Quality Transformation: Truth

David SchwinnThis month David approaches our understanding of what is true, with the challenge of verifying with data and source.

My wife, Carole, just gave me a shirt emblazoned “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It reminded me of an important phenomenon that has been lately grabbing my attention.

Oxford Dictionaries, publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year. The dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016). (And thrives on repetition, I suspect.) I’m reminded of the German propaganda machine preceding and during World War II.

“If you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it; and the bigger the lie, the better…. Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated
are confident they are acting on their own free will.”

Joseph Goebbels, Minster for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Nazi Germany

It seems to me that this idea of truth versus post-truth is pretty important. I think our first job is to figure out what the truth is anyway. I think, as my new shirt says, science is helpful. The discipline of robust scientific verification of whatever is considered scientifically true seems to work pretty well. It seems to support an adage that I first saw on the desk of my Chief Engineer at Ford, Warren Tyner, in the middle 1970s. It read, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”  I am also reminded of the Sufi story of the elephant and the blind men.

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan,” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features that you all said.” (http://www.jainworld.com/literature/story25.htm)

We tend to believe what is consistent with our own experience, but our experience is nearly always inadequate when we are dealing with complex subjects. Yet another supporting quote comes to mind.

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)

It seems, then, to me that we are not likely to ever find the pure truth, but if we continually try to seek it, we can find a truth that works for us. This approach to understanding is a little like continual improvement…an essential part of what we in this community all embrace.

When we discover a “truth” that contradicts our own mental models, there is evidence that we tend to either unconsciously or consciously reject that other truth (Senge, Peter The Fifth Discipline, New York: Doubleday, 1990). I challenge all of us to take the unnatural path of attempting to take in, then understand the foundation of the other “truth,” especially if the contradiction with our own truth or mental model is important.

Because of the popularity and potential devastation caused by this “post-truth” era in which we seem to be, we need to take a next, courageous and difficult step. We need to challenge the “post-truth” that is at odds with our own reexamined truth, but we also need to help others understand how we formulated our own truth by simply answering the questions Noriaki Kano posed years ago, before they are asked. He said that if we, as quality improvement professionals and leaders are given a fact (a truth), we should ask:

  • How do you know?
  • Where’s the data?
  • How did you get it?

This is not an easy path to be on these days, but as I said before, I believe it to be important. Our silence is frequently interpreted as agreement. That seems irresponsible when “post-truth” is so predominant. Dr. King reminds us:

“A time comes when silence is betrayal…”

(Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence.” Sermon. 4 April 1967. Riverside Church, New York City).

Let us continue seeking and telling the truth. It is essential to our continual improvement efforts, our organizations, our families, our communities, and our world.

2 thoughts on “Quality Transformation: Truth

  1. This was a fascinating and intriguing article. I suspect that this post-truth definition may have been derived in part on the perceptions of the major media sources across the globe. The impact which was played out in the recent U.S. presidential elections. I recently changed my news source watching from ABC world news to Vise News (on HBO) because I wanted to hear unbiased truth (news) . the jury is still out, but I am beginning to feel that there is no absolute truth, that like my quality metrics, I can take the data and make it say many thing, which are true, but not the truth, I make it fit into what my boss wants or needs.

    • Bob—Thanks for your thoughtful insights and reflective response to this column. Certainly, “The Truth” itself in some pure form is alone not the quest, but what is important are simply taking the steps to ascertain whether something conforms to factual, historical, or scientific evidence. While data may be interpreted (or misinterpreted), it speaks for itself if it has been collected with accuracy. The story of the blind men and the elephant prompts me to explore as many, sometimes contradictory, sources as possible to seek the truth. Unfortunately, sometimes we tend to distort data–or rely on biased sources–to please bosses or reinforce our own beliefs.

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