Elementary particles of truth

I have a friend who uses the term “elementary particles of meaning” to refer to things that are foundationally true for a person. For example, you might say you enjoy biking. Why? Because you like the exercise. Why? Because you feel better when you do. Why? Not sure! It’s a foundational thing. Or maybe you feel that way about understanding the mysteries of the universe. Why do you want to know? You just do. It’s just how you find meaning.

I like thinking about debate in a similar way. I like the line “you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” You can believe that the sky is made of marmalade, but it’s not. You can believe that 2+2 equals 5, but it doesn’t. There are core things in a debate that can be proven or disproven, but they are often in the mix against a whole bunch of value judgements and opinion.

There are many websites that have attempted to provide a better place for reasonable debate. I started a little non-profit in 2020 for fighting disinformation, and as part of that work I met with fellow founders trying to tackle this problem. I have studied a bunch of sites old and new that have taken on the challenge. One of my favourite experiences is on a site I’ve since forgotten, where a debate went like this:

Person A: Gun violence is out of control in America, and therefore we need more restrictions on guns.

Person B: I agree that there are a lot of gun deaths, and even one is too many. But did you know 60% of gun violence deaths are suicide?

Person A: I did not know that. The numbers are still too high, though. America is uniquely violent.

Person B: I don’t disagree, but do you know about knife violence in the UK? It’s at 85 incidents per 100,000 population. America’s gun violence is about 5 per 100,000 population.

Person A: I didn’t know that, but “incidents” is very different from “deaths.” If you run the numbers for knife deaths in the UK, it’s down at 0.41 per 100,000, compared to the US at 5 per 100,000, which is a lot different.

And on they went! This was all real data, with both sides attempting to keep an open mind, and where possible basing their opinions on facts. It was enjoyable to read, and gratifying to see it is possible.

I’ve recently started talking with someone on the internet. We agree on some things, disagree on other things, and are both claiming to have open, curious, fair minds in a debate format. We started things off with “Did Russia interfere with the US election in 2016?”

Person A: If you look at the total amount of money spent by the troll army controlled by Putin’s Chef, it’s negligible. Less than $100k. Basically rounds to zero if you compare it to how much the campaigns themselves spent.

Person B: Right, but the troll army isn’t the entirety of the attack. The GRU, Wikileaks, etc were apparently part of the attack. We can’t know with great certainty exactly who said what to whom, but at a high level the Wikipedia page on Russian interference describes a lot more than $100k of wasted Facebook ads.

Person A: (This came earlier in the discussion, but I’m writing it here for narrative structure) America clutches its pearls when other people interfere with us, but we’ve been interfering for years! Nearly always with bad results. And let’s say they are meddling, what should the US do, kill them?

Person B: Totally agree America interferes. Totally agree that there are a lot of bad outcomes to point to. All countries spy on each other, that’s factored in to the way the world works. But of course proportionality matters. So expressing support for a candidate Ukraine is a much smaller slight than a state-sponsored, highly sophisticated attack on an electrical grid, for example. You wouldn’t react to a single spy by killing a world leader.

And that’s as far as we’ve gotten. I think it’s healthy and good that we’re referring to facts where possible. And we both know that even when looking at the same facts, we may land on different conclusions or opinions. That’s fine. But I do believe there are elementary particles of truth that discussions rely on, and I believe there are people in the world who are interested in them.