It’s hard to get at the truth

Making an assertion, claiming that something is true – that’s a very easy thing to do, anyone can do it! But reaching the truth – that requires great effort. That’s because the world is very complex and complicated, whereas we humans are relatively simple creates with limited knowledge and abilities. We have a tendency for logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and cognitive distortions, and sometimes we remember things that did not occur or remember them in a distorted way. So to reach the truth, we need to do hard work using methodical rational thinking based on evidence.

Don’t automatically believe authority

If someone makes a claim, this does not necessarily mean the claim is true. People say lots of wrong things. So it is very important not to believe claims automatically or dogmatically merely because some book says so or a teacher says so or some other figure of authority says so, be it parents or doctors, politicians, priests, various kinds of experts, or news channels. They could all be wrong (as they were many times in the past), and it’s your responsibility to check the claims for yourself.

Always be skeptical

It is important not to take anything for granted, but to doubt everything you are told, and check the claims for yourself. This is especially true in the world today, where the internet is accessible to billions of people, and anyone can write anything they want, even whole websites with tons of wrong information and claims not supported by any real and verifiable evidence.

Everyone must learn how to check whether information is true – what information is true and what is false, which source is reliable and which isn’t. The correct approach is to always stop and say: “Wait a minute, let’s check this claim, let’s test this”. The central question that should be asked is: “But how do you know this is true? What is the evidence for this claim? How was it checked? Show me and prove it to me! I’m not going to believe your claims merely because you claim they are true”.

The burden of proof

The burden of proof rests upon the person making a claim, and not on the person who doubts it. Otherwise, we’d get to an absurd situation, where I can make any kind of claim I want, without showing any proof or evidence for it, and you’d be supposed to accept my claims as true unless you make the effort to check and show that my claims are wrong.

This is similar to the norm in a court of law: The defendant is considered innocent, and this changes only if sufficient convincing evidence is presented to prove that he is guilty. If courts did not operate in this way, then the state or any other person could immediately through you into jail, and then it would be you who would have to make the effort to prove you’re innocent in order to get out.

Intuition and belief are not enough

Everyone should learn that for a claim about reality to be accepted as objectively true, it is simply not enough to have an intuition that it is true, or a gut feeling, or a belief, or hope, or to think that someone sounds very convincing. Despite such strong feelings and beliefs, people very often turn out to be very wrong. It is only our rational mind that allows us to overcome these primary instincts and say: “stop, let’s thoroughly check this”.

Truth is important for success

Why is this so important? Because if we have a more accurate description of reality and how it works, we can succeed in achieving our goals, such as building useful and advanced technologies that can improve our lives, curing diseases, succeeding in business, creating and preserving better social connections.

In contrast, if we believe wrong claims that are incompatible with objective reality, and we act based on these wrong beliefs, we will fail to achieve what we want. Often we’ll even cause real damage to ourselves and to others.

False remedies

Here’s an example of bad results that come from a wrong description of reality. During the Black Death in 14th century Europe, people did not understand the causes of the plagues, as they did not know about bacteria and viruses. So they invented all kinds of explanations for the plague, such as: this is a punishment by God for people’s sins. Based on these wrong explanations, they proceeded to invent methods that were supposed to solve the plagues, such as self-flagellation, i.e. whipping themselves in the city center in order to “atone” for their sins. But these actions caused wounds in their flesh, and this only helped spread the disease further.

In the past, people had almost zero scientific knowledge about biology and medicine, so it is understandable why they invented wrong stories about reality. Unfortunately, these wrong ways of thinking and behavior are still very common today. There are many people who have some illness and they take some “alternative” potion. Some of them happen to feel better the next day, but can we conclude from such cases that the potion caused their healing and it really works? No! Perhaps they would have felt better anyway even without the potion?

Jumping to conclusions

The above example demonstrates a very common logical fallacy we have: If event A occurs immediately after event B, we tend to prematurely jump to the conclusion that A caused B, and that in the future, A will always cause B (this fallacy is called: Post hoc ergo propter hoc).

What we really need to do is investigate the connection between A and B in a much more thorough and methodical manner, rather than rely on this one-time anecdotal example. There is a whole scientific method that is designed to thoroughly and rationally test such conjectures.

For example: give the potion to one group of 1000 people with the same medical condition, and give a non-active “potion” that consists only of water to another group of 1000 people with the same condition, and then see whether the potion really helps the people in the first group get well faster in comparison to the second group. You may discover that people in both groups get well at the same pace, which indicates that the potion doesn’t really have any effect.

Don’t be a sucker

There’s a sucker born every minute – and you don’t want to be one of them, right? You don’t want to spend your hard-earned money buying some potion or “alternative” treatment from someone who claims he can solve your medical problem, where in fact the “treatment” doesn’t really work. Yet many people are still tempted to waste their money on treatments that have no physical healing effect (they may have a placebo effect which makes them feel psychologically a bit better but has no real medical effect on their body).

Judicial system

In the past, if someone made a claim that his neighbor stole one of his sheep, and if most people in the village liked the claimer, they could immediately lynch the neighbor, attack him and even kill him, without any check. During the middle ages, any woman, especially if she behaved slightly differently than the social conventions, could be suspected at any time for being a witch, and then a mob would burn or drown her, and she had no way to prove them that she is not a witch.

Gradually, wise people understood that society cannot operate well in this manner. They understood it is not wise to rely on something that just one person says, regardless of how important or popular he is. So they established procedures and institutions of jurisprudence. Their stated purpose is to discover the truth, to examine all the evidence, objectively and without bias, and not based on the social status and connections of the people involved. To see the accused as innocent unless proven otherwise, and to allow the defendant to present evidence that contradicts the accusations against him. Only if the claim is sufficiently proven, based on evidence and not merely on belief or hearsay, then there is place to convict him.

Of course, this system is far from perfect, and there are cases where a guilty person is acquitted or an innocent person is convicted. But at least, this system exists and it improves the situation compared to complete chaos, and there is a continuing process of improving the procedures. For example, today, thanks to advancements in science and technology, in certain cases, a testimony by one person is given less weight than scientific evidence such as genetic material that is found on the crime scene. This helps get closer to a more correct picture of reality. There is a striving to objectivity, to collect as much information as possible, not to be biased by irrelevant considerations or personal, social or economic interests, to investigate the matter as rationally as possible.

Auditing

This kind of investigation also exists in large organizations in the form of auditing. The goal is to check that the organization operates according to its declared goals and procedures, to find out cases where there is a breach, in order to improve the organization’s conduct. And in addition to this internal audit department, there is a need for external auditing, to make sure that the internal auditing is performed correctly. And above that, there is need for regulations in the law, and courts of law, and a state comptroller, and transparency of all data and proceedings, for the benefit of the critical eye of the public and the media, so that everyone can investigate the facts and point out any wrongdoings and injustices.

Education for rational thinking

Skills of rational skeptical thinking and examination of evidence are not something that comes to us naturally or easily. These are skills we need to learn, develop, and practice, in order to assimilate them. Therefore, it is very important to instill these values from a young age in education for kids. To teach independent critical thinking, to teach how to examine information, how to not automatically believe authority (this is in contrast to the norm today, where parents and teachers instill obedience in kids), as well as skills of creative thinking.

It is important to teach not merely a collection of facts that kids are supposed to memorize and accept at face value just because the teacher said so, but to teach about the way in which the facts were discovered. When some people discovered that a certain claim is true (e.g. the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa), there were other people who opposed this claim. So the claimers wanted to prove that their claim was true, and it’s important to teach how they proved it. This teaches kids about how to handle claims and information, what can be considered as a fact and what is only an unproven claim.

This principle is also relevant for gossip, when kids at school spread a rumor about some kid. A child who hears this rumor should know how to not just believe it but to stop and say: “Wait, is this really true? How do they know it? What is the evidence to support this claim? Is there evidence to contradict the claim?”

Thanks to progress in science and technology, the world is becoming more and more complex. Only those who can understand the principles of independent thinking, rational and critical thinking that is based on evidence will be able to keep up with the pace and integrate in the world. If we send kids to the world without equipping them with such tools, they would act based on errors, would be tempted by false claims of crooks and charlatans, and will be less successful in life.

Acknowledging the limits of our knowledge

Sometimes we must admit that even though we want very much to know something or believe in something, we cannot do that. See the post about humility.

See also

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