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The Truth And Nothing But the Truth

February 23, 2022 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Critical thinking is hard. In today’s climate many people find it easier to throw their opinions out in the open than to think them through before they write or speak. This book by Dutch philosopher Sebastien Valkenberg may be seven years old, but it is more relevant than ever today. He analyzes ways of reasoning that are common but not thought through. Examples are: that cannot be a coincidence; nature is good; science is just a belief.

The problem in his view is that thoroughness is not considered a virtue anymore. Postmodernism has resulted in truth as an individual concept. Many people are prepared to believe in theories that don’t make sense. Anything goes.

But truth is universal, not individual, Valkenberg argues. It is based on validated theories: carefully built systems of ideas and hypotheses that can explain or predict facts or phenomena. They are always provisional because improvement is possible based on new research, but they are never non-committal. Statements need to be based on theories. The bolder the statement, the greater the burden of proof.

One of the mistakes that many people make is that they only search for clues that support their hypotheses and don’t pay attention to indications that contradict them. Another mistake is that they mix up causality (a cause has an effect) and correlation (a pair of variables is related but one is not caused by the other).

In my view Valkenberg is often right but I consider him less convincing when he writes about gender discrimination. The fact that top management is dominated by men doesn’t proof that women are discriminated, he writes. He argues that unconscious discrimination doesn’t exist, overlooking a lot of evidence that senior executives primarily select newbees that are similar to themselves: man, white, educated, right background.

Valkenberg encourages his readers to have a baloney detection kit ready at hand and I truly like that idea. There are too many theories going round that are much too easily accepted. We need facts, proof, evidence, critical thinking.

Sebastien Valkenberg. Op denkles. Hoe wapenen we ons tegen ‘Iedereen heeft zijn eigen waarheid’ en andere modieuze denkbeelden. Ambo/Anthos, 2015