Jan 24, 1914
ON TELLING THE TRUTH
There has been a good deal of discussion on Truth in the correspondence columns of THE NEW STATESMAN in the past week or two. It is extraordinary, however, how few people there are who realise how difficult a job it is to tell the truth. Not merely the absolute truth, but the everyday truth that we can see with our eyes, smell with our noses and touch with our hands. It has always been a matter of comment among moralists that truth is as rare as it is precious. But the moralists have usually attributed this to the wickedness rather than the incompetence of men. The Psalmist said in his heart, “All men are liars,” and he got the credit of having spoken when he was out of sorts. Yet, if a Royal Commission were appointed to-morrow to inquire into the extent of truthfulness in civilised communities, its report would almost certainly be simply a long paraphrase of the Psalmist’s words. This is not to say that we are all deliberate liars. Bacon, it will be remembered, explained the popularity of lying by saying that “this same truth is a naked and open daylight, that doth not show the masques, and mummeries, and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candlelights.” That is mostly nonsense. The man who prefers the candlelight to the sun is a freak, and is no explanation of a world-wide custom. We only lie because we must. There are a multitude of occasions when we can speak the truth readily enough, as when we are asked questions like, “Is your name John?” or “Have you a shilling?” But it is only a fraction of life that admits of plain yes-or-no question and answer. Often it is impossible to be honest even in yes or no. Everyone who has ever been examined by a doctor knows how difficult it is to answer even the simplest questions about the location of some pain. One is scarcely even able to tell him whether one suffers from headaches, or indeed the most elementary fact of one’s current autobiography. It is still worse when one faces the oculist. As he bids us look at his half-circle of radiating black lines and tell him when they are most distinct, we feel in despair as though we had been set down before a page of Hebrew. He turns his testing-glass before our eye, and we can tell the difference between distinctness and blur. But when he goes on to ask, “Are the lines blacker now or—now” (turning the glass a mere fraction), we feel so hopeless of being able to tell, that, in utter shame of keeping the man waiting, we often end simply by guessing and answering at random.
In recent years, the experimental psychologists have been making various tests of truthfulness, and their reports on the inaccuracy, not merely of the human memory, but of the human eye, are amazing. Professor Münsterberg, one of the most indefatigable of the experimenters, has given numerous instances to show the probability that a great deal of the lying done in law-courts is simply the result of the imperfect observation of the witnesses. In his book, On the Witness Stand, which was published in this country with the title Psychology and Crime, he he mentions a case about a motor-car accident, in which one respectable witness swore that the road was dry and dusty, while another equally respectable witness took his oath that it was muddy after rain. In a poisoning case again, some members of a family declared that a certain drink had a sour, disagreeable taste, others that it was sweet, and others that it had no taste at all. In order to test whether wild and blundering inaccuracy of this sort was due to bad memory or bad observation, the Professor made certain experiments with his class in Harvard University. First, he held up “a large sheet of white cardboard on which fifty little black squares were pasted in irregular order.” Having shown it for five seconds, he asked his students to say how many black spots were on the sheet. The answers ranged from twenty-five to two hundred. He then, in order to test their perception of time, asked them to tell him how many seconds passed between two clicks. The interval was ten seconds, and the answers ranged from half-a-second to sixty seconds. In another experiment, he tested the perception of rapidity among the member of the class. For this purpose he took a large clock, the hand of which moved round the dial once in five seconds—ten centimetres a second. Having made the hand move for an entire minute, he asked his students for a description of the speed with which it revolved. One said that it went as fast as a man walking slowly, another that it went as fast as a bicycle rider, another compared it to a trotting dog, another to a funeral procession, another to a snail, another to an express train. Yet the students who gave these answers were trained observers, much less likely to make a mistake in observation than the cabby and the barmaid, who are so often called on to calculate time and distance and number in the witness-box. Nor did the students show any greater powers of what may be called memory-perception when they were asked to “describe an object just large enough, when seen at arm’s length, to cover the whole full moon.” One said a quarter of a dollar, another a watch, another an orange, another a man’s head, another a soup-plate, another a pea, another the palm of the hand. The man who said a pea, it may be noted, incidentally, was right.
All this, it may be retorted, is a proof that humanity is poor in its guesses rather than poor in its observation. But numbers of tests have been also made which show that, even in describing the most vivid scene, human beings are endowed with a real genius, both for seeing what is not there and for not seeing what is there. Some years ago, at Göttingen, a meeting of men of science was taking place during a time of carnival when a wild scene was forced upon their notice in order to test their accuracy of observation. A clown dashed suddenly into the meeting with a negro holding a revolver in pursuit. They exchanged violent phrases. One fell and the other leapt on him. Then there was a shot, and both rushed out of the room. No one but the President (who had arranged it) knew that it was a rehearsed and deliberate scene. When it was over—and it lasted less than twenty seconds—he gravely asked those present each to write down an exact report of what had occurred, as the matter was likely, he said, to come before the courts. Forty reports were submitted, but, Professor Münsterbergtells us, there was only one of the forty which omitted less than twenty per cent. of the leading incidents that had occurred. Fourteen omitted between twenty and forty per cent., twelve between forty and fifty per cent., and thirteen more than fifty per cent. Nor were most of them content with mere sins of omission. There were only six of the forty who did not add pure inventions of their own. Four of them noticed correctly that the negro had nothing on his head. Others gave him a Derby, a tall hat, or something else on his head. His costume was variously described as a red suit, a brown suit, a striped suit, a coffee-coloured jacket, shirt-sleeves, and so forth, though he had actually worn a black jacket, white trousers, and a red necktie. “The scientific commission who reported the details of the enquiry,” adds Professor Miinsterberg, “came to the general statement that the majority of the observers omitted or falsified about half of the processes which occurred completely in their field of vision.”
One’s first instinct on receiving such amazing proofs of the fallibility of the human senses inclines one to a strange despair. For one thing, those of us who have taken sides with the realists in the arts cannot but suspect henceforth that the realists have been deceived in essential facts no less than the romantics—no less, perhaps, even than the futurists. Each of us is willing to trust his own observation, but can we any longer trust anybody else’s? Our friends continue to misspell our names, though they have seen them a hundred times. Many of our novelists, who have adopted the realistic method, fall into more pernicious errors—though there are few errors more pernicious than misspelling one’s name—in their attempts to spell the day’s life and the day’s work. There is nothing more astonishing, indeed, than the way in which the pseudo-realists, who write long novels descriptive of a man’s life from the nursery upwards, are welcomed by the critics and reading public, though carelessness of observation is apparent on nearly every page. Dickens, with all his grotesqueness, is more real than ninety-nine per cent. of the realists, because he observed that, even in the poorest places, human beings occasionally laughed. This, however, is no reason to disparage the best of the realists. It is a remarkable fact, at the same time, that the best of them have never been able to stop short at realism. Ibsen turned symbolist, and Tolstoi fabulist, because they found that human observation was as fallible an instrument for the discovery of truth as the human imagination. On the other hand, to depreciate the value of observation would be simply argumentative folly. It is because there is too little observation, not because there is too much, that we are still so far in arrears in our wisdom. When the human being learns to use even a portion of his latent capacity for observation, we may expect revolutions. We are as yet only at the beginning of the education of our faculties, when we require specialists called artists to do our observing for us. It is not too sanguine a prophecy that one day there will come into existence a world in which all the men and women will be artists. Wilde used to contend that the artist was the liar. The reverse is true. The average man is the liar. It is not merely that he cannot speak the truth: it is that he cannot see the truth. According to some of the Victorian sociologists, lying is a characteristic of agricultural rather than industrial populations. But is the Londoner, with his facile oaths and his loquacious cunning, really more truthful than the shepherd of the hills? On the whole, one doubts whether the people of the towns are not the most inventive people in the world. They do not tell folk-tales and they are better judges of miles, but the struggle for a living, in a world where adulteration and false advertisement are still masters of our lives, soon teaches them to use the tongue, not as an instrument of truth, but as an instru-ment a commerce. That is the condemnation of modern civilisation. Our tongues, which at best can wag but inaccurately, are sold to the highest bidder!