As part of UCLA’s centennial celebration, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture is holding a series of conversations called 10 Questions: Centennial Edition. Every Tuesday evening for ten weeks, experts from diverse disciplines are exploring answers to some of life’s biggest questions, including “What Is Love?,” “What Is Community?,” and “What Is Citizenship?” The discussions, held at Kaufman Hall on UCLA’s campus, are open to community members, free with RSVP. Can’t attend? We’ll be sharing weekly highlights.
What is Truth? On October 23, Victoria Marks, professor of choreography and associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of Art and Architecture, introduced the evening and read “On the Fifth Day,” a poem Jane Hirshfield wrote on the fifth day of Trump’s presidency as a protest against the anti-science political climate. During the ensuing discussion, theologian and research scholar Jason Sexton, artist Vishal Jugdeo and First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh, covered everything from facts to deep fakes. Here are ten things we learned along the way.
1. Truth is not a matter of perspective. Jason Sexton brought up how people sometimes say, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” He explained that anyone can have perspectives on the truth, but their perspectives don’t change the facts or reality.
2. The transcendentals (truth, beauty and goodness) are not things that can be created or established by convention. Jason Sexton said, “They simply just are there to be recognized.” It’s up to us to recognize them and cultivate awareness of them. No matter how much we want to, we can’t make something true by wishing it.
3. “Truth is something that both seizes you and frees you as well.” Sexton explained that we find the truth through prior reality, and "it has to be stable and discoverable.”
4. Eugene Volokh said that as a lawyer, he is less focused on the philosophy of truth and more on the facts of a particular case — "what actually happened, who did what to whom." Given the limitations of evidence and of human decision making, he said, “Our grasp of the truth may be quite limited, but it doesn’t mean that we can just proceed without making decisions.”
5. The "quantum of proof" refers to the amount of evidence required to prove something — and there are numerical equivalents. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” equates to having a confidence level of 90% or more. “Clear and convincing evidence” refers to a confidence level of 70% or more. “A preponderance of evidence,” means 50% or more confidence, while “probable cause” requires only 25% or more confidence.
6. Vishal Jugdeo told the audience that as an artist, he doesn’t really think about truth. He said, “I'm far more interested in the subtle kind of nuances in everyday lived experience and how it is that we relate to one another.” He talked about collaborating on a film in Delhi, India, with Vqueeram, a trans poet and activist — and how he wanted Vqueeram to have complete control of performing their identity on screen. As a result, the film explored how fiction and documentary can live in concert with one another. Jugdeo said, “Over the course of the last four years of filming together, what we've produced is a range of imagery, some which are completely fictional, some which are more documentary, and they kind of slide back and forth. For me, that was a more ethical way to work with a person that ultimately gives them a kind of an agency within the work."
7. Worried about deep fakes? Eugene Volokh told the audience they're nothing new — forgery has been around for a very long time. He said, "The answer is usually that we want to find trusted intermediaries," but cautioned that even the people we trust can sometimes be fooled. He gave the example of Dan Rather reporting on a fake memo in 2004, and said that Rather may have been more easily duped because he didn’t like Bush.
8. Truth and trust go hand in hand. When an audience member asked about tech companies’ roles in providing us with true information, Volokh said it comes down to how much you trust them. If you trust Mark Zuckerberg and his company to be a good judge of what’s true and what’s false, you might want them to screen out false stories. On the other hand, he said, “If you don't really trust Mark Zuckerberg and his company, then you might say, we'd like to set a norm where Facebook really shouldn't be blocking supposedly false information because we're afraid that their judgment about what's false is going to be influenced by their prejudices that we just don't think are quite reliable.”
9. Common sense is useful, but it can also mislead us. Volokh said, "Scientists have learned to be very skeptical of common sense because there are so many things that are obviously true that turn out not to be true." An example — it was once common sense that if you ban alcohol, there would be a lot less crime stemming from alcohol. He said, “We tried banning alcohol, and it didn't seem to work very well. So I'm skeptical about common sense.”
10. For marginalized people, determining whom to trust can be difficult. Jugdeo said, “I think for a lot of marginalized people, we've never really stood on the ground like it was solid. I mean, we can't clearly trust the law. We can't trust any structures of power or religion. And so I think for those people that walk through the world in a kind of marginality, we've sort of had to construct our realities ourselves, and we haven't really been able to necessarily rely on these larger frameworks.” His advice is to stay engaged with the world and “Get comfortable in the chaos.”
A blindfolded man reading a burning newspaper | Max Muselmann / Unsplash