“What ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more caressing.”
H. L. Mencken
Debby Boone released “You Light Up My Life” in 1977 and it became a #1 hit, the most successful single of the 1970s and won her a Grammy. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Anyway, at the song’s climax, she proclaims her love for the unnamed object of her desire and earnestly intones that “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”
Any parent of teenagers recognizes how dangerous such a claim can be and anyone who ever was a teenager and has the slightest bit of self-awareness can recognize that the claim is utterly false. Lots of things feel really, really right at the time but are really, really wrong. Yet no matter how ludicrous the claim obviously is and how clearly we see its falsity in moments of sanity, we follow its dictates time and again. As John Junor famously expressed it, “an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts.”
On our better days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles and by tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, assertive truth-tellers. However, on most days, much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, partisan, arrogant confabulators. The problem is what Stephen Colbert (who began his new late-night television venture this week) described as “truthiness” on his first episode of The Colbert Report a decade ago (watch it here). It’s the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if it’s not necessarily true or perhaps false.
When making his defense of some British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials in December of 1770, John Adams (later the second President of the United States) offered a famous insight. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Legal Papers of John Adams, 3:269. In a similar vein, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that “[e]veryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
I have often warned about our proclivity to and preference for stories to the exclusion of data (for example, here, here and here). Because stories are so powerful, we want the facts to be neatly packaged into a compelling narrative. Take a look at John Boswell‘s delightful send-up of this technique in the TED context below.
The photograph above, taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is now one of the iconic images of that horrible day. In fact, the Observer New Review (London) republished it in 2011 as the 9/11 photograph. In Hoepker’s words, he saw “an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant — flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background.” By his reckoning, even though he had paused but for a moment and didn’t speak to anyone in the picture, Hoepker was concerned that the people in the photo “were not stirred” by the events at the World Trade Center — they “didn’t seem to care.” Hoepker published many images from that day, but he withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.”