Humility Truth

The Problem With Truth Is That We Think It’s Easy

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Lies take many forms. The most troublesome ones involve the liar taking advantage of the audience’s trust when the audience would benefit from the truth more than the liar would…and when it’s far easier for the audience to trust than it is for them to seek the truth.

Every lie’s potential success is dependent upon its audience’s trust. In too many situations, trust trumps truth, because trust is easier.

I am sometimes troubled by the lack of effort that we put into our endeavors to discern something approaching truth. How can we help others if we don’t adequately comprehend the time that we must invest to gather the details we need to truly understand them, and their circumstances? In our profession, employers all too often don’t cultivate a culture that supports this way of working.

Most people would not rush to have surgery until they have had many doctor visits, discussions and tests over several days or weeks. But when we develop or introduce technology solutions for our “patients,” why do we so often fail to allocate the time to understand them, and their problems?

It’s because we think too highly of ourselves.

Take a moment to recall grade school art class. I hope you can recall learning about the differences between realism and impressionism.

That puts me back in the 1970s. At that time, photography was a mature, nearly 150-year-old practice, positioned in stark contrast to its older sibling, painting. Back then, however, even the finest photographer’s technique couldn’t adequately replicate the color range and dynamic depth of real life. Nonetheless, photographers made every attempt to get as close as they could.

The photographic frame is an incredibly small, two dimensional window into a 360°, three dimensional moment and place in time and space. It is always a mere selection of a world that the photographer decided was important to capture. A photograph represents a decision, more than anything else. While photos might achieve realism in a way that paintings cannot, they remain impressionistic documents, whose intent it is to convey something that the human behind them wanted to convey.

When I was young, I became fascinated with photographing the nighttime version of our world. Neon lights, twirling gas station signs, dimly lit people, the lines of red and golden beacons emitted from the back and front of automobiles grizzling by. The tools available to me as a young photographer in the 1970s were limited. It was impossible to reproduce on paper what my eyes perceived.

Today, this problem has been largely solved. Our latest cell phones can produce photographs that resemble the incredibly challenging high-contrast spectacle of our nighttime vision.

To achieve this, our phones take hundreds of photographs in rapid succession, computationally stitching them together, taking the richest and most optimally exposed details from each frame. The final result is a stunning composite that replicates your natural perception better than any tools we’ve ever previously had.

The film photographers of my youth would (and still do!) cry foul, asserting that these photographs are pure artificial trickery. Our eyes would disagree. This illustrates something interesting: in order to achieve something that is closer to “truth,” we must collect multiple views, from different perspectives. It seems paradoxical that conveying something as simple-seeming as truth requires such complexity. Hence the Yiddish proverb:

Truth is the safest lie.

Photography is only one tool in our communication arsenal; the written and spoken word are far more regularly employed. Do we consider that our utterances have the same limitations as the simple photographs of yore? More often than we would like to admit, words are ambiguous, and they are always strung together by imperfect creatures. When any person speaks or writes, there is a good chance that their words will be perceived differently by different people. A simple set of words alone cannot adequately express an idea, in the same way that one simple photograph cannot convey a scene with the depth, breadth, and dimensionality of real life. Language is, at best, impressionistic.

Yet, the vast majority of public discourse today assumes that a few simple words can convey truth. If you don’t believe this, then you may have never visited Facebook or Twitter.

Just as one photograph is not enough, one word is not enough. One sentence is not enough. One paragraph is not enough. One book is not enough. To discern something worthy of being called truth, people need to gain perspectives from multiple photographs…multiple words…multiple sentences…multiple paragraphs…multiple books.

Of course, this is the essence of learning. But in recent decades, we have seen learning increasingly demonized. Should something take too much effort to understand, we are told that it is “intellectual.” Sometimes, we are told that learning is an exercise for “elites.” If something is “complex,” we are encouraged to postpone digesting it until we have time.

But learning demands that we find multiple perspectives. It requires critical thinking, looking through and past the imperfections in our written and spoken interpersonal communications. This takes time. We like things to be simple, but truth isn’t simple.

Is it fair to say that calculus should be simple? Or that it’s a bunch of bull because it’s complex?

Is it fair to say that the theory of relativity is a bunch of malarkey, by the same standards?

Is it fair to say that British history is bollocks?

The conceit of modern humanity is to believe we can distill truth from a few soundbites, whether through one or two books, or one or two social media posts. The arc of this extreme conceit arguably began in September 1982, when USA Today published its first issue. That conceit — however attractive it was at the time — continues to erode our comprehension of the difficulty of truth to this day.

No matter how hard we study language in school, every one of us struggles to successfully communicate the many goings on in our world. Unfortunately, our choices seem to be either a) perceived as a complex, talkative bore, or b) to be perceived at all. We too often choose the latter. That choice promotes ego over truth.

Our egos are a bigger problem than we think. Not only do they prioritize our simple desire to be heard over producing something worthwhile to hear, but our egos lead us to believe that our capacity for language is a magical, God-given gift that makes us superior to other creatures. You and I have been programmed to believe that a paragraph like this one is vastly more sophisticated than a dog’s bark. If that were true, this might be the last essay ever written about truth.

It’s no wonder why dogs so often ignore us.

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