Several times a year a small group of us who attended grade school together — and are still ambulatory — have lunch together. It’s always nice to reminisce about old times, and discover what some of us had been doing sixty years ago that we’d forgotten about, or never knew.

When we were classmates, it was obvious to all of us that there were some pretty smart kids among us, and some not so smart ones. In fact, Sister would have some of the smart ones tutor some of the slower ones in reading, or math.

Sixty years later, and probably a long time before that, has that intellectual distinction — so obvious then — made any difference? Certainly there doesn’t appear to be any relationship between material well being and success in school. The slow ones are happy, with families that love them just as much as the smart ones, so far as I can ascertain. To be sure, superior intelligence may be a source of pleasure to the individual possessing it, and thus is a good thing in and of itself. However, in terms of material, social, and spiritual success: so what? Is intelligence relevant?

Indeed, along a similar vein: does truth matter? Is it relevant? Look about you at the world we inhabit and see if there’s much evidence that truth carries any weight. In math and science, of course, it does: even the bravest man wouldn’t become a test pilot if the aeronautical engineers didn’t know the truth involved in designing airplanes. Of course, if they knew ALL the truth about a particular aircraft design, no test pilot would be necessary.

In my own field of medicine, there appears to be not so much a shortage of truth, but a scarcity of application. For example: even when I was in medical school, fifty years ago, the (then) new operation of cardiac bypass was recognized as having little or no value in prolonging life, although it did mitigate angina. Today that is still recognized as true, yet the operation continues to be popular even for patients with little or no angina. Does the truth matter? The benefits of lowering cholesterol to prevent or treat heart disease have been questioned for years, with little evidence that cholesterol levels have much value in determining heart health. Yet the cholesterol obsession continues. Isn’t the truth relevant?

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the irrelevance of truth can be found by examining politics — if you’ve got a strong stomach.

It is simply true that for a state to make anything other than gold and silver coin a legal tender is against the law. Period. The Constitution gives the states no options in the matter. The legislators in every state take oaths to uphold the Constitution, yet disregard it entirely in this obvious and undeniable respect. Doesn’t the truth of their perfidy matter? Do voters know — and if so, do they care?

In truth, the United States cannot go to war absent a declaration of war from Congress — but it has been doing it repeatedly now for years. Is the truth politically inexpedient? That’s probably a rhetorical question.

The truth took a real beating in the administration’s attempt to justify the war in Iraq. It obviously played no role in their scheme. But what’s worse is that the public, by now fully aware of the lies and deceptions that got the U.S. into its present quagmire, seems indifferent. Don’t the people care if they’re told the truth or not? Then what good is it?

The government tells us that the economy is sound, when in fact it is teetering on the edge of disaster; and the central bank isn’t, and won’t — indeed, can’t — do anything about it. No national economy has ever survived a prolonged dose of fiat, but that truth is disregarded. We have grotesque security charades at our airports, but, in truth, is flying any safer now than it was prior to 911?

I’m not saying that truth cannot be discovered, or isn’t already known. Rather, it seems obvious that truth, if known, is disregarded if inconvenient. It doesn’t matter.

Perhaps my cynicism is unwarranted. There is a truth that seems to matter, and it is this: truth is whatever gets the job done. It’s entirely expedient. Remember the late Soviet Union? One of the Communist leaders — I don’t recall which one — declared that the truth was whatever furthered the aims of the Communist party. It’s much the same now, in America. Truth is what works. Truth is what is takes to achieve fame, fortune, and success. In politics, truth is what has to be said to get elected. Truth, like marriage, is whatever the loudest voices claim it is.

And that’s the (sad) truth!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.