Tackling Truth Claims Series (part 1)
In a world where ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’, ‘filter bubbles’, ‘Russian bots’ and “post-truth” have become part of the political and media lexicon an examination of the concept of truth should be high on the agenda. Despite a common refrain of let the ‘facts speak for themselves,’ embedded in the social world, ‘facts’ must always be run through a series of interpretations carried out by humans.
This series of posts intends to provide critical thinking tools to enable forms of interpretation that correspond to the truth as much as possible. This particular post looks at examining truth claims through viewing them holistically. By appreciating the existence of a complex whole new insights can be uncovered about the specific truth claim being made about any of its parts.
Let’s take as an example recent claims about US job growth which sees the White House boasting that Trump is delivering on the economy. It also featured as part of the defence of the US economy as the Dow Jones plummeted in the second week of February.
The claim that job growth is surging is based on the US adding 180,000 jobs monthly – 200,000 for the month of January. This is bolstered by an unemployment rate currently said to be at 4.1%, which is the lowest in 17 years.
A more holistic look would recognize that both ‘new’ jobs and unemployment rates are part of a broader whole, which is the US working and unworking population in general. From this larger perspective we can see that millions have been leaving the US labour force. An ageing population, and increased proportion of young workers in third level means that there is a lower potential labour force than there was a decade ago.
Furthermore, the 4.1 unemployment percentage from the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) ignores Americans who have not looked for work in the last four weeks. This can exclude a massive proportion of the population – the measurement excluded 5.5 million Americans in November 2016 who say they want a job but don’t have one. ‘Discouraged workers’ who have abandoned looking for work because they believe they cannot find a job are not part of the unemployment measurement. Neither are people with part-time jobs but who want full-time.
Despite a supposedly ‘surging’ job growth and a low unemployment rate Doug Henwood has noted that “if the same share of the population were working now as at the 2006 pre-recession peak, 8.4 million more would be employed”. This gives some sense of how massively misleading and partial the claims are.
In short, truth claims to the effect that ‘everything is rosy’, yet based on partial evidence, really need to be considered in terms of the broader whole. In part it would seem that Trump’s economy is bringing jobs back to pre-recession levels but, on the whole, we can see that there is nowhere near as many people employed.
This kind of critical thinking can be used for assessing numerous disjointed assertions such as when people claim their country has a low or high tax system but use only income tax to support their statement (a tax system includes all taxes such as VAT and corporation tax). It is also the kind of logic that helps raise questions about suggested technological or policy-based interventions. Electric cars and heat pumps, often promoted as sustainable technology solutions, when taken in terms of the entire energy system raises other serious concerns that will also require intervention such as increases to peak energy demand.
This broader whole can get a lot more complicated especially when overlapping social, cultural and material dimensions are included. Additionally, a historical perspective draws out further hidden elements to these truth claims , which is why Henwood also claims that the current US job expansion is the second lowest out of the last eleven. Future posts in this series will try and develop other critical tools and tricks that help to tease out some more of this complexity.
Of course, it also helps to look beyond headlines and soundbites to the actual reports. The BLS don’t just offer a narrow unemployment rate as described here (known as U3) but in other reports they provide a broader unemployment figure which includes most of those excluded by the headline figure (known as U6). The figure for the latter was 8.1% in December.
 In a bid to keep this approach accessible I am using rather loose terms rather than known conceptual philosophical terms like “holism”, “systems thinking” and “systemic thinking” so as to avoid being drawn into more complicated discussions on ‘nested systems’ ‘feedback loop’, ‘emergent causality’ etc.
Photo by Valentin Farkasch on Unsplash