Remember the quiet girl in your class who one day died her hair, put on thick black eyeliner, and embraced Satan (or Robert Smith)?
Whether the subcultures of your time were mods, rockers, and hippies, or Teddy boys, or punks, juggalos, or sk8rs, all these groups have their own fashions, signs, slang, music… That is, although rebellion against “the mainstream” might be one part of the deal, most of it is actually about conforming. You wear the clothes, do the dance, wield the chain, talk the talk… and then you belong.
In every alternative movement there will be a handful of people doing the odd thing truly different but mainly it’s about fitting in. Being conventional within the norms of the group.
It’s the same with politics. It’s the same with religion. To go against the group is to be an outcast. And to be an outcast is the role of the truth seeker, because to believe is to belong, and your desire is not to belong but to say “Hold on, that’s not right.”
Even if you don’t say it aloud (and there are plenty of good reasons not to, at least not so forthrightly, some of which we have covered and some we will come to), you are now different, a heretic, and just a bit less one of the others.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
For most of us, video and written news are the sources we are most likely to deal with. It is very important to be aware that reporters often do NOT see all of what they report even if they are in the area. It is better to go straight to the horse’s mouth, which we can usually do for documents and expert testimony if not witnesses. It is also important to note that the words that accompany video footage, and how the video is edited, can very easily be misleading.
A comprehensive article on a subject or event will often reference several other sources. As obvious as it then might be to say Wikipedia can be useful for identifying multiple sources (although we absolutely must check those sources ourselves), many people stick to the sources that tell the story they want to hear. If we want to do better than that, looking at Wikipedia might be a start, since -all other things being equal– each extra source which agrees makes the given information more likely to be true.
If one person tells me they’ve seen a cow at the bottom of the high street, they might be lying or mistaken. If two people tell me separately, a few minutes apart, it’s not so likely they would both be mistaken. Perhaps they are in it together, conspiring to make me think there is a cow at the bottom of the high street when there isn’t. If ten people tell me, I’m probably going to think they aren’t all likely to be mistaken. They could ALL be in it together, but the more people involved then generally the more work required to keep up a lie. When it comes to whether there’s a cow in a built up area, why bother going to that much trouble to lie?
It also helps if the person telling us about the cow is known to be trustworthy. The information ideally will not conflict with other knowledge we hold either. If all cows on Earth were killed by nanorobots released by a mad scientist then it wouldn’t be very likely there was a cow anywhere.
Now, what if rather than a big lie deliberately involving many people, one person started a rumour about a cow on the high street and they told someone else, who told someone else, and so on, and then ten or more people told you? Then it doesn’t matter how many people tell you about the cow: It would all be coming from one person, either lying or mistaken. So in the pursuit of truth we need also to make sure that our sources are independent. That is, we need to know if they witnessed the cow for themselves without being influenced by others.
Lastly, if half the people we talk to say there definitely is a cow and the other half say, no, there definitely ISN’T, then who are we to believe? So conflicting accounts -as long as they are trustworthy, independent, and equally direct (e.g. two witnesses to the event)– rightly cause doubt.
To recap the features to look out for:
– First hand accounts and documents. Note that even a news piece contains much that is indirect and checkable.
– All things being equal, the story is likely.
– Not many independent conflicting accounts.
That’s the basics. Before we go into each of those in detail, it is of the utmost importance to deal with the one person who most gets in the way of finding out the facts. They will be the subject of Part 3.
 Wikipedia footnotes are clickable links which bring up citations, themselves usually clickable. If you’re not sure what a citation is or how to read one, here’s an explanation.
 All things aren’t equal, but we’ll come to that in good time.
 Fortunately, 80s pop icon Alison Moyet foiled the scientist and the only harm done was minor abrasions to two cows in a field in Letchworth.
Although it may seem as if truth is ever harder to find, we live at a time when the majority of the (UK) population has easily-searchable, near-instant access to by far the most comprehensive store of knowledge that ever existed. And whereas once all news came through a very few channels, today eyewitnesses can post video to the world within seconds. The flipside of this is that we are exposed to dizzying amounts of stuff.
A lot of this stuff, or information, is not actually informative. Some of it is outright propaganda:
All of us grow up believing most of what we are told. This has some survival advantages but of course adults have to be a bit smarter than that. However, adult scepticism, particularly about official or “mainstream” sources, is easily exploited. If we believe one source is biased or downright manipulative then it’s easy, and perhaps comforting, to accept a near opposite version of events wherever it comes from. This is entirely unsatisfactory too, because the world isn’t that neat, baddies aren’t only opposed by goodies, the world isn’t two-dimensional, and even when there is a side who is morally justified (or “in the right”) we are not guaranteed accurate, let alone honest, reporting in support of it.
It’s far too simplistic to dismiss every word of, say, BBC journalists, as a lie. To then swallow an alternative version whole is to retreat into an infantile view of the world.
So we must not only be vigilant but find nuanced ways to evaluate the stories we are exposed to, and even more so if we are initially inclined to believe them, because- as the scientist Richard Feynman said- the easiest person to fool is yourself.
Luckily there are methods developed by humans to help find which stories are truthful and which are not. They aren’t perfect but if we follow them we will have a lot better idea of what is really going on than if we don’t. They require a bit of effort but that’s the price of admission to an informed discussion. Anyone is welcome to ignore them, and they will find plenty of other people who will agree with the fake news they have no way of avoiding, but generally such voices are not influential outside of their circle. Although there is always a risk of populism and/or ideology overriding rigour. Later in the series we will examine the circumstances surrounding some of the more notable historical examples, such as the persistent Conservative narrative of the “undeserving poor”, drugs policy in most countries, and the ideologically driven pseudoscience that took hold under the Nazis (Aryanism) and Stalin (Lysenkoism).
In Part Two we will look at the first method we can use to help avoid repeating similar historical mistakes. Evaluating sources.