The Cult of Truth

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

12 responses to “The Cult of Truth

  1. Eons ago, I took a job working for an insurance company. I’m not a “numbers person,” but I stumbled across evidence that the stats they were providing their customers were selected to show a favorable outcome. Having been brought up Catholic, I deemed their actions “sins of omission”… Years later, my financial advisor used to send me reams of paper– lists, charts, and graphs — prospectuses with pages and pages of fine print. It made me want to invest in paper and ink. But I came to realize it all comes down to trust. Do I trust her to act in my best interest? How will she rationalize her choice to inform/not inform me? Thematic stories, used adjacent to statistical evidence and including clear intention are valuable. There are the facts, the story that’s told about the facts, and our reactions to the story. We can change the story, and/or our reactions to the story. But we also have to be able to trust the facts — that they come from credible sources (as you defined above). We are overwhelmed — too many talking heads at once, too many quick switches from one topic to another, too much purposeful disinformation. The result of overwhelm is apathy, cynicism, helplessness, and at best, status quo. We need honest leadership.

  2. You obviously put a lot of thought into crafting the list of principles. Yet one principle that I expected (or maybe only hoped) to find — holding others accountable — isn”t in there. Interestingly, it does appear at the very end of the article, as if an afterthought: “call out falsehoods where you see them.” Care to comment on why you did it that way?

    1. My focus was on telling the truth and identifying truth, not criticizing others. I respect the value of this possible principle — on the other hand, I think striving for truth is hard, and criticizing others is easy (and sometimes counterproductive). So I made my judgment on that basis.

  3. Good luck w that! 🙂

    Great post but the people responsive to it will be people already convinced. Unfortunately, for example, doubt it will change the minds of many Ds or Rs.

    But that’s not the point. You can’t control what other people do. YOU SAID WHAT NEEDED TO BE SAID. Thank you

  4. I’ll paraphrase here because any online citation will be just as unreliable as my memory. Mark Twain said that, to a journalist, nothing is more precious than the truth—so he is careful not to use too much of it. At the time, his quip was funny because it was at least partly true. Now that every news outlet has to be second-guessed, it’s still true but no longer funny.

  5. There’s a lot to agree with in these principles! I think the last one, though (about religious belief), is problematic. For starters: You say “Respect religious belief, but do not treat it as fact.” The problem with this principle is that it rests on a notion of fact that seems too narrow. For example, consider the claim that God exists, where “God” represents some conception of the divine. This is definitely a religious claim. And either “God exists” is true, or “God exists” is false, so it’s either a fact that God exists, or it’s a fact that God doesn’t exist. Right? Whether or not we can persuade someone of the truth (about God’s existence) is a separate (but certainly important!) question.

  6. Hello, Josh! I appreciate your efforts to get our world thinking critically and effectively. I know that you put a lot of thought into the principles and hope they find a broad and welcoming audience. My major concern is your associating the truth with the concept of cults. People who are in denial of the truth or are easily misled end up in cults believing that whatever their leaders spew out is truth. Isn’t that our problem now? A cult of liars taking over our country?

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