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How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality
Read by Robert Fass
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For fans of Nudge, Sway, and The Art of Thinking Clearly, a fascinating dive into the many ways in which “competing truths” shape our opinions, behaviors, and beliefs.
True or false? It’s rarely that simple.
There is more than one truth about most things. The Internet disseminates knowledge but it also spreads hatred. Eating meat is nutritious but it’s also damaging to the environment. When we communicate we naturally select the truths that are most helpful to our agenda.
We can select truths constructively to inspire organizations, encourage children, and drive progressive change. Or we can select truths that give a false impression of reality, misleading people without actually lying. Others can do the same, motivating or deceiving us with the truth. Truths are neutral but highly versatile tools that we can use for good or ill.
In Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, Hector Macdonald explores how truth is used and abused in politics, business, the media and everyday life. He shows how a clearer understanding of truth’s many faces renders us better able to navigate our world and more influential within it. Combining great storytelling with practical takeaways and a litany of fascinating, funny, and insightful case studies, Truth is a sobering and engaging read about how profoundly our mindsets and actions are influenced by the truths that those around us choose to tell.
This book looks forward to a backlash.
Written during an epidemic of fake news and alternative facts, it anticipates a revival of public concern for the truth and a widespread insistence that politicians, business leaders, campaigners and other professional communicators be held accountable for the veracity of their words. I have confidence that we value truth enough to fight for it.
But truth is not as straightforward as it seems. There are different ways to speak truth, not all of them honest. On most issues, there are multiple truths we can choose to communicate. Our choice of truth will influence how those around us perceive an issue and react to it. We can select truths that engage people and inspire action, or we can deploy truths that deliberately mislead. Truth comes in many forms, and experienced communicators can exploit its variability to shape our impression of reality.
This is a book about truth, not lies, although much of it is concerned with how truth can be used just like lies. The same instincts, pressures and incentives that lead communicators to say things that aren’t true also lead them to use truth in a highly misleading way. By showing how it is done, I hope to encourage more people to spot and call out misleading truths.
Different forms of truth can be used in a more constructive way, to unite, inspire and transform. Selecting the right truth can bring a company together, give courage to an army, speed the development of a new technology, rally supporters to a political party and galvanize the energy, creativity and enthusiasm of whole organizations. Leaders need to understand their communications options and know how to pick and present the most engaging truths.
This book is for anyone who wants to communicate truthfully but understands that they have a choice of truths to use. It’s for anyone tired of being led up the garden path by politicians, marketers and PR officers using technically truthful constructions. Which truth will be most effective in making your point? Which truth will inspire your organization? Which truth is the most ethical? What truths might others use to persuade us to act against our own interests? How can we challenge misleading truths? Truth should help answer these questions.
A book about truth is an easy target for accusations of inaccuracy or falsehood. In the many stories and topics covered, I have tried hard to get the facts right, but inevitably there will be errors. I welcome corrections from sharp-eyed readers or from all those who know more than I do about the issues discussed. Your feedback now will save my blushes in later editions. I would also like to hear about interesting, sly, outrageous and transformative truths you’ve encountered in the news, in your organization or in life. Please send me your corrections and suggestions via https://hectormacdonald.com/truth.
London, October 2017
When Truths Collide
There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.
WILLIAM JAMES, ‘The Value of Saintliness’
The Andean dilemma
For vegetarians and coeliacs, the discovery of quinoa was a kind of miracle. Here was a gluten-free seed, rich in magnesium and iron, that contained more protein than any grain, including all the essential amino acids our bodies cannot produce for themselves. NASA declared quinoa to be one of the most perfectly balanced nutrients on Earth and considered it ideal for astronauts. ‘Quinoa tastes great, has a satisfying, “bouncy” texture and is one of the healthiest foodstuffs going,’ raved Yotam Ottolenghi in 2007.1 Grown in the Andes, quinoa had a story that charmed Western consumers: the Incas prized the seed so highly they deemed it sacred and named it ‘the mother of all grains’; their emperor would sow the first seeds of the season with tools made of gold. The so-called ‘superfood’ was even celebrated by the United Nations, which declared 2013 the ‘International Year of Quinoa’.
But quinoa fans were in for a disturbing revelation. Between 2006 and 2013, quinoa prices in Bolivia and Peru tripled. At first, the price rise was celebrated for raising the living standards of poor Andean farmers. Then came rumours that local people could no longer afford to eat their traditional food because of the insatiable demand from North America and Europe. The Independent warned in 2011 that quinoa consumption in Bolivia had ‘slumped by 34 per cent over five years, with local families no longer able to afford a staple that has become a luxury’.2 The New York Times cited studies showing that malnutrition in children was on the rise in quinoa-growing areas.3 The Guardian raised the stakes in 2013 with a provocative headline: ‘Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?’ It was now cheaper for poor Peruvians and Bolivians to eat ‘imported junk food’, the newspaper reported.4 ‘Quinoa: good for you–bad for Bolivians,’ ran a 2013 Independent headline.5
The story echoed around the world, causing healthy eaters a crisis of conscience. ‘The more you love quinoa, the more you hurt Peruvians and Bolivians,’ claimed a headline in Canada’s Globe and Mail.6 On social media, vegan blogs and healthy-eating forums, people asked whether it was still OK to eat the Andean miracle seed. ‘I intend to stop eating quinoa,’ declared one woman:
It’s a matter of principle… the people for which quinoa has been a dietary staple for untold generations can no longer afford to eat it because people like me have created such a demand for its export and driven the price up… We will survive without it. I will survive without it.7
The idea that high quinoa prices, inflated by global demand, had disadvantaged local people in Bolivia and Peru was credible and widely accepted. But it didn’t seem right to economists Marc Bellemare, Seth Gitter and Johanna Fajardo-Gonzalez. After all, a lot of foreign money was now pouring into Bolivia and Peru thanks to the quinoa trade, much of it ending up in some of the poorest parts of South America. Not many other crops grow well 14,000 feet above sea level, so surely the quinoa boom was a blessing for the region?
The economists tracked down Peruvian survey data on household expenditure and split the households into those that grow and eat quinoa, those that eat it but don’t grow it, and those that never touch the stuff. They found that between 2004 and 2013 the living standards of all three groups had risen, although the quinoa farmers had enjoyed the fastest growth in household expenditure. Farmers were getting richer, and they were spending their new earnings to the benefit of those around them.8 The households that ate quinoa but didn’t grow it were, on average, already twice as well off as the farmers, suggesting they could afford to pay a bit more. That’s not surprising: only around 0.5 per cent of Peruvian household spending goes on quinoa. It never was a critical part of their domestic budget. ‘It’s really a happy story,’ said Seth Gitter. ‘The poorest people got the gains.’9
But what about that 34 per cent drop in consumption? It turns out quinoa consumption in both countries dropped slowly and steadily over a longer period than the price hike, suggesting the two trends are not significantly connected. A much more likely explanation is that Peruvians and Bolivians just wanted to eat something else for a change. Tanya Kerssen of think tank Food First said of Andean quinoa farmers, ‘They get sick of eating quinoa, frankly, so they buy other foods.’10 A Bolivian agronomist noted, ‘Ten years ago they had only an Andean diet in front of them. They had no choice. But now they do and they want rice, noodles, candies, Coke, they want everything!’11
I went to see quinoa growing in the Colca Valley, an area of Peru that has been farmed since pre-Inca times. It is a beautiful cereal-like crop, with large seed heads of a deep red or rich golden colour. In this part of the Andes, quinoa is grown in terraced fields alongside unusual local varieties of corn and potatoes. ‘The foreign demand is one hundred per cent a good thing,’ declared my Peruvian guide, Jessica. ‘The farmers are very happy, and anyone who wants quinoa can still afford it.’ There’s been a further benefit, she explained: previously, metropolitan Peruvians had tended to regard people from her region as ‘peasants’ for eating quinoa; but now that Americans and Europeans crave it, quinoa is considered fashionable. ‘In Lima, finally, they have respect for the people of the Altiplano and our heritage.’
In a remote and inhospitable area of southwest Bolivia dominated by salt flats and dormant volcanos, I was shown much-needed local development and tourism projects that had been funded by quinoa money. Subsistence farmers, who for generations had struggled to feed their families, could now start to invest in a more ambitious future. According to José Luis Landívar Bowles, president of the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade, quinoa could ‘help lift a lot of people out of extreme poverty’.12
The only concern I heard Bolivians voice about the crop in April 2017 was that expanding supply was bringing prices down. The area of land dedicated to quinoa cultivation in Bolivia has more than tripled, from around 50,000 hectares in 2007 to 180,000 hectares in 2016. ‘For me, that is a sad epilogue, as it is unlikely prices will go back up,’ Marc Bellemare told me later. ‘The market functioned pretty much in Econ 101 textbook fashion, with the (temporary) extra-normal profits competed away by new producers.’
As the sun set over the picturesque Colca Valley, I asked Jessica if consumers in Europe and North America should feel guilty about eating food that might otherwise have gone to Peruvians and Bolivians. I could guess the answer, but I wanted to hear it from a local. Jessica burst out laughing and extended an arm, as if to encompass the whole bounteous valley. ‘Believe me,’ she smiled, ‘we have a lot of quinoa.’
This odd tale of food fads, global trade and consumer angst seems, at first glance, to be a story of falsehood corrected. But in fact most of the claims made in the first half are just as true as those made in the second. Quinoa prices did triple, making it more expensive for consumers in Peru and Bolivia to buy one of their staple foods. Quinoa consumption in those countries did drop. The only thing that wasn’t true was the conclusion drawn: that healthy eaters in the West were hurting poor Peruvians and Bolivians by denying them their traditional foodstuff. Yet those truths, misinterpreted as they were, might have done real damage to the people of the Altiplano. ‘I’ve seen comments on some of these anti-quinoa articles, like, “Thanks for shining a light on the truth. I won’t consume Bolivian quinoa because it’s hurting these farmers,”’ said Michael Wilcox, a filmmaker who made a documentary about the issue. ‘Well, not consuming it is really going to hurt these farmers.’13
A set of partial truths and misunderstood numbers were strung together in a story without the right context, changing both the desirability of a foodstuff and the morality of eating it. As we will discover, partial truths, numbers, stories, context, desirability and morality are just some of the elements used by experienced communicators in all walks of life to shape reality by presenting a particular view of the world. In this case, the journalists and bloggers steering consumers away from quinoa were doing it for the noblest of reasons: they were genuinely concerned for the welfare of an impoverished people suddenly exposed to the tempestuous winds of global trade. We will encounter plenty of cases where politicians, marketers, activists and even civil servants have shaped reality with far less benevolent intentions.
Truth or truths?
Compare these statements:
The Internet makes the world’s knowledge widely available.
The Internet accelerates the spread of misinformation and hatred.
Both statements are true. Yet to someone who had never heard of the Internet, the first statement would give a completely different impression to the second.
There are many sides to every story. To put the old saying another way, there is usually more than one truth to be drawn from any set of facts. We learn this from an early age: every junior debater and errant schoolchild knows how to pick the truths that best support their case. But we may not appreciate how much flexibility these different truths offer communicators. In many cases, there are a variety of genuinely–perhaps even equally–legitimate ways of describing a person, event, thing or policy.
I call them ‘competing truths’.
A few years ago, I was asked to support a transformation programme at a global corporation that was going through a particularly tough patch. This was not an unusual assignment. My career in strategic communications has given me the opportunity to help dozens of world-leading companies clarify what they want to do and then explain it to their employees. I interviewed the corporation’s top executives to gather their views on the state of their industry and their organization. After consolidating all the facts they’d given me, I sat down with the CEO in a plush Manhattan executive suite and asked him whether he wanted me to write the ‘Golden Opportunity’ story or the ‘Burning Platform’ story of his business.
The Golden Opportunity story would describe the exciting new technological developments that could help the business meet growing demand in key areas of the market and so build a flourishing and profitable future. But the company would miss out on this golden opportunity unless everyone got behind the impending transformation programme. The Burning Platform story, by contrast, would reflect the recent failures of the organization and the deep cultural malaise that had resulted, leading to a vicious cycle of apathy and worsening results that could destroy the organization within five years. The only way to avoid this fate was for everyone to get behind the impending transformation programme.
Both of these stories were true. There really was a great new opportunity to flourish, and if they didn’t seize it the very existence of the organization was in jeopardy. The two versions of the truth were both intended to produce the same outcome: employee support for a difficult and painful transformation. But each would create a very different impression of reality in the minds of those employees. Smart people, some of them with multiple degrees, would be persuaded by their leaders to feel either anxious or excited about the future, depending on which story the CEO chose to tell. And that mindset would colour almost everything they did, thought and felt.
The unsettling flexibility of such communications got me questioning how it can be possible to tell more than one truth about a situation, and wondering where else this phenomenon might apply. I started spotting competing truths in the news, in politicians’ speeches, in advertisements, in polemical books, in Facebook newsfeeds, in campaigning literature. Some of them were used benignly to achieve shared goals. Others were clearly intended to mislead and dupe. At first, I simply recorded incidences of competing truths in a blog. But gradually I began to see recurring patterns, and that led to a more critical and comprehensive analysis of how competing truths arise. Most importantly, I understood at last how profoundly we are influenced by the competing truths others choose.
Wind the clock back a few years and imagine you’ve never heard of quinoa. You find it on a shelf in your local store and ask the nearest assistant about it. He tells you one true thing about the bag of seeds in your hand. It could be:
Quinoa is really nutritious, high in protein, fibre and minerals, and low in fat.
Buying quinoa improves the incomes of poor farmers in South America.
Buying quinoa makes it more expensive for Bolivians and Peruvians to eat their traditional food.
Quinoa farming is having a serious environmental impact on the Andes.
You are more likely to buy the quinoa if the assistant comes up with one of the first two truths than if he chooses either of the others. He has influenced your action through his selection of a particular competing truth. He has, in a small way, shaped your immediate reality.
In fact, he has done more than that. He has also shaped the way you think about quinoa. He has laid the groundwork for a set of ideas and beliefs about quinoa to crystallize in your mind. This mindset may continue to influence the purchases you make, the things you say and the food you eat for a long time to come.
A mindset is a set of beliefs, ideas and opinions that we hold about ourselves and the world around us. Our mindsets determine how we think about things and how we choose to act.
Mindsets are flexible in some respects. The part of our mindset that is concerned with quinoa will be very receptive to the first thing we hear about the foodstuff. We are easily influenced when we know nothing about a subject. But once we have established a view on quinoa, once our mindset is settled, it can be surprisingly hard to shift. If, three months after we’ve been told that quinoa farming is damaging the Andes, someone mentions the nutritional benefits of the seeds, we are quite likely to ignore, doubt or dismiss that information. This is a form of confirmation bias: we tend to be more receptive to new truths that fit with our existing mindsets, and resistant to those that challenge our entrenched views.
Months after that store visit, you might be having lunch with a colleague and see her choose a quinoa salad. If the original truth you heard about quinoa was the environmental-impact issue, you might be inclined to judge her harshly for her lunch choice. You might even try to persuade her to pick something else. Your mindset–shaped by that original truth–is still driving your thoughts and actions all this time later.
We all see the world through different lenses, formed largely by the different truths we hear and read. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, other people regularly steer us towards particular facets and interpretations of the truth. ‘Our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe,’ wrote Walter Lippmann, one of the twentieth century’s great political journalists and an expert user of competing truths. ‘They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine’14 (my emphasis). What others report contributes to our perceived reality. But because we act on the basis of our perceptions, what others report also impacts objective reality.
Competing truths shape reality.
Competing truths inform our mindsets, and our mindsets determine our subsequent choices and actions. We vote, shop, work, cooperate and fight according to what we believe to be true. Some truths stay with us for life, determining the most important choices we make and defining the very nature of our character. Whether we are faced with a police shooting, a company mission statement, a group of refugees, a presidential candidate, a holy book, a scientific finding, a contentious statue or a natural disaster, our response–which may be dramatic, transformative or violent–will stem from our mindset.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that much of what we think and do is determined by the competing truths we hear and read. If we care about the influences that drive us to buy a product, support a politician, denounce a public figure or fight for a cause, we need to understand how competing truths work and what we can do about them. This book will answer both questions.
The king’s speech
When George VI delivered his radio address to Britain and its Empire at the start of the Second World War, his stammer was not the only reason for brevity. The king’s words needed to resonate with people of all backgrounds, cultures and educations. A great number of his listeners were not native English speakers and might struggle to follow a long account of recent events. Many wouldn’t understand the geopolitical complexities that had led to Britain’s declaration of war. Nevertheless, the king’s appeal to his subjects to ‘stand calm and firm and united’ was surprisingly simple. The full address is just over 400 words long. The factual part is less than half of that:
For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict for we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which if it were to prevail would be fatal to any civilised order in the world. It is the principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges which sanction the use of force or threat of force against the sovereignty and independence of other states. Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right.15
Think about what he’s left out: German rearmament, the violation of the Treaty of Versailles, the Nazi pacts with Italy and the Soviet Union, the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Astonishingly, he doesn’t even mention Germany, Hitler or the invasion of Poland. Instead, the king focuses on a moral claim that has universal appeal.
Despite the obvious factual omissions and the highly selective focus, few would suggest that George VI was misrepresenting the situation. He was voicing a set of truths that were perfectly chosen to steady an empire and prepare his people for war. More information would not have been more honest–it would have merely diluted the message.
So competing truths can be used constructively. Responsible marketers address different messages to different consumer segments, focusing on the product benefits that are most relevant to each segment. Doctors tell their patients the medical facts they need to know to manage their condition, without burdening them with complex details of cell biology or pharmacology. Social justice advocates, environmental campaigners, clerics, public health authorities and leaders of all kinds have to select the right competing truth to win hearts and minds and so achieve their important goals.
Toothpaste and breast cancer
For many years, Colgate-Palmolive ran advertisements claiming that ‘more than 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate’.16 Consumers naturally assumed the survey data behind this claim measured the proportion of dentists who recommended Colgate toothpaste in preference to other brands. In fact, dentists were being asked which brands (plural) they would recommend, and most named several; a competitor brand was recommended almost as often as Colgate. The thing being measured was not what we had been led to believe, and Colgate-Palmolive’s slogan was eventually banned by the Advertising Standards Authority–even though it was true.17
Where George VI used competing truths to give a highly simplified but honest account of reality, and the quinoa bloggers innocently cited competing truths that distorted reality, Colgate-Palmolive’s marketers deliberately deployed a competing truth that misled consumers. They are not alone. Politicians are adept at spinning truths in a way that creates a false impression. Newspapers bend the truth in attention-grabbing headlines, then straighten it out again in the less-read body of the story. Activists cherry-pick truths that support their campaign, even when they misrepresent a greater truth.
‘The only thing I don’t believe in is lying,’ says Frank Luntz, a master of competing truths whom we shall meet properly later. ‘Beyond that, you can use almost anything.’18
People are out to mislead you with the truth in all walks of life. Even, in some cases, the people you should be able to rely on for impartial, essential advice…
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women, and after lung cancer the second most fatal. So when the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) published a booklet for pregnant women in 2016 making a link between abortion and breast cancer, many pro-choice readers were understandably alarmed. The booklet, entitled ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’, has a section headed ‘Abortion risks’. The five risks listed include Death, Future Infertility and… ‘Breast Cancer Risk’. Here’s the official Texas health advice:
Your pregnancy history affects your chances of getting breast cancer. If you give birth to your baby, you are less likely to develop breast cancer in the future. Research indicates that having an abortion will not provide you this increased protection against breast cancer.19
It is true that women who give birth early in life seem to have a lower risk of developing breast cancer. It is not true that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, according to all the best research in the field. The American Cancer Society says, ‘The scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer.’20 The US government’s National Cancer Institute agrees: ‘Studies consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast cancer risk.’21
But then, the Texas DSHS does not actually claim that abortion causes cancer. It merely implies it. The government officials responsible for the booklet might as well have stated that, ‘Avoiding pregnancy altogether will not provide you this increased protection against breast cancer.’ The words the Texas DSHS selected are true, but they are clearly intended to suggest something that is not true. A political agenda has superseded the impartial health advice Texans have a right to expect from their state government.
‘The wording in Texas gets very cute,’ observes Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. ‘It’s technically correct, but it is deceiving.’22
A powerful tool for good or ill
- "In a time when truth is under assault, Hector Macdonald is here to defend it. He offers clear-eyed, compelling guidelines for becoming a more accurate consumer and producer of information."—Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, Originals, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg
- "As an expert on choice, I've long believed that our choices define who we are. This book explores the ways in which the decision to tell the truth is a choice that uniquely shapes who we are. While it's easy to assume that the act of lying is more complicated one than telling the truth, the choice to tell the truth can be equally, if not far more complex. This book is not simply about telling the truth, but rather a guide to navigate the tough decisions that lead to truth."—Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing
- "No one can tell the whole truth in all its glory. Hector Macdonald's Truth explores how communicators spin reality, whether in the name of clarity or skullduggery. Macdonald is a deft guide to a topic that could not be more timely."—William Poundstone, author of Head in the Cloud
- "Delightful. Beautifully explores the truth that truth can look very different to different people."—Matt Ridley, author of Genome and The Red Queen
- "Truth is a fascinating look at how such an abstract concept can be shaped to many purposes, the ethics of bending the truth, and what consumers can do to analyze the innumerable truths presented to us."—Booklist
- "An interesting and entertaining excursus that, in this post-truth era, may prove of use in helping unpack a specious claim or two."—Kirkus
- "An engaging primer in critical thinking, Truth will enable you to defend yourself against fake news, from bots on Twitter to loudmouths on cable television. Read the book attentively -- and from then on you'll be carrying the most important concealed weapon of all: an informed mind."—Peter Robinson, former White House speechwriter and author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2018
- Hachette Audio