The Art of Truth
Is it, or isn’t it? Will eating lots of sugar cause cancer? Do energy drinks cause sudden death?
In a “gotcha” media culture where the fate of nations is treated as a sports contest – and presidential debates reported with the same gravity as “Dancing with the Stars” – it pays to pay attention to the difference between “fact” and reality. For most social, political and scientific realities are not explained with simple “yes or no,” “winner or loser” answers. And to progress we have to live in that messy, probabilistic world where much is not what it seems.
This is where the worlds of science and public policy can learn from the contentious world of art.
Vermeer and Rembrandt – Fake or Real?
The 1930’s saw a series of remarkable discoveries. The early, deeply religious works of Vermeer surfaced. Museums and collectors throughout Europe extolled the importance and beauty of these masterworks.
They were considered such national treasures that the man who aided their sale to the Nazi leadership was placed on trial for treason. He declared he had painted the Vermeers himself. Almost no one believed him.
Until he reproduced parts of the paintings – with easel and brushes – inside the courtroom.
Hans van Meegeren went instantaneously from traitor to national hero – he had sold false goods to Goering! Made the Nazis look like fools while gaining a stupendous profit! Van Meegeren’s Nazi sympathies and frequent collaborations were quickly forgotten.
An unknown artist had accomplished something brilliant – concocted works that major art historians thought should appear in the art lexicon but did not “yet” exist. Today people look at these works and shake their heads. The paintings appear false, fake, poorly made. Most artists and critics think they’re just plain ugly.
How you view the world changes the world – including its “facts.”
So several decades later it was no shock that a show of Rembrandt’s works at the Metropolitan Museum included famous curators writing on side by side panels how the same work you were looking at was either a masterpiece – or a shlock copy.
The public was confused. In large part, this was because viewers lacked context.
The general image of art history that exists today in media and the public mind is of a progression of individual geniuses, working alone. In tiny garrets artists grapple with inner demons. Out of a crushing crucible of indifference, poverty, and public incomprehension they forge the compelling masterworks that profoundly expresses their personality and period.
Rembrandt was one of the greatest artists the West ever produced – perhaps its greatest 17th century painter. We look at his many self-portraits and feel we see a man we can recognize, even understand.
Yet the reality was always more complex: 1. Most art works we see today have been multiply restored and repainted for centuries. Many “Rembrandts” may have six or eight layers of paintings beneath 2. Rembrandt created for a commercial market that very much wanted certain subjects and formats – which for at least a couple of decades he successfully created 3. Much of his production occurred in a workshop whose collaborators, co-workers and students included artists like Jan Lievens, Nicholas Maes, Carel Fabritius, Aert de Gelder and others who were themselves geniuses. So the works we see today often represent collaborations.
To understand what Rembrandt did accomplish it pays to know lots about art restoration; the history and markets of 17th century Holland; the changing nature of taste; and the difficult to define sense and sensibility that helps people of any period define masterworks versus junk.
Most folks looking at 17th century paintings don’t have or desire such knowledge. So the media debates often concentrate on price, or defining authenticity. But “is it or isn’t” questions are often complex. And complexity requires thinking in terms of probability, not a synthetic melodrama of truth or fiction.
Reviews of the Literature
These days “meta-analyses” are very popular. Take lots of different studies’ data, pool it together, get the “real” results.
But that assumes the studies were done in similar ways, that their populations were highly similar, and that the data are innately trustworthy.
Large assumptions – particularly as the complicated probability mathematics used to determine inference wase originally based on identical subjects – like genetically identical peas plowed in the same plot.
Not only are these basic assumptions of statistical analysis often violated, but the data often massaged – consciously and unconsciously.
For even in “double-blind” clinical trials, much of the research bias is unconscious. David Sackett and his group at McMaster University have described literally thousands of such unconscious biases.
And many of the most media ready “medical breakthroughs” are not corroborated. In studies of studies, more than half of “prominent results” cannot be reproduced by other researchers. Same methods, different hands – different results.
People still come up to me telling me that biological clocks can be shifted by shining light under the knee. No one was able to corroborate the results of that work done at Cornell – nobody.
So what can one do?
Probability and Complexity
To explain the world you need to understand the world. But the world is filled with variables we can’t control – or may not know exist.
So when “breakthroughs” are announced, think probabilistically. Give a “probability check” to anything you hear – with a probability between zero and 100%.
If you see a painter paint a painting in front of you and then give it to you, you can have a 100% assurance that she painted it.
But if a research study – or social sciences study – or an economic study – comes up with a result that is opposite or tangential to everything you’ve ever seen or read, remain skeptical. Put on it a probability level of considerably less than 100%.
And read the methods section. Check the authors. Try to see what was done to recognize and control unconscious biases.
Then recognize that most of the major breakthroughs in science and many fields appear heretical or even crazy – at first.
So be skeptical, but attempt to verify. The truth often is stranger than fiction – and usually more useful.
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