agree that smoking caused cancer and “was bad”, but people “had the right” to do it anyway 100 years ago? The answer is arguably evidenced by the sum of this page… with the real economy and special interest taken into account.
Things That are True About the Nature of Truth
- Truth can be subjective or objective, only objective truths meet a sound scientific or mathematic definition of truth, but philosophy considers arguments that use reason and empirical evidence to find moral and ethical truths.
- All statements are either true or not true, if a statement is anything less than fully true, it is not true.
- Even though everything is true or not true, we cannot prove everything true that is true and we cannot prove everything false that is false.
- Due to the way truth works, a useful tool of humankind is theories (ideally rooted in the scientific method).
- Theories and hypotheses have very specific meanings in science and philosophy, a theory is a testable working model and a hypotheses is a falsifiable “educated guess” with lots of facts pointing at it.
- A theory isn’t true just because we prove it, and it isn’t false just because we can’t.
- Despite our limitations, we can use complex theories like Bayes’ theorem, Godel’s theorems, and other insights to get very close to unknowable truths.
TIP: All statements are either true or not true, but they can’t be properly labeled as fact, myth, lie, or truth until all parts of the statement have been proved true or untrue. If something is likely to be true it is either a factoid or a theory.
For more reading on the nature of truth, see: