Imagine Prioritizing Truth Over Being Right

Here’s an amazing notion: there are some people who would rather find the truth, than be right. These are the scientists — some of them, anyway. This concerns Daniel Kahneman, whose death I noted a week ago here.

NY Times, Cass R. Sunstein, 1 Apr 2024: The Nobel Winner Who Liked to Collaborate With His Adversaries (shared link)

(Notes: though posted on the 1st, this article just appeared today in the print paper. Also, the policy about shared links by NYT has changed: now a subscriber can share as many per month as they like (there used to a limit of 10/month), but they only remain available to others for 30 days.)

The writer here is a collaborator with Kahneman on the latter’s second big book, Noise, that appeared in 2021. (Which I have but haven’t yet read.) He begins:

Our all-American belief that money really does buy happiness is roughly correct for about 85 percent of us. We know this thanks to the latest and perhaps final work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner who insisted on the value of working with those with whom we disagree.

Professor Kahneman, who died last week at the age of 90, is best known for his pathbreaking explorations of human judgment and decision making and of how people deviate from perfect rationality. He should also be remembered for a living and working philosophy that has never been more relevant: his enthusiasm for collaborating with his intellectual adversaries. This enthusiasm was deeply personal. He experienced real joy working with others to discover the truth, even if he learned that he was wrong (something that often delighted him).

The work involved findings that seemed to conflict with a previous study that had reached a somewhat different conclusion. While many scientists are just as adversarial as politicians, Kahneman was unusual, Sunstein claims, for actively seeking out those he disagreed with, in order figure out, not who’s right, but what’s actually true. It usually comes down to hidden assumptions in data sets, or the way the initial question was posed; generally it turned out neither side is right or wrong, exactly, but that each side is a subcase of a larger, more generalized truth. The article goes on to explain how it worked out in this case.

But the more important issue is about prioritizing truth and reality, rather than scoring points. How rare that attitude is.

Professor Kahneman meant both to encourage better science and to strengthen the better angels of our nature. In academic life, adversarial collaborations hold great value. We could easily imagine a situation in which adversaries routinely collaborated to see if they could resolve disputes about the health effects of air pollutants, the consequences of increases in the minimum wage, the harms of climate change or the deterrent effects of the death penalty.

…[A]ngry democracy [is] a “nasty world of critiques, replies and rejoinders,” whose “aim is to embarrass,” Professor Kahneman said. That’s especially true, of course, in the midst of political campaigns, when the whole point is to win.

Still, the idea of adversarial collaboration has never been more important. Within organizations of all kinds — including corporations, nonprofits, think tanks and government agencies — sustained efforts should be made to lower the volume by isolating the points of disagreement and specifying tests to establish what’s right. Asking how a disagreement might actually be resolved tends to turn enemies, focused on winning and losing, into teammates, focused on truth.

As usual, Professor Kahneman was right. We could use a lot more of that.


At the same time, what is truth? (Is mine the same as yours? Even the Bible writers perceived this element of human nature.) The reason most people don’t operate like Prof. Kahneman is that most people believe things that are simply not true given the evidence of the real world around us. They live in a kind of fantasy world. Their truths derive from religious or political ideologies — assertions — that cannot be swayed by any amount of evidence. This is perhaps the core problem of humanity today, as previously isolated tribes/communities/nations are now forced to get along with one another, especially in order to solve global problems.


On a different, but perhaps related topic. What could this be about? What new findings can have appeared after all this time? (I’ve commented on writings by Valerie Tarico many times before, so I’m interested in what she has to say.)

AlterNet, Valerie Tarico, 30 Mar 2024: Opinion | Findings cast doubt on the existence of Jesus Christ

She begins:

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, based on the evidence available they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians grounded in this perspective have analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.

By contrast, other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

(The key point for me has always been the third sentence in the first paragraph. There’s little in the Jesus story that wasn’t in many other stories in that era about many other supposed saviors. (Asimov made this point in one of his Guides to the Bible.) The contingencies of history worked to make just the one about Jesus rule the world. It could easily be about someone else. Because, you know… they were all just cultural fantasies. Any story would have served the same purpose.)

The key point in the essay — a new perspective — is this:

The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Fitzgerald points out that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.

That is, most scholars of Christianity have been biased by their assumptions, derived from childhood inculcation no doubt, that there was some truth to all those stories, no matter how elaborated by the writers whose works became gathered in the Bible. But is that really true?? Haven’t there been plenty of Biblical critics in recent decades who did not grow up as Christians?

Anyway, Tarico summarizes the key points that keep doubts about the historical Jesus alive. For anyone not already familiar with them. With comments and citations. And I’ll quote one key bit, which struck me when I read Thomas Paine, whose THE AGE OF REASON I discussed here.

  1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
  2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

    Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

  3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
  4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
  5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

And so on. As I concluded from my own Bible readings, several years ago, Christianity is the religion of Paul, not of Christ. But I don’t care about the details of the reality of Christianity so much as I worry about the effects: how so many hundreds of millions of people around the world subscribe to its tribalistic morality, a morality that has become partially obsolete in the modern world.


Today’s set of links about the fringe.

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