Accuracy and Truth

When we share an understanding about roles such as customer and employee (or parent and child), the values we share — the predictability of our beliefs and behaviors — rises. For example, when you walk into a clothing store, there are a variety of highly predictable beliefs and behaviors that you as customer and those who, as employees, serve you can count on. These are shared values. The shared roles of customer and employee influence those shared values. They help explain predictable belief and behavior and do so without comment on whether those values are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or anything in between.

Shared relationships also are highly predictive of shared values (again, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’). When you persistently interact with others known to you by name in some open ended way, the values you and they share — the pattern of belief and behavior — become predictable. At home or work these values might explain who makes what kind of effort, how you respond to certain situations or opportunities, what your shared beliefs and behaviors are with respect to decision-making, faith, the environment and more.

Shared relationships and shared roles are two of the most powerful determinants of shared values. Another are shared ideas. Consider the shared idea of ‘red state’ and ‘blue state’. This idea has spread across our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families to fuel any number of beliefs and behaviors. For example, it is highly predictive of the way media employees approach a wide array of stories. You personally may not like that, or you may. You might think it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But as a predictor of some shared values, the shared idea of ‘red state/blue state’ exists and does explain much of what happens in the media.

Unlike the world of places in which our grandparents and their grandparents lived, shared ideas have much broader potential influence in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. I say potential because, before any shared idea might shape shared values, there must be awareness. If the ‘red state/blue state’ idea had never been so widely aired in the media, it quite simply wouldn’t have become so powerful a shaper of shared values.

Consider, for example, the idea of ‘water ice in comets‘. It is a shared idea that shapes certain behaviors and beliefs among some scientists. In all likelihood, however, it has zero influence on the shared values of you and folks you know because you’ve never really heard about and, if you have, you’ve pretty much forgotten it.

Now, imagine for a moment that people well set up to spread ideas through the media — people who work with media companies that have large audiences, people in powerful positions in government and corporations, and so forth — decided that water ice in comets was important. In making that choice, of course, they would need to have some explanation for its importance. All of us in this new world of markets, networks and organizations are quite busy. Our attention comes at a premium – and if folks in media, governmental and corporate organizations wish us to pay attention to water ice in comets, they’ll need to explain why.

So, let us assume they do. Let us assume, for the moment, that the explanation is “X”. “Water ice in comets is important to all of you because of X”. And, let’s assume these organizations and the people in them succeed. A concerted campaign is made over the next three to six weeks through media, governmental and corporate (and, perhaps also certain ‘interest group’ organizations such as the Heritage Foundation or MoveOn) and we all wake up this coming Spring sharing the idea that ‘water ice in comets is important because of X’.

Now, let’s talk about truth and accuracy. By the standards of strongly shared ideas, most of us who bought into this whole thing would believe “Water ice in comets is important” to be the truth– especially in a culture in which shared ideas spread through markets, networks and organizations have become so powerfully oriented to ideology (compare ‘red state/blue state’). “Truth” as a shared idea that influences shared values comes dressed more and more as ideology — as repeated opportunities for us to affirm what we stand for, who we are, what we believe.

What about accuracy? Is the statement “Water ice in comets is important because of X” an accurate statement?

Well, you don’t know, do you? Because I’ve written “X” as opposed to any specific content. You do not know whether the statement is accurate. But what you do know is that our shared experience in the world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and familes predicts that — so long as X is not ridiculously inaccurate — there would be widespread shared belief and behavior that ‘water ice in comets is important’ — that the importance would be held as truth.

In light of this phenomenon, the standards for what might pass as ‘accurate enough’ to get believed become quite important. Consider, for example, this news item about a lawsuit against the former head of the Bush Admiinstation’s Enivornmental Protection Agency who, immediately after September 11th, used all the power of government and media to assure people the air quality was safe enough for them to return to their homes and apartments in the areas affected by the terrorist attacks. That became a powerful shared idea — both for the folks who lived in lower Manhattan and, probably for a brief time, for folks around the country. “The air quality is safe enough” became the ‘truth’. But, it turns out it wasn’t accurate.

Or, consider this. In his State of the Union address this week, the president declared his administration and his party were intent on reducing the nation’s dependence on oil through, among other things, investing in alternative energy technologies. That is now a widely shared idea. It is the truth — at least among people (in red states? ‘red’ people in ‘blue states’? children?) who have a shared value — a predictable pattern of belief and behavior — to credit what a president of the United States announces in a State of the Union address.

Was it accurate? Well if behavior must match belief in order for accuracy to be claimed, perhaps not. A day after the speech, funding for key alternative energy efforts was cut.

Later in the week, the House of Representatives passed legislation reducing health, education and other spending aimed at alleviating difficulties faced by the poorest Americans. The shared idea here is “fiscal restraint”. That is what is syndicated as ‘truth’ in our markets, networks and organizations.

But is it accurate? The fiscal savings involved here are but a tiny fraction of 1% of the budget deficit and an absolute dollar amount quickly canceled out by other spending increases in a government that has generated record-breaking deficits. In a language that values ‘accuracy’, it’s hard to apply the description ‘fiscal restraint’ accurately to the Bush Adminstration. That’s just ‘what is’ — it’s about predictable beliefs and behaviors — about values shared by those in the federal government and elsewhere whether or not any of us think it is ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘in between’.

Ideas cannot become shared ideas without some awareness of those ideas. You and others will not share beliefs and behaviors regarding water ice in comets without first having awareness. But, in an age of markets, networks and organizations, we all can and do become aware of ideas without regard to their accuracy. Our understanding –even if completely inaccurate and wrong — can and does lead to shared ideas and shared values. When this happens, truth deviates from accuracy. We share ideas and accept them as truth even though they are inaccurate.

All of which suggests that our future and the future of our children and others around the globe will become more sustainable when our markets, networks, organizations, friends and families put more effort into the shared idea of accuracy than the shared idea of truth.

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