Finding Truth:
The Human Mind as an Error-Checking Mechanism

Thor May
Melbourne, 1998


"On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so."
         [John Donne, 1572-1631]

[ Prologue: In 1998 in Melbourne, Australia, I had become a political casualty in the workplace of a new State government’s “reform drive”. Only time could restore balance there. It wasn’t worth trench warfare. So I decided to head off for the dark side of the moon, otherwise known as China. In a three month interregnum arranging visas etc., in order to pay the rent I plunged into the world of telesales for a few hours each afternoon. Talk about a moral education… Anyway, this very short piece reflects the realities of that time. Pardon the iconoclasm, but come to think of it, what has changed?]


It is time somebody invented the electron theory of truth. Perhaps it could go something like this. Human minds come with a variety of different valences, although no one has yet devised a periodic table of their range. The simplest fellow, like a hydrogen atom with its single shell electron, holds that one truth stands for all worldly and other-worldly experiences. More complex souls have a varying number of truth (electron) shells, and although their consciousness may habitually dwell at a fairly intimate level, say the behaviour of a spouse, with sufficient heat and agitation, their attention (hence their judgement) may jump to an outer shell of national affairs, or to the dizzy distance of humankind. A few relatively eccentric human types may scarcely ever access their inner shells of intimacy with the laser light of mind.

I am encouraged in these speculations by the stunning lack of interest most people evince in evidential proof which does not relate to their normal attention levels and perceived immediate interests. For example, nowadays I pay the rent (barely) by working as an evening telesalesperson, flogging a pen set at an outrageous price and fraudulently in the name of a charity (which actually receives 6%). This is the world of the salesman, where truth is contracted to the immediate goal of securing a sale. I hear from the booths all around me the insouciant lies of a sales contest. They are earnest, genuine, and wholly promiscuous. Once won, the customer like a fallen woman, loses all respect. I hear myself lying, and try to rationalize by securing the largest number of cash donations, which do actually go to the charity (and are little valued by the employer and "team leaders").

When not moonlighting in telesales to make a buck, I’m supposedly an educator. Is the commercial sales team so different from managements in educational institutions? I think not. I have seen and heard them lying shamelessly about "competency", and "quality", and nonexistent specialist staff skills in order to secure contracts and tenders. "Yep, we can do that. ISO9000 certified". They don't see themselves as lying at the time. The presentations are also earnest, genuine and wholly promiscuous. Once the tender is won they lose all serious interest in meeting educational commitments.

A mere professional teacher who analyses the situation, identifies flaws, opportunities and actual skill levels -- as I have done -- is labeled as a troublemaker and sooner or later disposed of (since teachers no longer have genuine professional status in these places). The professional can write well-researched proposals for improvement, even secure the support of peers, and he will be ignored. He is not within the appropriate circumference of the manager's electron shell of truth. Then a half-baked political instruction, perhaps palely reflecting the professional's original critique will come from above. Suddenly the manager is perspicuous in finding the flaws of the "old" method that was only yesterday at the "cutting edge". Yesterday's heresy is today's "latest research", albeit without acknowledgment. The manager’s consciousness has found an incentive to kick to a higher level of "truth".

Universities are the citadels of genuine research, aren't they? Home of the search for powerful truths? No, actually they are not. Now there are indeed individuals who do ground breaking, innovative work in universities. It is typically against the prevailing odds of institutional encouragement and work commitments. They are often unpopular (although at least they have a better chance of defending their approach than benighted teachers in technical institutes and secondary schools, let alone the factory supervisor with an innovative idea, or the banker who questions economic fables). When you look at research and innovation in any field, you invariably find that it operates within strict parameters, not only of accepted methodology, but of focus. This latter is a matter of fashion, career-positioning, and bureaucratic approval.

What is fashionable amongst a group of cardiac researchers, or field linguists might not of course make the evening news, but the same forces are at work. Within such parameters much of the work is diligent, and even clever in a narrow way. Yet when you question it through another prism, or from the imperatives of a wider perspective, you see the eyes of your listener go out of focus. You have lost him, jumped the electron shell of his truth boundary, become irrelevant.

The truth games of shifting “relevant evidence” are found in every occupation. Take the world of business and commerce. The actual failure rate for new businesses is hard to quantify (therefore the stuff of urban myths), but it is very high. Even businesses which remain officially registered frequently stagger on for years as zombie shells, the living-dead. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but a generic background factor seems to be that amongst businessmen only a minority can ever perceive and adapt to the unexpected requirements which will make or break their enterprise.

Take, for example, an actual issue with coffee shops in Vietnam. Real coffee beans might cost $15 a kilogram, while soya beans roasted with carcinogenic industrial chemicals to give a coffee flavour might cost $5 a kilogram. It is a no-brainer for many businessmen to use the fake beans. The immediate truth for them is that cheap coffee draws customers. It is not their problem if their customers get liver cancer … or is it? If by some miracle the Vietnamese government is driven to jail the poisoners, their business model collapses, but until that moment another reality prevails.

At least profit is a less ambiguous metric for “relevant truth” than many another proposition: ideological or religious purity, naked prejudice, sexual gratification, a comfortable life, and so on. In other words, for the largest number of people most of the time, evidence that the apparently golden might not be chemically gold is of no interest. What they want to know is whether the stuff which looks like gold has the currency to buy them what their heart desires.

The “relevant truth” paradigm is no less applicable to the world of ordinary people than it is to academic researchers and businessmen. For legions of bumbling lawyers, half-competent motor mechanics, indifferent medical doctors, denizens of every occupation … just getting by has to be a normal way of life way of life. They do their jobs by narrowly learned routines. The routines are their “relevant truths”, to be defended regardless of intruding counter-evidence. They may be psychologically unable to adapt and innovate when unexpected problems are added to the text book examples. No education system anywhere has ever overcome this for the majority, regardless of conventional student IQ or length of training. It is common to talk of “human capital” being enhanced by education. However, as part of the human condition in complex societies, perhaps we are also stuck with a certain “incompetence deficit” . Let’s call this the Bumble Law.

Since the Bumble Law is apparently universal, we should expect it in universities as well as in bakery shops. It doesn’t matter that researchers are supposed to be very clever people, as measured in ordinary ways. We should expect that the largest percentage of supposed research papers will always contribute little to human understanding. Objectively, we already know that most of these papers are hardly studied by anyone but the referees, and scanned only by an occasional postgraduate student seeking to flesh out a bibliography. Most are mere props for someone's resume. Unfortunately, the Bumble Law also means that genuinely useful research may also lie undiscovered, sometimes for generations. And of course genuinely interesting researchers might only (or might not) find fame by some confluence of luck and politics.

Further down the ambition scale, armies of teachers, frequently with 50% pass undergraduate degrees, are supposedly qualified for their career by wading through a mush of selected readings which most of them barely comprehend. They are certified to transmit our culture to the young, yet in the main lack even a glimmering of insight into what critical thought and the processes of innovation really mean. Let us suppose that some do become aware of George Bernard Shaw’s sardonic dictum that “"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." They will still overwhelmingly avoid any attempt to wrestle with the minds of their students, avoid any risk of changing the students or themselves.

The best members of a half-educated teacher army substitute good intentions for insight, and that does count for a lot, since those of their students who do have inquiring minds are less likely to be crushed. Others employed as teachers, having found no magic in discovery themselves, tend to lock down to a dogged routine of timetables and curriculums, their hearts hardened by cynicism. They may feel neither pain nor outrage as management somersaults destroy the true learning productivity of their students. The psychological mechanisms at work in their minds have become, after all, those of the telesalesperson.

So where in the world is truth? As language goes, it is mostly found inside comfort zones, regions of expectation, domains of profit. If there is conflict it will probably be a territorial dog fight about those zones, regions and domains. The fellow who wants to know whether gold really is chemically gold will forever be an outsider and an embarrassment. Yet when the world of the moment collapses about our ears it is the persistent questioner, the outsider, the seeker of apparently irrelevant truths, who is most likely to save us.

Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


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All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"Finding Truth: The Human Mind as an Error Checking Mechanism"
© copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 1998