Whenever I finish a movie “based on a true story,” there comes a moment when the credits begin rolling and I want to know how much of it was true. This happened recently after finishing “The Founder,” about Ray Kroc and how he turned McDonald’s into an American institution. It led to a brief internet search to learn about the deal that was signed (or not signed) with the original McDonald’s brothers and whether the movie’s portrayal resembled reality. We only have so much time, of course, to dig into the “facts” of any movie “based on a true story,” but the point remains that we still have an intuitive reaction about the “truth.” We’ll certainly allow some “creative license,” but we still want the major points to largely resemble what occurred.
Likewise, I heard a talk by the author Tim O’Brien around the fall of 2010. He is the author, among others, of the book The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories about soldiers during the Vietnam War. I had read the book in the 1990s and was moved by the reflective tales about what war must have been like. During his talk, he mentioned an amusing story about his young son peeing into a waste paper basket in their family bathroom. I believe the waste paper basket was of the wicker-variety so that a pool of urine was all over the bathroom floor. I do not remember the exact reason his son did this, but the reason was humorous, along with the numerous other particulars of the story. The room was in laughter. When he finished, however, he said, “I just made that story up. It never happened.” He went on to say how it didn’t matter whether it happened or not, it was the emotional truth of the story. I can remember vehemently disagreeing. It did matter.
Both of these scenarios (movies based on a true story and Tim O’Brien’s “tale” of his son) sparked an intuitive reaction—that it matters whether something is true or not. But knowing “the truth,” is very complex, of course. There are many meanings of the word “truth” (Horwich, 2010, 2013). As Horwich (2013) describes, truth has been defined as “correspondence with the facts,” as “provability,” as “practical utility,” and as “stable consensus,” but “all turned out to be defective in one way or another—either circular or subject to counterexamples” (para. 12). Despite the contested nature of truth, we don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
This brings me to the excellent TED talk by Michael Patrick Lynch titled “How to see past your own perspective and find truth.” Lynch, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, states:
“Skepticism about truth…is a bit of self-serving rationalization disguised as philosophy. It confuses the difficulty of being certain with the impossibility of truth. Look — of course it’s difficult to be certain about anything…But in practice, we do agree on all sorts of facts. We agree that bullets can kill people. We agree that you can’t flap your arms and fly. We agree — or we should — that there is an external reality and ignoring it can get you hurt.”
Thus, while truth has many meanings and it is difficult to be certain about anything, we still need “truth” as a regulatory ideal. At the very least, a belief in truth is functional in that it helps us get to the bottom of issues to develop a more solid footing for our beliefs and opinions. Asking of any claim “is it true?” helps spark critical thinking and dialogue to overcome a confirmatory stance to the world (1). So, we shouldn’t throw out the notion of truth with postmodern skepticism, even if it is difficult to ascertain, and the word, itself, means many different things. We should, at least, listen to our intuitive reaction and curiosity to understand if something is “true,” (i.e., did it actually occur), and not so easily abandon this ideal.
(1) See Dalio (2017) or Smerek (2017) for embedding the social norm of “pursuing truth” in an organizational setting.
Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Horwich, P. (2010). Truth–meaning–reality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Horwich, P. (2013, March 3). Was Wittgenstein right? The New York Times.
Lynch, M. P. (2017, April). How to see past your own perspective and find truth. TED.com
Smerek, R. E. (2017). Organizational learning and performance: The science and practice of building a learning culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ryan Smerek is an assistant professor and assistant director of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Organizational Learning and Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.
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