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Why Truth Matters

2024 January 14
by Greg Satell

In 2012, when Marco Rubio was gearing up for a run at the Presidency, he sat for an in-depth interview with the magazine GQ to bolster his image. “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow,” he proudly declared. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”

The attitude belies dangerous ignorance. The big bang is not just a theory, but a set of theories, including general relativity and quantum mechanics that underlie modern technologies such as computers, GPS satellites, lasers and solar cells, just to name a few. Our economy literally could not function without them.

As Vannevar Bush famously wrote, “There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.”  Yet today we get “alternative truths” and book bans. Make no mistake: truth matters. History shows when we abandon the quest for discovery and design narratives to suit our preferences, the consequences tend to be severe.

Jewish Physics 

In 1905, an unknown physicist working at the Swiss patent office named Albert Einstein unleashed four papers, written in his spare time, that would change the world so completely that it would come to be known as his miracle year. He would later follow up with his theory of general relativity and solidify his place as one of the greatest minds to ever live.

These breakthrough theories would change how scientists thought about the universe. We learned that time and space were not static, but relative, that light travels through discrete packets called “quanta” and that mass could be converted into energy. His discoveries would, within a few decades, be translated into revolutionary new technologies.

You would think he would be a hero in his home country of Germany, but just the opposite happened. As the Nazis gained power and Jews became scapegoated, Einstein’s theories became to be known as Jewish physics and the science of quantum theory and relativity was banned from schools. Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, both backed the shift and promoted anti-relativity Deutsche Physik.

The United States went a different way. It welcomed not only Einstein, but an entire generation of leading scientists. Over just a few short decades, America was transformed from a scientific backwater, where promising students would need to go abroad to receive advanced education, to a technological superpower.

In 1939, Leo Szilard, another refugee from fascist Europe, who had helped develop the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, went to see Einstein. Szilard alerted him that uranium could be used to make a bomb of unimaginable power.  Together with emigres Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, they drafted a letter to President Roosevelt which initiated the Manhattan project that led to the Allies ultimate victory in World War II.

Lysenko’s Biology 

In the 1930s the Soviet Union was plagued by famines brought on by failed collectivization. The most famous of which, Holodomor in Ukraine, killed as many as seven million people. Clearly, something had to change and Stalin called on his favorite scientist, Trofim Lysenko, to figure out a way to increase agricultural production.

The problem was that Lysenko was both a fool and a fraud. He rejected the new science of genetics in favor of a wacky set of theories which collectively became known as Lysenkoism. At the heart of his thinking was that an organism’s environment can affect the germ line, so rather than selectively breeding for desired traits, he would try to “educate” crops by, for example, soaking crops in freezing water to help them grow in the winter.

It was all nonsense, of course. But ideology held sway over the scientific method and real scientists who questioned Lysenkoism faced serious consequences. Thousands of legitimate researchers were dismissed from their jobs and sent to the Gulag. Many were killed for nothing more than speaking the truth.

Stalin’s dedication to Lysenko and his pseudoscience worsened the famines and deepened the suffering of the Soviet people. Later, his ideas would be adopted by Mao Zedong and lead to the Great Chinese Famine. Tens of millions more would die needlessly. All of this happened for no other reason than the desire to defy what the Soviets called “Bourgeois pseudoscience.”

Identity—and the need to signal it—is a powerful thing.

Darwin And The Age Of The Earth

In 2012, Paul Broun, a US Congressman on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, asserted that evolution, embryology and big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” A recent Gallup survey suggests that 40% of Americans still agree with him. Darwin’s theory remains controversial in many quarters.

Just recently, the Texas state Board of Education recently voted to teach creationism along with evolution. West Virginia and Florida also passed laws promoting the teaching of “Intelligent Design,” a pseudoscientific theory that is designed to undermine the theory of natural selection in schools and promote a religious alternative.

These moves have consequences. Darwin’s theory is no abstraction, but a working model that scientists use every day. It is used, for example, to help understand the spread of pandemics and  how to fight cancer. Genetic algorithms based on natural selection are used for a variety of complex optimization functions, such as organizing logistics.

Science And Pseudoscience

Today, the truth can seem like nothing more than a preference. We pick a side, form a group identity and set out to prove our worth by supporting the party line. In our quest for status, we try to top those around us, leading to a purity spiral in which everyone competes to see who can be the most true to the cause.

Yet truth is more than opinion. Facts are falsifiable. We can test them. Einstein’s relativity is a wacky theory, but unless we use it to calibrate GPS satellites, they won’t be accurate. Darwin’s theory may conflict with other beliefs, but it can help us cure terrible diseases like Covid and Cancer. These aren’t just ideas, but tools we use to create the modern world.

What we need to be careful about is those who assign identity to specific ideas. Once an idea becomes associated with a particular team, it can be used to manipulate our sense of self. The same basic urges that nearly robbed us of the ideas of Copernicus and Galilieo are no less pervasive today then they were centuries ago.

The telltale sign is leveraging identity to manipulate us, the use of an “us” and “them” to push us in a particular direction of what to believe. For those that are looking to con us, there can never be a “we together,” because that will undermine their narrative of an ideological battle, rather than a search for truth in the service for a greater good.

The need for truth is especially dire today when we have so many pressing problems to solve. We simply can’t afford anything less than an honest search to discover and ascertain facts.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by James Lee on Unsplash


3 Responses leave one →
  1. January 14, 2024

    Studying physics and history of science in the 1970s gave me some perspective. America welcoming “Jewish science” and Einstein and others including the Martians” Von Neuman Szilard Wigner was a key to winning WW II. Vannevar Bush also helped create federal science positions and policies in the US during and after the war and was the advisor to Claude Shannon at MIT. President Eisenhower listened to his advisors. What would he think of current US political scene, which seems to be drifting back to the isolationism and anti-science — to put it mildly — of the 1920s and 30s?

  2. January 28, 2024

    Hello Greg, Happy New Year!
    I agree with your points. And I belive that NOT only Truth matters, but it is more and more important for us to focus on Ontological and Epistemic Objectivity. More and more often I find myself sharing this John Searle video with the world. Yet, I did not manage to recruit many to this network of practitioners who operate and focus on Ontological and Epistemic Objectivity Why is so challenging? Best, Boris.

  3. January 28, 2024

    Thanks! I’ll check it out.

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