Tag Archives: truth

Data, Politics, Poets and Truth

Sheep on grassIn the good old days – I turned teenager in 1961, and 18 in 1966 – we had a generally accepted process for establishing truth. First, we generally distinguished opinion from fact. Second, when fact was in doubt, we turned to evidence.  And evidence, once presented, was accepted. Evidence ended arguments. But data killed that, politics killed data, and now poets predict politics.

Data undermined simple truth

The decline of truth started with data. Huge masses of overwhelming and conflicting data forced us to choose truth from streams of incoherent evidence. For example: Is margarine is good for you? Eggs? Coffee? Those are just three simple cases, regarding food. We have ample streams of evidence on either side. We can find data to support any answer. And those are just easy food and health arguments, not nearly as controversial as, say when ISIS started, who supported what war and when. Evidence doesn’t end the argument because we’re overwhelmed with conflicting evidence.

Talking points undermined evidence

And then came talking points. First, the overabundance of conflicting data undermined the weight of evidence. After that, political strategists discovered that repetition of well-packaged spin, half truth, and lies could be taken as truth. And now we accept political talking points as truth, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Millions of people firmly believe absurdities in the face of clear and unambiguous evidence to the contrary.

We’re left with truth in poetry

Truth and LiesSomewhere around 1790 William Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. That lengthy and sometimes bewildering work includes a section called the proverbs of hell, which includes the following:

Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth

No I’m not suggesting Blake foresaw or forewarned us. But what he says there does fit today’s reality. Right? We’ve got wide ranges of diverse and discordant images of truth. Of course, Blake included that in the section framed as proverbs of hell, not heaven, so maybe he mistrusted its direct meaning. But in the poem, he likes hell, so who knows. I suggest it here as food for thought, nothing more.

And then there is this, written 100 years ago by William Butler Yeats in a short poem called The Second Coming.  It seems disturbingly like what we see around the world today:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

That’s towards the opening of the poem. It gets even darker as it closes. Sadly, that too sounds a lot like mainstream politics today. Did you watch that debate on Monday?



Truth is a Believable Story

I grew up believing that facts, like research, numbers and percentages, told the truth. I believed in objective, verifiable truth, based on fact. I distinguished that from mystical religious truth, based on faith.


I was a mainstream journalist for almost 10 years in the 1970s. Every professional journalist believed in objective verifiable truth based on fact. That was the goal of reporting. We separated subjective opinion from objective truth. Truth was hard to find, yes. It often had to be dug up and uncovered. But it was there.

Now I know better.

Truth is not research and data. Although my generation grew up believing hard numbers were truth, it just isn’t so.  Nowadays there is data to prove anything, regardless of how absurd. And people routinely hide their opinions as data. Eggs are good? There’s data to prove it. No, eggs are bad? There’s data to prove that too. The same for coffee, sugar, exercise, structure, discipline, whatever.  The truth is not in the data.

Truth is not just a believable lie, either. It’s more like a matter of angles and reflections and angles of light, like a gas, not a solid. It’s something like what William Blake implied about  300 years ago, in Proverbs of Hell:

Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.

Truth is a believable story. And much of human truth is better told in stories than a facts, and much less numbers.

And in business, Seth Godin says marketing is stories. I say planning is stories. Truth isn’t what the research says, or the focus group, or the latest survey.

Take a step back from it and ask, always: Does this make sense? Is this credible?

Truth as told in stories is still truth. I love how Harvey Cox says truth is in stories. This is from his book When Jesus Came to Harvard:

All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by…religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need.

I don’t mean it as disrespectful to see the “story” to religious doctrine. On the contrary: The right stories, real stories, the best stories communicate truth better than so-called facts. And it’s almost a proof of God how themes and meanings overlaps between the different stories of the different religions. Maybe there is a good gene, in our species DNA. And the stories are an expression of how humans all struggle to understand God, or creation, or whatever that immensity is, in their own way. With their own background and culture.

My summary: truth is a believable story.

(photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc)