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OPINION: Divining Truth – A beginner’s guide

In this edition of Mercy Traveller, Philip Maher isn't taking sides in he SNC-Lavalin affair
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Arron Pickard/Sudbury.com

With the various trials, testimonies and hearings taking place in both Ottawa and Washington, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of truth and believability. The art of distinguishing truth from fiction parallels my experience working under various regimes in the international aid world. 

I have learned while surveying natural disasters that although severe weather may be natural (climate change aside) the truth of why people die is often a result of human factors. Droughts in Africa for example, kill for many reasons. Sometimes governments do not have a plan or funding for mitigating food shortages. Sometimes they maintain harmful farming practices, land ownership practices, or detrimental economic policies. While people are starving, the world is starving for the truth of what really caused the deaths. Drought was just the trigger. The cause of deaths was another truth. 

If thousands of Canadians froze to death during a snowstorm, we would not simply blame the snow—we would call for investigations into power failures and demand changes to poor emergency planning. And so, I’ve sat with government folks on various continents who walk you down a misleading path that avoids assigning any blame or responsibility. 

Surprisingly, perhaps, my university program in philosophy has helped me to discern truth from fiction. Years ago I took a course at the University of Toronto on hermeneutics, interpreting literature and events. We came to understand that the simplest explanation with the least amount of assumptions, Ockham's razor, is often the correct interpretation. Believing that there is a deep state, for example, or a cabal trying to manage America from behind a curtain, involves many assumptions.

In my course on epistemology, the theory of knowledge, I learned how hard it is for us to change our minds. To use the SNC-Lavalin affair as a current example, those who like the government initially saw this as a sad anomaly of a decent leader. Contrast this with those who never supported the government. They are calling for resignations. We all avoid changing our long-held beliefs. 

I’m not taking sides on any of this but simply observing how hard it is for us to see beyond our own vested interests. The folks in Quebec have mixed feelings about SNC-Lavalin; they want to save jobs. Meanwhile, Albertans are upset that the federal government did not try to save their oil industry jobs. Indigenous groups are angry that removing Jody Wilson-Raybould from Cabinet is a betrayal of them. Women’s groups are questioning the prime minister’s feminist agenda. It seems nobody gets off this ride alive.

The truth about deception is that that we all do it to varying degrees. At the very least, we often dance on the fringe of facts. Diplomacy and decorum usually demand that we don’t call people out. We all understand telling your host that dinner was great when it wasn’t. But sometimes it’s another thing, such as when I recently met with government officials in a country where nobody in the room believed the statistics being presented. If you want to stay in the country, you nod, smile and keep drinking the sweet milky tea they gave you. During emergencies or disasters, some governments inflate or deflate the number of refugees or people affected for many reasons. You leave meetings feeling like you need to floss your brain. 

We may stretch the truth periodically to protect a friend, but most of us hate doing it. During one of my investigative journalism courses led by an RCMP interrogator, I learned that even criminals avoid lying if they can. They evade the question. “Did you steal the car?” “Which car do you mean,” the criminal will ask. But eventually people collapse. Stories fall apart. Facts get too far-fetched or contradictory. Of course, this is not always true. Sociopaths will rarely bore you with the facts. 

I’ve had the honour of working with a few mostly honest people They let their yes be yes and their no be no. They kept close accounts with colleagues. They always tried to diplomatically tell the truth even when it hurt. They listened first and spoke second. As leaders, they were servants and coaches avoiding egoism. These days it feels like we are at the circus in a roller coaster buggy doing a freefall with our hair on fire. More and more, I try to model my life on those I respect who, though imperfect, aim for integrity. It keeps life simpler and I sleep better at night.