Truth is more important than anything else. Without it, all else crumbles.
When I was a child, if you did something wrong, you got in trouble. But if you lied about it, it was much worse. If you told the truth about it, sometimes you wouldn’t get punished at all. “You told the truth — that is what matters,” my parents would say. And I have said the same to my own children.
All parents know why this is important. It’s about two things. It’s about teaching your children the value of the truth, of course. But it’s also about knowing what is going on. You want your kid to tell you that she is having sex or smoking pot, even if you’d rather they didn’t, instead of hiding things and keeping you in the dark. So you hammer this into them from the age that they first learn to talk (and soon after, to lie).
Truth is now a victim of the polarization of discourse in this country. It starts with politicians, continues with “commentators” and “analysts,” and trickles down from there. Lies were always part of public discourse, but it’s gotten much worse. There is no such thing as “the whole truth” — we hear the bits people want to emphasize. And those bits are often wrong or out of context or distorted as well. Lies that people want to believe spread rapidly on social media, because it’s easier to spread things than to check them. Now each side is operating from its own set of facts. Only failure and madness can follow. If your side “wins” based on lies, can you really be successful?
I loved science as a child and was trained as a mathematician. I spent much of my career analyzing and reporting on surveys as an analyst. I have managed projects and budgets. In these environment, facts matter. Management cares about facts. Shareholders count on facts. Analysis of facts determines strategy. What you want to be true doesn’t matter — the only thing that matters is what is true.
Unless we embrace The Cult of Truth, our society cannot hold together.
Principles of The Cult of Truth
I am pledging my support to The Cult of Truth. While I have political beliefs, they are less important than the truth is. Do you agree that truth is a bedrock principle, more important than your beliefs? Then you should embrace these principles of The Cult of Truth.
Truth is more important than opinion.
An ounce of verified truth is worth a ton of unsupported bloviation. All opinion is based on experience and bias; do not mistake it for truth.
A truth you can measure is more valuable than a qualitative truth.
Knowing what happened is interesting. But single events are less important than accurate measurements. Do not worship at the altar of numbers, and do not mistake numbers for truth. Be clear about what a number represents, how it is measured, how uncertain it is, and what it means.
The most powerful insights are those that are the most fruitful in revealing more truths.
The measure of the value of a truth, once supported by evidence, is in what else it reveals.
Faced with a truth that challenges your beliefs, investigate it, rather than reject it.
Truths that confirm your beliefs are valuable; those that change your beliefs are priceless. Revere the truth that flies in the face of your worldview — verify it, embrace it, and revise your thinking. To do otherwise is to lose your skepticism and become a valueless acolyte.
Respect and revere those who seek truth: scientists, journalists, and true analysts.
Despite my respect, I will not accept everything they say without skepticism. They can be wrong as well. Even so, scientists and journalists embrace self-correcting methods designed to produce truth; we must support their work. True analysts — those that operate based on data and without bias — deserve both respect and skepticism, since they seek truths on the edge of verifiability.
Recognize that facts have uncertainties, limitations, contexts, and life-spans.
No fact is absolute. All surveys have a degree of bias and a margin of error. Measurements have uncertainties. You cannot safely extend facts past their original context, and subsequent investigation may call them into question. Facts are great, but they are not perfect.
Admit when you are wrong.
Do not believe those who admit not their mistakes. Some facts turn out to be wrong. How a person behaves when their cherished fact is proven wrong will tell you a lot about them.
Remain curious about new data sources
A new source of data — a poll, a survey, a measurement — is a fascinating candidate for truth. It may also be uncertain or misleading. Approach new data sources with excitement and skepticism.
Argue based on facts and whenever possible, explain your assumptions.
Arguments start with assumptions. Make those explicit, because without agreement on assumptions, there can be no principled argument. Then argue based on facts, not passion. Passion is fleeting, often wrong, and tends to be personal — and therefore ineffective.
Do not share unverified facts as truth.
It is a sin to share rumor, unverified information from biased sources, and opinion masquerading as fact. “It may not be true, but it ought to be,” is the statement of a scoundrel.
Be highly skeptical of generalizations.
All generalizations are false, including this one. Be skeptical of generalizations about races, generations, and groups of citizens. Understand their limitations and do not operate as if they are universally true.
Stories are powerful. That is why you cannot trust them.
There is nothing as persuasive as a story. Stories feel like truth. But all stories omit detail and emphasize other elements for dramatic purposes. Recognize a story for what it is: a selective, dramatic presentation that cannot necessarily generalize to a broader truth.
Respect religious belief, but do not treat it as fact.
It is not possible to verify truths about God, since everyone has their own conception of the divine. Different religions offer different truths. Religious discourse is not based on fact. No argument based on religion can persuade a nonbeliever.
It’s a dangerous time
Once you cross the line and say “there are times it is ok to lie for a larger purpose,” you have sold your soul. To the extent that many people do this, we are all doomed.
Call out falsehoods where you see them, even among your allies and colleagues. Join the cult of truth. Pledge yourself to this purpose in the comments.
I look forward to hearing from you.