Chapel Talk: Truth

One of Peddie's core values - honesty - is described as "devotion to truth." Long-time faculty member and Math department chair Tim Corica discusses what that means for us in a practical sense (and, of course, he throws a bit of mathematics in there too!)

Before I begin, let me lower your expectations.  This talk won’t be as meaningful and brave as Scout’s.  It certainly won’t be as beautiful as Phil’s acapella singing at the Martin Luther King Day chapel.  And it won’t be as simply wonderful and educational as Mr. Middleton’s will be on Monday – as his always are.  But I’ll do my best.

I want to talk today about something simple, but hard.  Essential, but often rare.  Powerful, but often not used by those in power.  I want to talk about Truth.

You’re thinking “Well, that’s quite a topic, Mr. Corica!”  I know, it sounds grand and deep – much grander and deeper than I could ever manage.  The Greek Philosophers wrote thousands of words on the topic, and I have just a few minutes!   What I hope to do is to try to develop a picture of truth by looking at it from different directions, telling a couple of stories, and quoting from three Nobel Prize winners!

First, a story from second grade:  I was pretty much in love with my teacher, Mrs. Short.  She was kind, answered my questions, taught me mathematics – what more could you ask for?   I was in love and I wanted her to think I was special.   One day she told us that she had been to a baseball game the evening before.  I raised my hand and said “I saw you on TV!”  It was a total fabrication – I hadn’t watched the game, and certainly hadn’t seen her. When she questioned me, “Really?” I must tell you my blood ran cold.  To this very day, more than 50 years later, I can still feel my sense of embarrassment, and disappointment in myself.  I had failed the most important test: being truthful.

I don’t think my little lie hurt much (except my pride).  I mean, does a lack of truth ever really hurt anyone? 

You might ask the people of Flint, Michigan that question.  If you have been following the news, you know that for much of the past two years, government officials denied that there was a problem with the drinking water.  During that time, children were exposed to high levels of lead, likely leading to long term injury, including brain damage.  The cause was a terrible decision to take water from the Flint River, to save money.  But at the heart of the problem was a lack of truthfulness on the part of people in government.  The resignations are already starting.

Why didn’t they tell the truth?  The truth would make them look bad, so they tried to avoid it.  Precisely the same reason a student might be tempted to say “I left my homework in my other notebook, but really, I did it!” when a teacher is checking homework.  It’s the same, human, temptation to avoid pain, to hope that you can slip through and not be “caught.”

Examples like Flint are easy to find.  The tobacco industry avoided the truth about the health effects of tobacco for years and years, keeping America smoking.  The coal industry avoids the truth about climate change, putting our earth at risk.  General Motors avoided the truth about faulty ignition switches in cars that have killed over 100 people.  Failure to adhere to the truth can, and does, cost lives.

On a more positive note, there is a group committed to truth seeking.    You might not think of it as you are factoring polynomials for homework, but mathematics is entirely about the pursuit of truth, and the beauty of mathematical truth.   To a mathematician, something that seems to be true is not truth.  In 1637 a mathematician named Fermat observed something that seemed to be true.  For over 350 years no one found an exception, but mathematicians were never satisfied that it was really, really true.  Thousands of hours of effort went into checking this conjecture.  In 1995, after 8 years of his own effort, Andrew Wiles found the truth and made the front page of the NY Times.  He called this truth “indescribably beautiful”.  The difference between believing something, and knowing it to be true, was that important to him and to mathematics.

 Science, too, is about finding truth.  But even there, sometimes the temptation to “cook the data” to “prove” something that you believe to be true, or to gain fame, leads scientists astray.  AndrewWakefield was a British researcher who published fraudulent research on the link between vaccines and autism, leading to campaigns against vaccines and, ultimately to children’s illness and deaths.  There are, unfortunately, many cases of individuals committing scientific fraud like this, often with dire consequences.  Have you ever been tempted to change a number a little bit to reduce your “percent error” on a lab?

The internet, of course, abounds with examples of untruth.  I hate to break it to you, but Mark Zuckerberg is NOT giving $4.5 million to 100 Facebook users who share a particular message on Facebook.  And, no, Justin Bieber isn’t engaged to Kim Kardashian.  No, Obama isn’t a socialist Muslim from Kenya coming to take your guns.   My plea to you, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram users is to please, please check the facts of anything you post or repost on the internet!  I only post two kinds of things on Facebook: Photos of my granddaughter, and corrections to false information posted by my friends!  Think of all the time I would save by not having to fact-check their postings!

And, of course, no discussion of truthfulness is complete without noting that politicians running for office have the largest temptation to bend and break the truth.  A whole industry of “fact-checkers” has emerged just to counter the falsehoods raised during this election cycle, categorizing statements of those running for President as mostly false, false, and “Pants on Fire.”

Truth-telling goes from large to small.  It’s about owning up to your errors and not just hoping you can get away with them.  It’s about paying your fair share of taxes.  It’s about earning, and keeping, the trust of your friends, classmates, and all the people around you by being truthful to them always.  Albert Einstein wrote (in German): “Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”

I learned this from my father, even though he didn’t use the word “truth” often.  His phrase was to do “the right thing” even if it was costly for you.  It was clear that committing to the truth was “the right thing”.  I think this is why my blood ran cold that time in second grade.  He wasn’t going to catch me in this lie, but I knew I hadn’t done the right thing!

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of our country, and perhaps the fate of our world, depends upon a commitment to truth, even when that truth is painful, costly, or paints us in a bad light.  We cannot possibly make the decisions we need if we do not seek the facts, and tell the truth. 

Truth is more than “not lying.”  It is actively seeking the truth, and making truthful voices heard.  Our Peddie core value of honesty is described as “a devotion to truth.”  How can we be devoted to the truth?  How can we seek it out, and make sure that it is heard when and where it is needed?  How can we practice this, in everything from homework checks to college applications to being honest with your friends?  We need to find the strength, in times of temptation, to be devoted to the truth. 

There’s an expression I wonder if you are familiar with.  The expression is to “speak truth to power.”   When you recognize that a powerful person – your boss, your teacher, your congressperson – needs to hear a truth, you speak it to them, even if you feel it puts you at some risk.  Think about Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.  Were there members of Nixon’s inner circle who knew what he was doing was wrong, but were afraid to confront him with that truth?  Could they have prevented his downfall, and the turmoil of the nation, if they had spoken the truth to him?

The youngest Nobel Prize winner in history (at 17), is a young Pakistani activist named Malala Yousafzai who demanded schools for young women.  She was picked out on a school bus and shot by the Taliban – and still returned to her fight, to her truth-telling.  She wrote, “If you want to resolve a dispute or come out from conflict, the very first thing is to speak the truth. … You must speak the truth. The truth will abolish fear.”

So, I hope you remember the truths that Scout brought us, and the beauty and truth in Phil’s singing, and are prepared for the great truths that Mr. Middleton brings on Monday!

I’d like to end with one more quotation, this one from Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he said this: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.  This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”