The inconvenient truth about the truth

I vividly recall once watching a flock of sheep in the rear view mirror as they were darting randomly in every direction like particles in the Large Hadron Collider.

That’s not normal behavior for sheep.

Though admittedly, it’s probably not normal for a flock of sheep to be sharing their field with some moron reversing through it at 60mph in a bright yellow Italian two seater.

Remove the moron, and, perhaps more importantly, the rapidly reversing two seater, and sheep generally behave in a rather more homogenous fashion. One runs and all the others follow it.

If Darwin’s to be believed, that behavior has probably proven to be beneficial to the survival of most sheep.

Following blindly may be less beneficial to you.

The world is full of experts ready to offer you advice on the best way to achieve anything. That can be so valuable and fast track you to the success you’re aiming for.

However, not all advice is equal.

Just because something is in print or regularly repeated online, doesn’t mean it’s always true.

Once it’s repeated five times, it becomes true

You may have heard a similar saying to “once something has been repeated five times it becomes the truth”. The number may be different, but you get the idea.

It’s a modern twist on the statement that “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”, that’s attributed to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

It assumes the premise that as long as people are happy to repeat something, then it must be true.

People, like most creatures, are lazy by design. If someone we know, like or trust repeats something as the truth, it’s much easier to just accept it is true than actually expend any of our own energy assessing its merits.

It’s actually worse than something only has to be repeated five times though.

We personally only have to repeat something once before it becomes true.

Once we’ve repeated something to someone else, it’s impossible to go back on it without losing face. We have to admit that not only were we wrong, we had also misled the other person.

I discuss this a bit further in my article Why brilliant people sometimes believe numpty things if you want a bit more information about how this happens.

Don’t believe the hype, well not always

I was driven to write this as I found I’d written a few articles on this site challenging a few common “truths”.

Things that I hear widely repeated, often by people who are whole orders of magnitude smarter than I ever will be or ever was (I think I’m now in the period of cognitive decline, which is a worry considering my low starting point), but which can be quite easily disproven.

The article on using recipients’ names in email subject lines results from research that at the time was largely correct and now may no longer be so correct.

I tore into the claim that serif fonts lead to better comprehension than sans-serifs, both because the research is irrelevant to those doing business online today and because the “scientific” methods behind the research had a whop-off big flaw in them.

As for the claim that black and yellow offer the best contrast, that’s kind of true, but I hear it being repeated by people who don’t understand it and apply it in completely the wrong way.

Those are just some dodgy truths I’ve encountered online and I’m sure there are many more washing about. Most likely some of them are being perpetuated by my own incorrect acceptance of them.

So I should listen to my own advice.

Question it first, accept it second

When we’re presented with a truth, even if it comes from someone we know, like and trust, we should assume it may not be truth.

I know first hand just how easy it is to read something and assimilate that as new knowledge.

Even if it’s come from someone I don’t know. If it’s published on a well known site, my default mode, if I don’t challenge it, is to readily accept what’s presented to me.

I recently read an article on Medium about the benefits of rounded corners – that’s the glamour of my life. I was struck by how I found myself easily accepting what was put forward, until I actually stopped and did a very basic reality check.

If you read the article, you’ll see that some of the claims have citations which helps assure the reader of the veracity of the claim. Of course if I took the time to check the citations, they may have proven to be flawed themselves, but life’s too short.

In addition, the first example the writer illustrates is clearly confirmed by our own eyes. Or at least I’m convinced by it.

What that image demonstrates is that sharper corners appear brighter and brighter corners are harder to look at. I personally find the circle a lot easier on my eyes, so I find myself inclined to trust the author of the piece.

So if we move onto the next illustration, we’re now primed to accept that too. The claim is that the curved lines between the boxes are easier for the eyes to follow than straight lines.

The problem is, if you take a look at the example, which I recreated here, do you really experience any difference between them? Perhaps the effect would be clearer with a more complex diagram, but based on the evidence presented, I think the claim is unproven.

The next illustration is meant to demonstrate that rounded corners make it easier to identify which rectangle an edge belongs too.

That’s a copy of the illustration and while I understand the argument presented for the effect, on the basis of my own perception of the illustration, the claim is plainly absurd. It’s perfectly clear to me which rectangle each edge belongs to, curved corners or not. Maybe I’ve got superhero vision.

The claims in that article benefit from a cascade effect. The first illustration and claim is supported by our own eyes. That makes it easier for us to accept the second as our eyes don’t disprove the claim. Finally, we may lazily accept the final claim without thinking to challenge it.

We’re then primed to share what we’ve learned (who doesn’t want to look smart because we know something others don’t) and within just few conversations new truths are circulating.

Just for clarity, I’m not saying that the claims the author made aren’t true. I’m saying that the author has failed to clearly demonstrate they’re true and as such, they’re claims you should be skeptical of until they have been clearly proven to be correct.

Many truths are fluid, so test and reassess if you can

I’m not suggesting we reject everything out of hand. Things that have become accepted truths are probably still the best general starting point. There’s no point trying to reinvent the wheel every time you try to solve a problem.

However, if you can test truths, you may reap unexpected rewards. At worst you’ll be in a position of knowing you are doing the best thing in your circumstances.

A claim like serif fonts leading to better comprehension is easily tested using a tool like Google Optimize and needn’t cost you a single cent. Maybe you’ll discover that serif fonts do work best with your audience. If that is the case, it’s more likely because the font makes for a more coherent and fluent design than because of better comprehension.

You could test names in subject lines in a similar way if your email marketing platform offers A/B testing. Again, you may find you prove that your audience does respond better when they see their name, but you could also discover the opposite.

Don’t get anal about this stuff like Uncle Chuckles

I’m the first to admit that I probably get unduly worked up by seeing claims presented as facts with no supporting evidence. It also disproportionately irritates me when I hear things presented as truth that I know probably aren’t.

You should aim for a more middle ground. If someone shares a useful marketing titbit with you, they’re almost certainly trying to help you by sharing something they believe to be true.

Accept it and use it as a starting point, but don’t blindly accept things as the truth and best solution to a problem without considering the supporting evidence. There is a risk that you’ll get into the habit of doing something that actually undermines your success.