The Great Enemy of Truth

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic”.
This was John F. Kennedy speaking to the Yale graduating class on June 11, 1962.

I am currently reading “Smelling Land” by David Sanborne Scott and the author opens a very good explanation of human reluctance to changes in the way we think with the above quotation.

Below is an excerpt from the book:


“It seems to me there are three ways we acquire knowledge—by accretion, integration or substitution. Depending on which route we’ve traveled to knowledge, new information sometimes requires that we pay an emotional price for the insight, understanding and comprehension we’ve found. So let’s try to anticipate how the route influences the emotional price.”

Accretion is the process of gluing additional information to the body of knowledge we already have. It can be fun. Usually the new information is accepted willingly and without stress. A single, easily understandable factoid is added to our brain’s immense memory capacity—disturbing no embedded knowledge, demanding little intellectual effort, requiring no emotional price. Everyone has their own examples—a new football scoring record would suffice.”

Integration is the process by which we come to appreciate a new and better way to link together the knowledge we already have, to place bits and pieces within a clarifying pattern. Since integration requires refitting many data chunks, to test how they fall within a new template, the process often needs a little more thought, more reflection. Still, although the effort may be greater, the resulting synthesis can be joyous compensation. We seldom need to pay an emotional price. Indeed, we often get an emotional high. An integration experience for a student mechanical engineer could occur when, in a moment of revelation, she suddenly realizes that the vector calculus equations she’s been applying to fluid mechanics can be wonderfully applied to the electromagnetic field theory that her electrical engineering roommate is studying, so that, together, they understand both fluid and electromagnetics a lot better.”

Substitution is different. New, discordant. white-knuckle information crashes in upon long-held beliefs, upon our convictions. We first scurry about looking for counter-arguments. for rationales that will undermine the new information, allow it to be set aside. But if all defensive arguments fail, and if we’re willing to push aside pre-existing flawed perceptions, then substituting new knowledge can be a painful process. None but the courageous will tread here. A childhood substitution, a few days before Christmas, in your parent’s cupboard, the train set you’d asked for from the North Pole—and you suddenly realize there really isn’t any Santa Claus. Or even tougher, because we’re older with beliefs more solidified, might be when we come face to face with implacable flaws in political or religious ideologies we’ve held for as long as we can remember.”


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