13 July, 2020

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

What do you know?


And how do you know it?


The more you think, the more you understand that you don’t know. The deeper you delve into wondering what’s right, the more angles you discover. View a question from different perspectives and you may find multiple, contrasting answers.

Long-accepted beliefs are falling apart at a rapid rate right now. As many people challenge our need for police or the benefit of capitalism, others wonder if vaccinations cause more harm than good or if coronavirus is real.

How do you know stuff? Did your mother tell you or did you read about it on the internet or hear it on the radio? Perhaps you saw evidence with your own eyes or heard it with your own ears. 

Dean Burnett, who wrote a book called The Idiot Brain, says our senses cannot always be trusted. He suggests that rather than constantly relying on sensory inputs, our brain creates models of expected outcomes, which can have a greater influence than what we actually experience.

Your perceptions are created by your history, your mood, your health and your culture. 

What your senses detect happening outside your mind is only a part of the story.

Be honest. How many times have you been completely sure about a particular fact, only to have it proved false at a later time?

But was it proved false? Was there a peer-reviewed scientific study about it? Even if there was, was it based on faulty assumptions, was the sample size too small or did a reporter of the research cherry-pick the results to make a more interesting story?

Widely-accepted findings in the sciences of nutrition, psychology, astronomy and education have all been contradicted in my lifetime. Think about all the times you have heard of researchers discovering we’ve been wrong all along.

Or maybe you don’t remember it right. An article in Scholarpedia explains how easy it is to be tricked by false memories. “It is efficient for the perceptual and memory systems to take shortcuts and focus on meaning extraction, since that will suffice in many cases. However, the cost to these shortcuts is that neither a detailed memory nor a confidently held one is necessarily true.”

That statement sounds logical and highly plausible, but how do you know it’s accurate? How could anyone fully understand the way human memory systems work?

Author and futurist Robert Anton Wilson wrote that the word ‘is’ should be abolished. “I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.” He used the term ‘model-agnostic’ which he said “consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial. Following Korzybski, I put things in probabilities, not absolutes”.

Does this mean you should give up on ever knowing what’s real and instead choose to believe whatever feels right for you? 

I don’t think so. 

On the contrary, I think it means you should try your hardest to make a best estimate based on the most trustworthy evidence you can find. 

This means science. It means peer-reviewed articles, references and multiple sources. It means considering various assertions and critically thinking about which is the most plausible, while knowing that 100% certainty is never possible. 

It means having an open mind, questioning everything, but judging data by its relative likelihood. If something seems ridiculous, it probably is.

Dean Burnett uses the case of a highly-experienced English children’s television presenter as an example. Many outraged parents were convinced that they heard him slip the c-word into a song on pre-school programming. “Remember how he took a huge risk for no appreciable gain and uttered a context-free profanity to an audience of toddlers?”

Why would he do that? Once the idea started spreading, a surprising number of people believed it was true, in spite of the extreme implausibility and the evidence from their own ears.

The ‘appreciable gain’ is a key concept here. When considering the probability of any piece of information, ask yourself who has what to gain from it. 

If the answer is ‘they’ want to ‘control’ me, look a little deeper.

Who are ‘they’? Where is the evidence? Why would anyone want to control you? There may very well be valid answers to these questions, but don’t find proof only because you are searching for it. 

Everything you hear has a probability rating, which probably changes according to time, context and audience, but is probably never 100%.

It is easier not to think critically and to adopt mental models from your family or friends, but surely your best life will be one based on the closest approximation to reality that you can discover. That seems to me at this moment to be worth the extra work.

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