Sunday, July 1, 2012

Truth Be Told

About a year ago I began noticing a pattern that I would describe as an inverse relationship between emphasis on factual accuracy and truthfulness. As I listened to people speak or read what they wrote, it seemed that the more important they made the accuracy of little details, the less likely it was that what they'd said or written was true.

To be clear, I'm not using TRUTH as it's used in describing the origin of the universe or the nature of humankind or who stole the bagel. I'm using truth as you might when asking someone to share her truth. In this context, a story is "true" if it accurately conveys the essence of what happened, the emotions that were experienced, and perhaps most importantly, the point of it all. This form of truth is measured by calibrating the alignment between what you say and what you mean.

Anyway, it all started about a year ago at an international conference of autism researchers. I sit in the back of a large hall listening to a young woman from an Ivy League university. She presents the findings of a research study she and others had conducted on the efficacy of parent-driven, home-based autism interventions. She shows chart after chart of graphs representing the statistics collected through the course of the study. She states her conclusions, all of which are consistent with the many statistics she's presented.

The moderator asks the audience for questions. A man walks up to the microphone and asks, "Would you please tell me something about the demographics of the study population?"

The presenter uhms and uhs. She pauses. She proceeds to describe an homogenous group of upper-middle-class caucasian families that live within a five-mile radius of the university. She quickly adds that the study had a limited budget and that they therefore had to limit their sample population to local families.

The questioner says, "It would seem that in order to validate your findings, you would want to have a more diverse population of families participating in your study. I don't see how you can stand here stating they types of conclusions you've stated today without having done so or how you managed to leave out the population-demographics throughout the course of your presentation."

The room goes quiet. The presenter pauses... for a long time. I'm certain she hasn't died or fainted because she's still standing. Finally, she takes a breath and says, "That's an excellent point. Are there any other questions?"

Since then I've come to pay close attention at times when people seem to be overly focused on the "facts". I've started to ask questions about the obvious conclusions that one might draw from those facts. Someone makes a statement of fact with obvious implications and I ask something like, "So that would mean..." or "So what you're really saying is..."

I've been surprised by the number times the answer is, "Well, no, not really."

My response to that is something like, "Then why would you say thus-and-such knowing that the obvious inference one might make is this-and-that when you know that this-and-that isn't true?"

I say something like that unless Iris does this thing with her eyes that have the effect of her shouting through a megaphone, "LET IT GO!"

There are of course the more unintentional compromises of truth for the sake of factual-accuracy. For example, Iris sometimes gets into this mode where nothing, N-O-T-H-I-N-G, is funny. In this mode she can become quite literal and, um, inflexible.

I describe a new guitar and say, "Yeah, this thing cost two-thousand dollars."

Iris interrupts and says, "It was nineteen-hundred, eight-seven dollars, not two-thousand."

I tell a story about Iris and one of her little friends; Iris jumps in, "We were walking down the hill, not up the hill."

Iris is correct, but her additions don't necessarily enhance the telling of the story or the conveyance of its essence.

Many cultures have a concept of pragmatic truth. Something is true because it works, not because it's factual. For example, if child has difficulty learning to float because he tenses up when in the water, you could explain the physiology and physics to him, or, you could say something like, "If you just relax, a magic hand will lift you so that you float on top of the water. It'll be as though you were flying."

The former may be factually accurate, but the child would still not learn to float; the latter (or some variation thereof) might just do the trick.

Hmm... how useful is your truth?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting useful is the truth? I would say that there is no one truth, rather that there are as many truths as there are perspectives. Truth is not useful, especially observational truth in the form of studies and statistics as the observer alters the truth to fit their perspective (not consciously mind).


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