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A little eternal knowledge is a dangerous thing

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It’s a truism in our culture that truth is eternal. And since knowledge is knowledge of the truth, knowledge is eternal as well. That makes sense: The truth doesn’t come in and out of style in the manner of hula hoops or Davy Crockett raccoon hats.

So, that truth about truth seems to be true. It’s just not a very useful way to think about truth or the knowledge that makes truths accessible to us. Note that I’m not arguing that knowledge is an illusion or anything of the sort. Newton’s laws are true; we know them, and they seem not to vary by place or time. If we discover a place where they don’t hold—very close to black holes, for example—we modify our knowledge, carving out the exceptions. Those truths, including the new exceptions, were always true. Now our knowledge has caught up to what has always been the truth.

Yay!

But how does the eternal nature of truth help us? Does it help our businesses? Or does our belief in the permanence of truth more often get in the way of business?

Evolving truths

There’s the obvious problem that truths change faster than our knowledge of them. For example, it was the truth not so many decades ago that Americans wouldn’t regularly buy bottled water because why buy what you can get for free? Yet water is still free, and the bottled water industry in the U.S. is valued at about $61 billion.

Obviously, things changed, and the only way the truth remains eternal is by time-stamping it: It will always be true big business in the U.S. But what changed were not big, noticeable things. It’s not as if in the 1980s all of America’s drinking water was polluted by an explosion at a poison plant. In fact, there are still arguments about the confluence of factors that resulted in a change in America’s hydration habits. Increased health consciousness? Increased affluence? Decreased concern about the environmental impact of plastic bottles? Increased marketing, including getting us to use a scientific-sounding word—“hydrating”—for what we used to call “having a drink of water”?

Getting people to pay for a free commodity was absurd until suddenly it wasn’t. Our knowledge hid a business opportunity from us. Does that mean it wasn’t knowledge? We could say no, or we could say it was knowledge until conditions changed, but either way, what good is knowledge if its main virtue is supposed to be that it’s reliable? Eternal, even.

I admit that I’m quibbling about a philosophical definition of knowledge that people outside of that profession don’t much care about. Yet that philosophical definition exerts a pull on us. The belief that the truth is eternal or even long-lasting makes it easier for us to over-invest in comforting ideas. Some are helpful: The customer is always right. People don’t buy drills; they buy holes. Some give license to cynical takes: Every house is for sale. Money talks. A business’ primary goal is to increase shareholder value.

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