The Three Lies of Harvard and Volkswagen

Reading Mark Carney’s speech, Three Truths for Finance,

For at St Saviour’s was baptised a Southwark butcher’s son who became benefactor to the university that would bear his name. John Harvard would doubtless be delighted with what has become of the 320 volumes and £800 he bequeathed to posterity: a college founded for the avoidance of leaving “an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”.

From that bequest sprung one of the world’s leading universities. A community dedicated to its motto: Veritas – truth; the pursuit of truth in the sciences, humanities, even economics. Truth to create a better world.

But recall Pilate’s question that has echoed down through the centuries from the pulpits of Southwark Cathedral to Memorial Church, “Truth? What is truth?”

Indeed, upon arriving at Harvard, students and visitors are confronted with a curious truth, or rather, three untruths. In Harvard Yard sits a statue of John Harvard, seated on a bronze throne, commemorating 1638, the year of the university’s founding.

Tour-guides relish in pointing out that, in fact:

No-one knows what John Harvard looked like, so it is unlikely to be a great resemblance of him;

The college wasn’t founded in 1638, but two years earlier;

And it wasn’t founded by John Harvard, but by the Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which first voted to set up the university.

The “Statue of the Three Lies” is part of Harvard legend. The Three Lies in question are harmless fun. But they should remind us how deeper untruths can persist, embodied in monuments or sustained by conventional wisdom and mores. We gather this evening almost seven years to the day that the failure of Lehman Brothers shattered conventional wisdom and laid bare three lies about finance. Unlike the statue’s three lies, those falsehoods have had lasting consequences.

Speaking of more recent lies, Volkswagen admitted that “11 million vehicles worldwide are involved in the scandal that has erupted over its rigging of US car emissions tests”. Notably, “a US investigation has been widened to other car manufacturers as campaigners warned that the practice was likely to be widespread across the industry”. The question is, how widespread is this? What was it that Charles Peirce said about investigation?

Inquiry properly carried on will reach some definite and fixed result or approximate indefinitely toward that limit.

and,

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth.

Richard Westcott, the transport correspondent from the BBC said, “There’s one question people keep asking me at the moment. Is this the car industry’s version of Libor, the scandal that rocked the financial world?”

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