Truth – don’t stretch it!


We may want a fantasy and may envisage self in a fantasy – however, to stretch the truth into a fantasy is problematic.

In law we have specific guides to clearly inform us as to:

  1. what we know; as opposed to
  2. what we believe.

The two may be very different.  Belief is not knowledge, since knowledge is based on facts, which helps establish truth.

Facts can be challenged (think, for example: the attacks on climate change science).[1] However, challenging on the basis of conflicting facts is very different from challenging on the basis of belief. By way of example, think about how the politics of climate change belief has influenced public debate.

So, what our beliefs are and the reality (truth) can be different.

Confronting belief with reality

Let’s take another example – the belief  that it’s good to enter a “profession”. This belief leads to certain behaviours that encourage children to grow up to become, say lawyers or doctors. This behaviour further promotes the high standing of the ‘professions’ in our culture.

However, the more competition there is to join a “profession”, so the criteria to join become higher and the rewards early in the career get lower . Examples of high pressure, low reward professions include science, architecture and now possibly law.

So when belief is confronted with reality, the “truth” can be quite different. What you don’t expect is sometimes surprising. The following examples were discussed in Freakonomics[2]:

1.            a prostitute earns more money than an architect (there is a lower hurdle to entry but the work is unpleasant and the personal safety and health risks are high, so the hourly rate is commensurately high, but decreases with time); and

2.            an architect, in contrast, has a high hurdle to entry and initially has a very poor hourly rate which increases with time.

Here, our belief is that we hold certain professions in high esteem while in policy/practice, we are in effect promoting exploitation / disempowerment.

Consider the hidden truth

In Belle du Jour a research scientist, whilst doing her doctorate, practised as a call girl due to, among other things, “postdocs are not well paid – being debt-free enabled me to continue to choose science jobs I love rather than changing career”.[3] Further, the situation was exposed because “… I’d told someone I couldn’t trust. The papers didn’t find me, not because I’m a master of subterfuge, but because they assumed I would be one of their own – not a small-time blogger.”[4] Apparently Belle du Jour was not the only postdoc relying on one profession to pay her way for participation in another.

This scenario shows how part of a story can be largely hidden – the hidden truth. We say we encourage certain behaviour (e.g. entering a profession) while in fact we actively promote something different (e.g. subservience or exploitation).

Move on the merits, not beliefs

Law, for example, is “open” as a profession to enter.  That is, it is open on merit, not belief.  Merit is a selection criterion that excludes more than it lets in.

However, “open” is conditional and it is often confused with the belief that entry is open when you work really hard to achieve something.

Using this belief as the basis for a “right” to something will harm your credibility. You must establish your right (e.g. to belong to the profession) by not stretching the truth to encompass a belief – you must establish a right on its merits, not your beliefs.

The merits of what you have achieved may only give you openings when the time arises, and likewise, may remove the rights to practice in the profession when the times are difficult (no clients) or when professional misconduct has occurred (dishonesty).  In recent years there have been many professionals that have become unemployed vastly due to the global financial crisis.

Likewise, the right to practice energy production by exploitation of particular energy sources may be removed when new facts come to hand such as with climate change science.  The tobacco industry fought science for many years before policy was enacted to limit smoking and compensate smoking induced cancers.

Fact or fantasy?

Belief, entitlement, and hearsay may all be part of a fantasy. Relying on fantasy is different to directing conduct based on knowledge (facts).

However, it is important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. At face value, facts in isolation may point to something but not give the complete story, since, for example, causation is lacking.

Facts are important and can tell part of the story when checked and put to the test – so don’t under estimate the importance of facts.  Facts when combined with the power of scientific method help clarify issues.

What role truth for the professions?

To survive, professions must be sustainable.  To be sustainable, professions need to have credibility, and to be able to grow and adapt. To have credibility, professions need to be engage truthfully with the community.

Recent examples of professions coming into disrepute and losing credibility have been seen in the global financial crisis, which has seen banks failing and sovereign debt  bailouts.

Successful policy needs to include strong social policy which deals with issues such as sustainability of the professions.  This needs to acknowledge the importance of truthful, enduring and credible relationships between a profession and the community, which are essential for survival.

We must remember:

Poverty and inequality create incentives for people to seek in illegal activities the social advancement they cannot find in legal activities. They also open the space for criminals to create power strongholds and patronage relations with communities while providing the basic services the government is unable to provide[6]

The communication between any profession and the community is critical.  This communication must address what is fact and what is belief.  Failure of policy has contributed to the various recent “bubbles” and their bursting which hurt society as a whole.

Professionals and the practice of truth

Upon entry into a profession, the standard of performance is held extremely high.  Truth in professions is essential and cannot be flouted.  In the legal profession truth is paramount.  A lawyer’s standing – and indeed that of the whole profession –is damaged if conduct raises the issue of honesty.

This is because the need to be truthful is fundamental to the legal profession

What does this mean in practice? The need to consider all relevant facts – not just half the facts or questionable conclusions from facts (these could really be considered as beliefs disguised as facts).

It is important not to err by “dressing up” facts or stretching the truth, but by presenting the facts simply.

Getting information from many sources assists to determine whether the information  is hearsay, purely circumstantial or a belief. This helps understanding the basis of what is presented.  Only by weighing the facts  can the truth be revealed.

It is also important to keep facts separate from stretches, puff and belief.  However, also be aware of context – take advertising as an example. Facts can be deliberately presented to be persuasive.

Truthfulness can help form and enact good policy.  However, this can only be achieved with a firm focus on objective data (truth). A classic example is the current debate surrounding climate change. If our current, dominant energy sources are causing significant harm then changing behaviour will only be effected through policy change.  Attacking science will not lead to a good outcome, since the facts are important.  Truth cannot be sacrificed to maintain any profession, organisation or community behaviour.  Professions have to swing with the punches of economy and policy, as with all other sectors of industry.

1 Place Patent Attorneys & Solicitors

[1] SCIENCE UNDER SIEGE Catalyst ABC Television Thursday, 8 September 2011 http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3313559.htm

[2] Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is a 2005 non-fiction book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner.

[3] Rowan Hooper (20 November 2009). “Belle de Jour: On science and prostitution”. New Scientist.

[4] Rowan Hooper (20 November 2009). “Belle de Jour: On science and prostitution”. New Scientist.

[5] There are many examples where professional law enforcement fails there is a direct movement across to organised crime: for example, the case of the Mexican “Gulf cartel’s hit-squad the Zetas, forged by veterans of a 1990s Pentagon-run special forces training programme”. Likewise in other regions, “security force members and judicial authorities – many of them instrumental to repressive national security regimes from the Cold War – have tolerated, supported or graduated into criminal activities” see http://www.cmi.no/publications/file/3399-squeezing-a-balloon.pdf

[6] http://www.cmi.no/publications/file/3399-squeezing-a-balloon.pdf

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