The truth about Truth12 March 2015
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?
In 1535, Jacques Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There the natives took him up a mountain, which he named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat, but bumpy.
Why must I tell you this? Because we have to appreciate that while facts may be true—that mountain is there—theories are not. How can they be when they are just generalizations--words and symbols on papers and screens--not reality itself?
Theories can, however, be useful, or not, depending on the circumstances. The flat earth theory is quite useful for building football fields in Holland. (“Please raise that end a millimeter or two to correct for the curvature of the earth”??) But when it comes to sailing ships, the round earth theory works much better. (Actually the earth is not round—it bulges at the equator—but what to do with the oblong theory of the earth I do not know.) And anyone who likes to climb mountains has to be a big fan of the bumpy earth theory (although I heard somewhere that if we reduced the size of the earth to a billiard ball, we would not be able to feel Mount Everest).
Many proper scientists just don’t get it. They fight with each other furiously over their respective theories, without recognizing that all may be right, and wrong, depending on the circumstances. Don’t we still make greater use of Newton’s theory of mechanics than Einstein’s theory of relativity, which supposedly debunked it? (Now it’s Einstein’s theory that is being challenged.) It has been much the same with those economists who pooh-poohed Keynesian theory for years, only to rediscover it during the recent financial crisis.
Currently there is concern about the measles vaccine. By failing to have their children inoculated, parents are being accused—rightly—of putting others at risk. To convince these parents, proper scientists and physicians are announcing that the vaccine has been proved safe. This is not true at all. Nor is this proper science, which can disprove theories but never prove them.1
What these people should be saying is that the tests have indicated that the vaccine has not been found to be harmful—so far. If you doubt the difference between these two wordings, consider all the medical treatments that were declared safe only to be later declared dangerous.
So beware of any claims about truth in theory, including those that I have advanced furiously in these TWOGs. But do check out the claims about their usefulness, while keeping your mind open for the next theory that comes along. As D.O. Hebb, the great psychologist, put it: “A good theory is one that holds together long enough to get you to a better theory.” (He worked at McGill—his office must have faced that mountain too.)
© Henry Mintzberg 2015 Photo © Lisa Mintzberg 2015
1. Karl Popper wrote a famous book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was not about the discovery of theories—the interesting part--but about the falsification of them. An assistant of mine once typed his name as Propper—another Typo.
Some more quotes about Truth:
“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths.” (A.N. Whitehead)
“Add a few drops of malice to a half-truth and you have an absolute truth.” (Eric Hoffer)
“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” (André Gide)
“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” (Niels Bohr)
“All astrologers are liars. Even when an astrologer tells the truth, he is lying.” (proverb)