Recently, I found this article from the New York Times in the Jerusalem Post: Why We Believe Obvious Untruths by Philip Fernbach, cognitive scientist and professor of marketing at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, and Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University. They are the authors of the forthcoming The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.
The two knowledge professors explain in a new book, in this article summarized, that we learn truth and falsehood similarly. Most knowledge we don’t even own – we borrow it from others around us, or experts. We can’t really tell the difference between truth and untruths.
This disturbed me very much. It sounded so nihilistic and fatalistic, as so often academic work does. They do conclude that if you realize the problem, you can try to watch out for untruths better. However, their story still felt as if they said (which they didn’t): all is relative, there’s little we can do. So different from the hands-on approach of Judaism and activism. It took me a few days to wake up with ideas what to say against and instead of these intelligent words.
Here follow 40 pointers on pitfalls in searching for truth, on spotting untruths in ideas, in no particular order, with sometimes an example.
When we find a novel idea or get some doubts about older ideas, we should, besides thinking hard and checking all the proofs, try all of these questions:
- Does the idea support a better more beautiful future for all humans? That is not the same as ‘economic growth.’ Long term there is no contradiction between the needs of all people (Harvey Jackins, Marshall Rosenberg). An indication that something might be iffy with an idea is when it conflicts with this unity.
- Are there any lies embedded in this idea? Then the opposite idea may be true. People who made their hatred for Jews and/or Israel an important part of their lives cannot stop lying.
- Are the proponents of this idea overcritical of other ideas but not their own? For many years some antagonistic medical scientist confused the medical world explaining how all ideas that AIDS was caused by a virus were not conclusive enough. Even when HIV was found, his skepticism kept terrorizing respectable medical journals. How could he have been found out as not unto something? By noticing that he was hypercritical of anything and everything except his own theories. People that proclaim Climate Change Denial often have a vested interest in that (see below: 8) and put the emphasis on their unfounded ideas. Note that they do not deliver the scientific meticulousness that they demand of others. Such one-sided ‘skeptics’ hinder scientific progress and cost time, money and lives.
- When you think about this idea, is your intuition in gear? Most people can tell an average liar from an honest person. The best con artists are harder to spot, though. Reasoning can lead one astray; intuition can then bring one back to reality. Many smart people deny Free Will; down-to-earth people, who do not need a lot of reasoning to think, know that people are qualitatively different (moral) from other life-forms and from computers, which cannot have Free Will.
- Does the idea contain oppressive theories about groups of people? A prominent way to devalue others is first having them hurt by oppressions and then blame them for the scars. We’re not that different from each other. Diversity is an asset.
- Is this idea too good to be true? Then probably it is. Beware of thieves and liars. If you find a motive for dishonesty, that may point to the idea being part of a scheme.
- Are you skeptical enough? That may help you spot Urban Myths and Fake News.
- Do some followers of an idea have traditional or novel motives or reasons to lie (more money, power, fame for the few)? Then mistrust their ideas. Politicians, the rich, might have good ideas but by default doubt them.
- Do you have two or more ideas that lack watertight reasoning and that contradict each other? They could each be right – each from its own perspective.
- Are you sensing that the idea can’t be true? There must have been made a mistake. Academics, specialists, people who get their wisdom from books may not notice going wrong. Listen to blue-collar workers and women who tend to be more connected to reality.
- Does this jive with common sense, with what you know about people and reality? Psychiatry is so good at labeling people’s problems – it shows that they can’t really help them – otherwise their labels would fall off after some time.
- Is the idea generally accepted but disturbing? Go find people with opposing views. Death is inevitable – it always was. Smallpox is extinguished – so may Death, one day.
- Is the idea just wishful thinking – which is neither? Stay optimistic (against hopelessness) and industrious (against laziness) and you may be better equipped to face reality.
- Is the idea a historic belief, or cultural myth or bias? Learn from people from other Cultures, Classes, Age groups or people who survived other Oppressions than yours.
- Is the idea an exaggeration? Strife makes people see things in extremes, forget nuances.
- Is the person who brings the idea as nice as I am or want to be? There are nasty and dangerous people out there, and their theories might be too.
- Do you have mutually exclusive ideas? Be tolerant of both, because they both may be valuable. Religion and Science both can teach us.
- Does the idea leave you puzzled? Learn to live with and appreciate doubt and paradox.
- Does the idea sound like all is relative and a mind-game? Hold on to being an activist for a better world.
- Are you too naive to spot a fake idea? In some areas almost everyone lies. Politics, law, about their sexuality.
- Does the idea bridge a contradiction? This could make it valuable.
- How are you doing with honesty and integrity? Improve and search out friends who value truthfulness. Don’t steal and don’t fence. Admit mistakes and not knowing. It clears the brain and prepares it to work with truth – only.
- Are you bulk buying the truth? If someone or some philosophy is right and beautiful in almost everything, we still don’t need to buy into the whole package. Even just one idea in the collection might be off. Search for the rotten apple in the basket. Some people are against every oppression except the oppression of the Jews.
- If an idea prevails, does that make it the best? Not always. The VCR-type that eventually became the standard was the one that was selling the most sex movies, but technically was the weakest.
- Does the idea feed optimism? If the best idea still looks terrible, find a better way or perspective – there always is at least one elegant solution to any real problem.
- How new is this idea? Hindsight is the only perfect vision. Learn from history. At the beginning, the Middle East Peace Process gave many hope. After some time, almost everyone saw that it never could have worked. (There was no missed opportunity.)
- Is the idea conform what the silent normal decent majority always says? Statistics and billions could still be wrong. Learn to mistrust what everyone says and seems to think. Listen to dissidents. Try to learn from one case – not only statistics. A necktie does not prove civilization, decency or integrity.
- Is the idea just a thought? Experiment over pondering! Medical Science makes such enormous strides because every doctor every day has ideas about each patient that s/he puts to the test.
- Are you as critical as you could be? Learn from Jews.
- Found a mistake? One weakness or mistake may not invalidate a whole person, their deeds or thinking, or an entire philosophy.
- Is the idea possibly an over-simplification or over-generalization? Professor Feynman already stressed that Nature is not obligated to work in the most simple way.
- Did you consider the idea after you stifled your intuition or suspicion? If you did that, stop it and think again.
- Does this idea distinguish between feelings and facts? They each have their values, should not silence each other of be confused.
- Could a flaw have crept in from the culture the idea came from? The Dutch moral norm is: be honest. That doesn’t mean that no one steals there, but integrity’s still the norm. The Arab norm is: say what will bring the best results for you. That doesn’t mean that honesty then doesn’t exist, but it’s not the default mode or expectation.
- Is there anger connected to the idea? And what role does it play? Sometimes anger and hatred make people exaggerate or lie; sometimes anger finally makes people say the truth; sometimes its used to hide lying.
- Is this knowledge or conviction? Conviction could come from hard-won knowledge: now I know so deeply. Sometimes conviction is just what your teachers told you as the highest truth – which may need checking. Even if the Bible is G-d’s Word, it still needs human interpretation to mean anything. No one alive can claim Divine Absolute Knowledge.
- Does the idea make sense just to you? Did you ask your partner’s vision on your vision? If your spouse loves you, spotting and pointing out mistakes should come easily.
- Did you try to explain your ideas to others? These could be people who know a lot or nothing about this.
- When you look up the history of the idea, did it develop? Does it sound like it stagnated and is in a stale replay for years? Is the idea changed constantly to keep selling the same (defunct) idea in new wrappings? Or has it been evolving, alive?
- Did you already try to disprove your own idea? If you succeeded, can you find contra-arguments to save the validity of your idea?