The truth about truth


Truth is a funny thing. And I don’t just mean how some true things are funny. A few examples include that strawberries are not berries, peanuts are not nuts, Chock Full o’Nuts coffee does not contain nuts, and the singer-songwriter Barry Manilow did not write his hit song “I Write the Songs.”

Truth is also a funny thing in the sense that it can be difficult to get people to agree on what is true. Which is weird considering truth is commonly defined as that which is in accordance with reality, based on facts, accurate, and verifiable. So why is it so hard to achieve consensus about truth? For one thing, calling something true sounds absolute, not relative. If something is true, everyone, regardless of their perspective, should agree. This concept comes up frequently in discussions about data quality and master data management, often within the context of creating a single version of the truth.

In his blog post Data Quality: The Misguided Quest for the Truth, Jonas Olsson explained “there is a confusion that data quality, which we can all agree is of the utmost importance, is based on its truth. Equating quality with truth causes us to commit inordinate amounts of time and resources for a futile quest, for truth is based on context, and context changes from user to user.” Changing context creates many versions of the truth, which is why, borrowing the words of William James, “the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.”

“Instead of determining a single overriding truth,” Olsson advised that “we need to evolve with the business and design systems that let users find their own truth as defined by their context.” In previous posts I have used seasons and time zones to demonstrate the effect that context has on the truth users find.

Furthermore, as the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius reminded us, “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

The truth about truth is that it has more than a single version.


About Author

Jim Harris

Blogger-in-Chief at Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality (OCDQ)

Jim Harris is a recognized data quality thought leader with 25 years of enterprise data management industry experience. Jim is an independent consultant, speaker, and freelance writer. Jim is the Blogger-in-Chief at Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality, an independent blog offering a vendor-neutral perspective on data quality and its related disciplines, including data governance, master data management, and business intelligence.


  1. Couldn't agree more. I like the quote “Instead of determining a single overriding truth,” Olsson advised that “we need to evolve with the business and design systems that let users find their own truth as defined by their context.”

    I think it's important to clearly define what is meant by "context". The way it reads suggests the context is only about the business domain and business objectives. I think it should also explicitly include the analytic tools available and the skills available to analyze data. These things will also affect arriving to truths (or not arriving). For example, tools used in predictive modeling will arrive at different truths than tools used by visual analytics.

    Thanks for sharing this post, I look forward to more.

    • Jim Harris

      Thanks for your comment, Jared. Excellent point about context being framed not only by the business perspective but also the technology used to bring that perspective into focus.

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