What is truth?

An elderly Groucho Marx recounted a story that happened in a Texas town during the Marx Brothers’ early days in show business.

In Raised Eyebrows,, the memoir by Groucho’s secretary Steve Stoliar, a member of the luncheon party responded, “According to Harpo’s book, that story took place in Oklahoma, not Texas. Who’s right?”

Grouch said, “I am, because I’m alive and he’s not.”

Thus we get a lesson in the elusive nature of truth.

Veritas: Goddess of truth

Statue of Veritas, goddess of truth (Source: Wikimedia commons)

At first glance it seems that truth should be absolute. And sometimes it is. The atomic number of carbon is 6. The capital of Massachusetts is Boston. Harpo died before Groucho.

But ask several different people to describe an event they’ve witnessed. If there are n witnesses, you might get n+1 stories: one from each witness, plus the one you manufacture in your own mind as you attempt to reconcile the others.

So what do we say about truth? That it depends on whoever has the most convincing story, or whoever shouts the loudest, or (as in Groucho’s case) whoever outlives the other witnesses?

A lot of today’s news media would have it that way. So, for example, we have self-proclaimed journalists insisting — and many people believing — that the President and the Secretary of State were complicit in the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. No amount of hard evidence, or the fact that more than a dozen similar incidents happened during the Bush-Cheney years, will silence the accusers.

For the Murdochs and Limbaughs of the world, truth is simply whatever story will advance their cause. A lot of people are buying into the idea that truth is relative, or that truth is whatever you want it to be.

I beg to differ.

Most of the articles in my blog are about leadership and technical communication. They both depend on truth — truth that’s not relative and not subject to interpretation. A cornerstone of good leadership is trust, and you can’t earn trust without fidelity to the truth. Good technical communication demands accuracy — which is synonymous with truth.

Here’s what I wish for 2014: that truth will make a comeback.

That political debate will again reflect divergent views about what to do in the face of commonly accepted truths — not divergent views about what the truth is.

That leaders will again prize personal integrity, and that their followers will demand it in them.

Got a different view? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

14 thoughts on “What is truth?

  1. ferswriteshoe

    I find it, I’ll say “lacking” that you cite a Huffington post article to illustrate your idea of truth–we know that there are differing views, and those can be neatly illustrated by the differences shown between Huff and Fox News, but perhaps there is a better way to make your point.

    Whereas I agree with your ultimate idea, I don’t agree with how you reached it–I’m sure there’s a Latin word for that logical argument. Since you brought up Benghazi for some reason, I will mention that it is the first time since 1970 that a US Ambassador was killed in the line of duty, which may or may not have something to do with the coverage–other than that, I think we will all agree that any US citizen killed at any time during any administration is a bad thing, whether the administration was directly implicit in a cover-up or not.

    As to truth, I think this is a great topic to bring up for 2014. As Technical Communicators, how we define truth will surely influence how we view the content we create. To be inclusive of all views, we would have to acknowledge that some people do believe that truth is relative (at least to some extent) to audiences, cultures, etc. and there are many theories and papers written today that support this perspective. However, as you point out, there is the other side of this dichotomy that states that truth is absolute–most people would aim for some happy medium, but a larger discussion about what is “best” for the future of technical communication (and the future of the world for the matter) may be a great endeavor for 2014.

    There are many facets of this conversation, such as the relationship between academia and industry (training workers versus educating people), and technical communicators being cognizant that they are influenced by as well as influence truth.

    Starting with Socrates (where else would we start), we can take from the Republic the idea that with power (such as the rhetorical power of language that we yield) comes the question about not only the responsibility of wielding it, but the question about the nature of truth and the “right way” for people to live–essentially, not what we should do, but what we “ought” to do. I, myself, am deeply concerned with this topic and these questions and look forward to engaging you and others in our field on it throughout the year.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thank you, Fer. Your reply is a perfect example of the kind of debate that I welcome: agreeing on the facts, disagreeing on how to interpret them. I too look forward to a continued dialog in 2014, and I hope that others will join.

      You’re probably right that HuffPost wasn’t the best source to cite. I debated about whether to include that citation at all. For that matter I wondered if I should find a different example besides Benghazi — for example global warming. But it’s hard to find any example that isn’t politically charged, and I guess that supports the point I was trying to make.

      Thanks again for reading and contributing.

  2. Olivier Forget

    Thanks for writing on this topic. I have long been frustrated by this. Not only is truth hard to come by, but the intellectual level of conversations on the web is abysmal.

    It seems that so far the internet has served to amplify mistruths instead of helping us find more of the real truth and solving problems. It’s like we’ve gotten dumber by joining the hive.

    Somehow we need to harness the power of the internet to allow large groups of people to:
    – get to the bottom of something (what happened? what will happen when X is signed into law?)
    – Figure out the best course of action.

    The first item requires a group to agree on what the truth is, and right away things get really hairy.

    Lots more thinking to do on this…

    Cheers and happy new year!

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Olivier. It seems to me that the Internet — and the proliferation of other media outlets as well — have made it easier for all of us to join the camps of like-minded people and shut out all of the others. I consider myself open-minded, yet I’m constantly tempted to read only the websites, newspapers, and magazines I feel most comfortable with. Rather than joining the hive, we — many of us, anyway — are isolating ourselves in little niches within the hive.

  3. Rickard Bergelius

    A good wish!
    In my mind there is nothing relative about the truth. At least not in an everyday meaning. Perhaps it is in quantum physics and in experimental theories about the nature of the universe(s). If I perceive a dish as tasty and you do not then truth has nothing to do with if it is tasty or not. It is the truth that I perceive it as such. It is the truth that you do not. It is the truth that it can’t be defined if a dish is delicious or not. The question ‘Is it true that this dish is tasty?’ is irrelevant.
    Also, I am dubious that truth has any place is predictions about the future. ‘We will all die.’ This is statement extremely probable, but is it the truth? Only time will tell, and we will probably not be around to know the answer. Same thing with ‘Clicking Cancel will cancel the operation’. Is this the truth? It is what should happen, but can you guarantee that it will? ‘To cancel, click Cancel’ on the other hand is true, this is what you should do, even if there is a tiny risk that the result is not the expected.
    How about honesty? It is vaguely related to truth. I don’t see a lot of honesty in tech comm. ‘Be advised that this function is prone to errors and we are not planning to fix it.’ This is quite possibly useful information to the audience, but how often do you see anything like it?

  4. Pingback: Leader, be worthy of my trust | Leading Technical Communication

  5. Pingback: Coke’s bogus research: Everything old is new again | Leading Technical Communication

  6. Pingback: Truth and the Vichy Republicans | Leading Technical Communication

  7. Pingback: The gaslighting of America | Leading Technical Communication

  8. juliovaz

    Nice article, Larry. You have a date to fix. It’s, there are absolute truths but when it comes to humans, truth does tend to be subjective. Even history is subjective because the narrative is controlled by the winners.
    Reality is that all human truth tries to advance a particular point of view. You can accept it or reject it based on your knowledge of the teller’s integrity. When it comes to politics, that’s in short supply.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Julio. Though I’m tempted to “fix” the date, it reflects when I first wrote the post — and for me it serves as a reminder that truth has always been (and probably always will be) in need of protecting.

  9. Pingback: The biggest stories | Leading Technical Communication

Tell me what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s