"You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit the views." Dr. Who, 1977
We might be in a period of ethical crisis. Or not. It’s tough to say. It really depends on what you believe. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem.
Take this past weekend, for example. Brand-new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his very first address, lied about the size of the inauguration crowd. Afterwards, a very cantankerous Kellyanne Conway defended the lying when confronted by Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press." She said they weren’t lies -- they were “alternate facts.”
So, what exactly is an alternate fact? It’s something that is not a fact at all, but a narrative intended to be believed by a segment of the population, presumably to gain something from them.
To use a popular turn of phrase, it’s “faking it til you make it!”
And there you have the mantra of our society. We’re rewarding alternate facts on the theory that the end justifies the means. If we throw a blizzard of alternate facts out there that resonate with our audience’s beliefs, we’ll get what we want.
The Fake It Til You Make It syndrome is popping up everywhere. It’s always been a part of marketing and advertising. Arguably, the entire industry is based on alternate facts. But it’s also showing up in the development of new products and services, especially in the digital domain.
While Eric Ries never espoused dishonesty in his book, "The Lean Startup," the idea of a minimum viable product certainly lends itself to the principle of “faking it until you make it.” Agile development, in its purest sense, is about user feedback and rapid iteration, but humans being humans, it’s tough to resist the temptation to oversell each iteration, treading dangerously close to pitching “vaporware.” Then we hope like hell that the next development cycle will bridge some of the gap between reality and the alternate facts we sold the prospective customer.
I think we have to accept that our world may not place much value on the truth any more. It’s a slide that started about 100 years ago.
"The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" author Stephen Covey reviewed the history of success literature in the U.S. from the 1700s forward. In the first 150 years of America’s history, all the success literature was about building character. Character was defined by words like integrity, kindness, virtue and honor. The most important thing was to be a good person.
Honesty was a fundamental underpinning of the character ethic. This coincided with The Enlightenment in Europe. Intellectually, this movement elevated truth above belief. Our modern concept of science gained its legs: “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths.” The concepts of honor and honesty were intertwined.
But Covey noticed that things changed after World War I. Success literature became preoccupied with the concept of personality. It was important to be likeable, extroverted, and influential. The most important thing was to be successful. Somehow, being truthful got lost in the noise generated by the rush to get rich.
Here’s the interesting thing about personality and character. Psychologists have found that your personality is resistant to change. Personality tends to work below the conscious surface, where scripts play out without a lot of mindful intervention. You can read all the self-help books in the world and you probably won’t change your personality very much.
But character can be worked on. Building character is an exercise in mindfulness. You have to make a conscious choice to be honest.
The other interesting thing about personality and character is how other people see you. We are wired to pick up on other people’s personalities almost instantly. We start picking up the subconscious cues immediately after meeting someone. But it takes a long time to determine a person’s character. You have to go through character-testing experiences before you can know if they’re really a good person. Character cuts to the core, while personality is skin-deep. But in this world of “labelability” (where we think we know people better than we actually do) we often substitute personality cues for character. If a person is outgoing, confident and fun, we believe them to be trustworthy, moral and honest.
This all adds up to some worrying consequences. If we have built a society where success is worth more than integrity, then our navigational bearings become dependent on context. Behavior becomes contingent on circumstances. Things that should be absolute become relative. Truth becomes what you believe is the most expedient and useful in a given situation.
Welcome to the world of alternate facts.