Truth and “Truthiness”

“The truth-quest is always the same: the unwavering search for signs to match reality.” -- Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Stephen Colbert, the satirist and host of The Colbert Report, coined the term “truthiness” to refer to the things people know to be true “from the gut,” as opposed to from the head and from dry data that comes from the laborious (and boring) process of science. Many court managers, judges and clerks rely on truthiness to answer the question “How is the court performing?” Quite predictably, some of us who are “made to measure” and feel smug about using the scientific method to get at the truth disparage them. That disparagement may be misguided, if not arrogant or dead wrong.

Getting at the Truth

But how do we know what is true? How do we know the Way Things Really Are? How can we tell falsehood from truth?

In his deft little book, Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed (St. Martin's Press, 2000), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a member of the modern history faculty at Oxford, argues that there is “no social order without truth or, at least, without agreed truth-finding procedures (emphasis added).” He writes that people throughout history have sought to get at the truth by one or more of four basic ways: (1) the truth you feel in the gut or wherever feelings originate, (2) the traditions of the past, (3) reason and logic (the head), and (4) sense and science, i.e., the scientific method.

Fernandez -Armesto tells us that all four categories have always been around, competing or co-operating with one another as ways of discovering the truth. And, lest we think the first two are relics of the past, he reminds us that all four ways of truth-finding are alive and well today.

Gut Instincts: The Truth You Feel (Truthiness)

The first way gets at the truth through feeling, introspection and intuition. Truth is a tangible entity that we feel "in our gut." In pre-literate societies and some literate ones, Fernandez-Armesto tells us, truth was understood in emotional or non-sensory and non-rational ways.

But it would be wrong to view this way of truth-finding as outdated. Today we know that emotional intelligence and competence in the workplace -- the ability to recognize and to manage our own feelings and those of others in positive and productive ways – may play a larger role in successful organizations than analysis, calculation, logic and reason. Twenty years of research in neuroscience, behavioral economics and, yes, court administration (especially the work of Tom Tyler in “procedural justice”), has established that people base their decisions and their trust and confidence in organizations on a complicated mixture of emotion, reason, ethics and morality. Emotions, intuition and gut instincts – specifically, confidence, integrity, pride, passion -- frame the customer employee encounter.

Divination and Authoritarianism – The Truth That Is Given

Then, according to Fernandez-Armesto, comes divination or the authoritarianism of "the truth that is given" or “the truth that we are told.” This is a method employed through “various human, oracular, divinatory, or scriptural authorities.” Ancient Greek gods spoke the truth through common people. Medieval Christians in the “Age of Faith” (in contrast to the “Age of Reason”) received truth on authority.

This way of seeking the truth (literally) has precedence today. The legal doctrines of stare decisis and res judicata hold courts to policies and procedures that require them to stand by precedent, adhere to principles of law already laid down, and not to disturb settled point and matters already decided – in other works, to take the truth as given. And, of course, a higher court trumps the lower court.

Logic and Reason – The Truth You Think for Yourself

Third comes reasoning, the “truth of reason” or the “truth you think for yourself” using rational or logical analysis, a method that is not subject to the misinterpretation of introspection and divination. Rational thinking and logical analysis were used in China and Egypt long before Plato brilliantly employed them in his dialogues.

Logic and reason, of course, have great currency today. For example, a logic model of inputs, outputs, and outcomes -- an abstract simplification of what impact a court program is likely to produce -- is recommended as a useful tool for the development of court performance measurement and court program evaluation.

Science, Empiricism and the Scientific Method – The Truth You Perceive Through Your Senses

Finally, there is the relatively late development of the “truth you perceive through your senses” including evidence gained from experimentation. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, saw the limits of logical analysis and began to use evidence gained from his study of nature to bolster his arguments. Galileo, the foremost scientist of his day, broke free of the authoritarianism of seventeenth century Catholic doctrine, which taught the "truth" of the heavenly bodies as "given" by the church, and spawned the scientific revolution by revealing a new reality in the heavens through his telescopes.

Social science – including performance measurement, research and program evaluation – relies exclusively on the scientific method. It is meant to derive the single replicable and verifiable version of the truth. No questions asked. Case closed.

Well, those in the court community untrained or unaccustomed to social science’s methods – think of judges who sincerely believe that data derived from social science is mere “numerology” that needs to be tested in the crucible of the adversary system – may think otherwise. My sense is that much of the resistance to performance measurement may stem from discomfort with or distrust of “the truth you perceive through your senses.” This discomfort and distrust is exacerbated when different truth-finding methods are disparaged with thinly veiled arrogance by those of us schooled in social science.

Professor Fernanez-Armesto is instructive.

Listen and Learn

Triangulation is a technique of measurement that deals with systematic error in the “truth we perceive through our senses.” (The don’t-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket concept of the balance scorecard is a derivative of triangulation.) It is the use of several imperfect measurement methods to see if they point to the same conclusion. If they do, we can have more confidence that our measurement error is in the comfort zone. If one method yields sharply different findings than another, we have reason to suspect mistakes.

Professor Fernandez – Armesto is much more expansive. What he advises make eminent sense for all of us.

The first important step is to listen actively and patiently to what people have to say no matter what truth-finding method they’ve used. By all means, let’s not discredit those who prefer to reach the truth in ways different from ours.

Searching for the truth, Fernandez-Armesto writes, is fundamental to education. He advises us to return to all four methods that have served us so well throughout history and continue to do so today: the truth we feel, the truth that is given to us, the truth we ferret out by reason and logic, and the truth we perceive through our senses. No one method is foolproof, but each can complement and correct the mistakes of the others. The common ground is where the truth is more likely to reside.

So why not take on all comers? Bring on the “truthiness” Mr. Colbert!

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