In his later years, the story goes, Albert Einstein, the mind once most attuned to the strange workings of nature, was now out of touch, little more than a famous sideshow. That he could not adapt to a new paradigm is often remarked upon but is not all that unusual (even if we insist the weirdness of the new Physics shouldn’t have sent a great scientist into a spin).

Electron spin diagram

If anything, the fertile period of Einstein’s career was remarkably protracted: Whereas he made occasional memorable contributions to Physics up to his sixtieth year, it is about par for elite scientists to produce vital work before their thirty-fifth birthday and then little to compare after it.

Mad scientist, over 35.

Nonetheless, Einstein suffered from the same problem as all those mere geniuses. He had invested a lot of time and effort in certain ways of seeing and doing things. Our preconceptions are the biggest hurdles to finding truth but each time we let go a deep conviction and allow ourselves to accept a fact, we are -ever so briefly- borne above most of the mental life of even the very greatest thinkers. That is to say, our fundamental view of the world is more important to us than isolated examples of truth, almost always.

If a fact fits well with what we think we know, especially our political or religious views, we accept it easily. We like to believe what we are told. It’s comfortable, pain free. If it contradicts deeply held beliefs, usually we will reject it.[1][2]

Still from Breaking Bad. Jesse looking bewildered, haunted

The first thing this reminds us is that if we really value truth then the stories to check most thoroughly are the stories that ring true. This seems counterintuitive but we are already going to discount, perhaps try to disprove, stories that don’t fit with what we think we know. If we want to avoid being fooled, we have to remember to hold the “right-sounding” stories to scrutiny too. This series of articles, which will go from the basics to ever more sophisticated techniques for truth-finding, is intended to do mainly one thing: Remind us to put more effort in. It’s not so much that we are lazy but there are shortcuts we all use that are good for not being eating by lions yet are less useful in the information age. These include emotional responses that keep us from the truth. This is not say that it’s impossible to know anything. Far from it. Rather, we must constantly remember that not only are we liable to get it wrong but psychologically we often want to be comfortable more than we want to know what is true. This is the case for you, me, and everyone we know.

Everyone has some notion of the truth being very important. Almost everyone will come across situations where the truth is secondary. Those do exist. Sometimes, for example (such as if the Nazis are looking for your neighbours), it is right to lie. However, is knowing the truth ever secondary? Arguably, it is only fear that ever prevents us from wanting to know the truth.

Scared woman
Detail from painting by Guido Reni c.1611

What should we fear? I have already hinted that to come across facts that contradict our worldview can be genuinely painful. Our brain doesn’t like it and often we will reject a fact just to feel more at ease. It is hard to face that you may have believed something untrue and even acted on that premise. Our pride may kick in. But what do we do when we hide our head in the sand? Nothing useful. Nothing brave.




See also

The Backfire Effect


Part 4

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