When I wrote the post Every Lie We Tell Incurs a Debt to the Truth I expected to get some feedback. I got more than I usually do (mostly by email vs. blog comments) and much of it was thoughtful.
One person pointed to the video I embedded, which I thought was great. It’s an extensive explanation of things in HBO’s Chernobyl that were either simply wrong or exaggerated. The video is entertaining as well as substantive, so it’s a good addition to the content from the show.
Separately, I listened to The Chernobyl Podcast on my drive up to Aspen about two weeks ago. If you watched the HBO Chernobyl docudrama, the accompanying podcast is a must listen. Peter Sagal (host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!) interviews Craig Mazin (Chernobyl Series Creator and Executive Producer.) Peter is an awesome host and he pulls out a ton of interesting, useful, and curious information from Craig.
Next up for me is reading Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster which is near the top of my pile of infinite books to read (right after I finish Black Crouch’s Recursion.)
I watched HBO’s Chernobyl the past few nights. I finished it last night, took a deep breath, and said out loud to myself, “that was spectacular.”
One of the final quotes that stuck with me is the title of this post. The full quote is “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
Read it again. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Pause and ponder it. Think about our current world. Let the line linger a bit in your mind.
Now, watch the following ten-minute video for the comparison of Chernobyl to real historical footage. It’s incredibly powerful to watch this after you’ve watched Chernobyl, but might be even more powerful to watch it prior to watching the miniseries, which some are calling a docudrama. While some struggle with the dynamics of a docudrama and others view the techniques of Hollywood as similar to Soviet propaganda, the video below explains things well.
I was an undergraduate at MIT when Chernobyl happened. I remember reading the newspaper headlines from the Boston Globe on a daily basis (something I did most days in college at breakfast.) I didn’t have a TV and rarely went to the TV room in the basement of our fraternity to watch TV, partly because I didn’t really like TV and partly because I didn’t like the mess and smell of the TV room.
I remember being terrified almost every day as the news unfolded. The potential for nuclear war with Russia was a central theme for me growing up, especially during the Reagan years (1981 – 1989) as I went from teenager to young adult. Near the end of this period, Chernobyl was a different kind of terror – that of what was perceived by me, as an American, as a country (USSR) that had no control over planet destroying technology and was both unwilling to be clear about the reality of the situation as well as ask for help.
Today’s dead cities around Chernobyl could have been our entire planet. The map of what is known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is striking.
While some may refer to this as a small part of our planet, it’s a dead part of our planet. Uninhabitable by humans. Sure, there may be uses for this territory, like power generating solar farms, which may serve as a backward-looking justification for how this part of our planet ends up being used. And it’s fascinatingly become a refuge for wildlife 33 years later.
While articles explain in detail Why HBO’s “Chernobyl” Gets Nuclear So Wrong, I think this line of thinking misses the idea that if a few heroic figures hadn’t made the right decisions, stayed after the problem, knowing that they were likely going to die from their own exposure to radiation, while also compelling many others to end up being exposed to extreme radiation in the crisis, containment, and cleanup effort, we might not have a planet. There’s a key moment in Chernobyl (I think in Episode 4), where it’s clear that there is now an unsolvable problem unless thousands of people are mobilized to do a set of time-sensitive and highly dangerous maneuvers to prevent a total meltdown and subsequent explosion of the other three nuclear plants in the facility. The outcome of that could have possibly been the end of our planet, civilization, and human life.
While that didn’t happen, it’s a reminder of the human ability to both create and destroy on a massive scale. It’s then presented against the backdrop of the quote: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
We live in a world of endless lies. It’s not just propaganda and misinformation designed to obfuscate and distract. It’s not just things being labels “fake news” whether they are or aren’t. It’s not just in government and politics, but in business, science, philosophy, relationships, and every other aspect of life. It’s just part of what humans do.
Everyone lies, whether it’s deliberate falsehoods, obfuscation, errors of omission, misdirection, denial, or a long list of other reasons or explanations of why people lie. The person who says, “I’ve never lied” is lying, even if they are a fair witness.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
The next time you are about to lie, or participate in a lie, consider whether you are willing to pay the debt from the lie in the future.
The following post is the one I was referring to when I wrote The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote. After I wrote it, I searched around for the quote but came across links to a speech by Ben Shapiro titled “Truth Is A Microagression” along with a bunch of commentary about Shapiro suggesting “Facts don’t care about your feelings” and counterarguments that “Facts do care about your feelings.”
I got sucked into a rabbit hole of trying to understand the discussion, debate, and the subsequent aggressive (vitrolic?) arguments. Neither was what I was trying to say, nor did I feel like becoming part of that particular discussion. So, I chickened out and wrote the post The Moment You Realize You Aren’t Comfortable With What You Wrote instead.
Now that I’ve sat on this post for a few weeks, I’m now fine putting it up. If you are part of the “facts care or don’t care about your feelings” discussion, that’s cool, but that’s not what this is about. So, please read it with the meaning I was trying to convey.
I love the phrase “facts have no feelings.” And, it’s important to distinguish that phase from a different quote which I don’t like and is in a completely different dimension of discussion, which is “facts don’t care about your feelings.”
Queue all the comments about living in a post-fact reality and alternative facts. Or about how facts are simply a fictional narrative that humans create about the universe. Or how facts don’t matter since whoever has the loudest megaphone can overwhelm any facts. Or, how facts actually matter in the long-run, even if they are ignored in the short-term.
Earlier this year I read Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre. It had some good stuff in it, but several of my friends who read it were turned off by McIntyre’s biases (which he acknowledges directly in the book), asserting that the biases undermined what he was saying.
Around the same time, I read James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty which I enjoyed regardless of what you think of Comey. After I wrote a blog post about it, I ended up getting a range of emails. Some were positive but others were similar to the ones I got about McIntyre’s book (although more aggressive) basically saying Comey was full of shit and not telling the truth.
One of my favorite lines in the context of business is Your Truth vs. The Truth. I use the original iPhone release as the example and two Steve Ballmer videos – one from 2007 and one from 2014 – to make the point. My punch line in the post is:
“When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.”
That leads me to “facts have no feelings” and the distinction between “truth” and “facts” in the context of business. While the two are regularly conflated, they are really different. The “alternative facts” nonsense in politics makes this point clearly. If “alternative truth” had been said instead of the famously used phrase “alternative facts”, it would have made a lot more sense. Sure, some people would have still ridiculed it, but it would have been a logical construct because there can be a difference between what one person thinks is true and what another thinks is true.
Here’s a provocative example. I think bitcoin has no fundamental value. However, there are many people who believe bitcoin has fundamental value. And, regardless of whether or not it has fundamental value, it is a fact that when I wrote this sentence you can buy bitcoin for $3,403.48 (of course, it is also likely that when you read this, the price will be different.) So, people ascribe value to bitcoin, whether or not it has fundamental value.
My truth would be that bitcoin has no fundamental value, but is a highly speculative object that people like to trade. And, I build a set of truths around that. Other people have a different truth about bitcoin. Regardless, the fact is that a bitcoin can be bought and sold. And, for the avoidance of doubt, even though I think bitcoin has no fundamental value, I own some bitcoins (a fact …) Finally, while someone could extrapolate the notion that I don’t think cryptocurrencies have fundamental value, that would be incorrect, since bitcoin is simply one cryptocurrency.
Here’s something to chew on: “Should facts get in the way of truth?” Or, “Should truth get in the way of facts?”
Your truth (or my truth) and deeply held beliefs are complicated things that can change. But, facts have no feelings.
A snarky person could call the title of this post “the tagline for Facebook and Twitter.” A bitter person could expand this to mean all of media.
I’ve got a cold (it’s a bummer to end the year with a cold, but if it runs its course by January 1st I’ll be happy) so it’s been hard to concentrate this morning. Instead of working on the final draft of the Second Edition of Startup Opportunities: Know When to Quit Your Day Job (being published by Wiley in Q117) I’ve been surfing the web, looking at Twitter and Facebook, responding to email, and drinking apple cider.
I came across three articles this morning that were prompted by an email exchange about truth / fake news / exaggeration, which was stimulated by Fred Wilson’s Headlines post today.
I figured I’d be done after reading Erin Griffith’s The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of meat in the article but Erin’s writing deserves a better, less clickbait headline. But, we know that’s not going to happen.
I then bumped into ‘How Propaganda Works’ Is a Timely Reminder for a Post-Truth Age which resulted in a one-click Amazon purchase of the book How Propaganda Works.
I still felt sick, but for another reason.
I finished my random reading off with some Garrison Keillor who always makes me happier. Our country is bitterly divided. How ’bout a little small talk? ends with a great punch line.
“They say the country is bitterly divided. Maybe so, but that’s no reason to be rude. My mailman likes to banter, and so do the guys at Lloyd’s Automotive and the cabdrivers. So what’s going on with you? Cat got your tongue? Where’d you get that sweater? What’s that product you put on your hair?”
I’m going to quit stalling and go work on two more chapters of Startup Opportunities and then take an afternoon nap. And that’s the truth.
I’ve been thinking about what “truth” means lately. With almost no effort I can find contradictory articles, thoughts, perspectives, statements, and opinions on almost everything being discussed today. I’m sure our election cycle is amplifying this, but I see this in a bunch of stuff I’m reading about tech as well.
As someone who views independent critical thinking as extremely important, this dynamic is perplexing to me. A few months ago I wrote a post about TruthRank vs. PageRank. It started me down a path where I began separating types of truth. Specifically, I’ve begun referring to “your truth” vs. “the truth.”
When I say “your truth” I’m not referring to opinions. I’m referring to your deeply held beliefs. Your truth is the set of ideas that forms the basis of your view of the world. It requires a huge act of will and introspection for you to change your truth.
To understand this better, I’d like to use a classic example from tech – that of Steve Ballmer’s view of the iPhone, and subsequently his approach to the mobile business.
Let’s set the stage with a classic interview with Ballmer at the time the iPhone is announced in 2007.
Now, let’s look at Ballmer’s reflections about this in 2014.
As part of this arc, Ballmer’s big solve was to move Microsoft from a software only company to software+services and then software+devices. For many years, Microsoft was disdainful of Apple’s tightly coupled hardware+software business. In a final thrust of reactionary behavior, Microsoft bought Nokia in 2014 for $7.2 billion and then wrote off $7.6 billion a little over a year later.
Ballmer had “his truth.” It was stronger than an opinion. It shaped his entire view of the world. He held on to it for seven years (or probably longer).
And, at least in the case of mobile, it was completely wrong. It was not “the truth.”
I see this in all aspects of the world. It’s noisiest in politics right now, but it’s prevalent through all aspects of society. I’m running into it constantly in business and technology – both at a macro level (about the industry) and a micro level (within a company).
In the same way it’s different than an opinion (which can be wrong and/or invalidated over time), it’s different than strategy. I’ve always felt that a strategy was the framework for executing your truth. Strategies evolve and opinions change but your truth doesn’t.
And herein lies the problem. I’m seeing people hold onto their truth for much too long. They hold on too tightly. They turn an opinion into their truth. They extrapolate their truth from a small number of data points. The generalize one experience to create their truth. They react emotionally to something that they disagree with and anchor on their truth. They justify their behavior by holding onto their truth.
In many of these situations, individual critical thinking goes out the window. The internal biasing behavior of your truth dominates. You stop being able to listen to other perspectives, to process them, to think about them, and to evolve your opinion. Instead of deeply held beliefs, you end up with a shallow and self-justifying perspective that you hold on to endlessly rather than think hard about what is actually going on.
I embrace the idea of seeking the truth. I love the construct of deeply held beliefs as a framework for it. I challenge everyone to think harder about what the truth actually is, rather than just hold on to your truth to justify your perspective. Remember, the truth is out there.
I was at dinner a few weeks ago with my long time friend and first business partner Dave Jilk. We ended up talking about how difficult it is to determine signal from noise, fact from fiction, truth from bullshit, and bullshit from complete-and-total-bullshit.
I recently hit the wall with all the political stuff that was popping up everywhere. I think the thing that flipped my switch from on to off was a satirical article about Hillary Clinton and all the horrible things she had done that was being passed around by people who I think considered it to be factual. As I read through it, I imagined all the derivative articles building on the sarcasm embedded in the article and then making arguments which would be cited by others as truth because they showed up credibly somewhere.
I probably would have recovered from this in a few days if I wasn’t then confronted yesterday by a Wall Street Journal article that was sent to me with a clear set of assertions built around a statement that I knew to be factually incorrect, but I’ve seen written exactly the same way in other articles to make a specious argument.
Software should be able to solve this for us. It appears that whenever Google talks about working on ranking based on trustworthiness anti-science advocates freak out about it. If you are interested in seeing the math (and some concepts) behind this, the paper by some Google folks titled Knowledge-Based Trust: Estimating the Trustworthiness of Web Sources – while chewy – is very interesting (at least the parts I understood.)
Dave sent me a presentation he’d done on this topic for a Defrag Conference several years ago. I tossed it up on SlideShare and embedded it below.
We went back and forth on it a little more and Dave ended with a strong statement around skepticism.
“It seems like a consequence of a few drivers has caused there to be more awareness of the notion and techniques of skepticism. However, people are using it indiscriminately, i.e., just to attack the other side. It’s another form of bullshit, actually – they don’t care whether the skeptical criticism is valid, but it has some additional polemical value because it has an aura of aiming for truth. Some of the drivers of the new Skepticism are all the problems with media, climate change, and probably some other things I’m not thinking of.”
When I ponder the notion of peak oil, I pine away for the concept of peak bullshit. But, like peak oil, I suspect it is an elusive construct.