How do you decide what to believe? Friends tell you one
thing, authorities say something else, and the evidence points in yet another
direction. Truth is correspondence with reality. Because we are deluged by a constant flood of information from a wide
variety of sources, each of us must evaluate and decide for ourselves what
information is reliable and what is not. The theory of knowledge can
guide us in
deciding what to believe, what to ignore, what to question, and what we don't
know. It separates well-founded beliefs from
assumptions, rumors, and myths. Don't be fooled; know how you know.
- How we decide what to believe.
- Evaluating information.
- Assessing credibility.
The theory of knowledge provides answers to the important questions: “How do you know?”,
“How do you know?”, and “How do
The branch of philosophy dedicated to the formal study of the theory of
knowledge, including the nature, methods, limitations, and validity of knowledge and
belief is known as epistemology. Critical thinking is the mental
discipline of discernment, analysis, and evaluation. It is purposeful and
reflective judgment. People who apply an effective theory of knowledge are
considered inquisitive, prudent, vigilant, scrupulous, meticulous, and wise.
People who lack a theory of knowledge are described as gullible, naïve, green,
easily duped, foolish, or a sucker.
Journalism Standards are the practices used in obtaining and reporting
newsworthy events. These practices typically consider the principles of:
truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public
accountability. Opinions and advertisements are clearly separated from news,
excerpts are presented in context, sources are attributed, facts are checked
with multiple independent sources, contrasting views are included, and other
precautions are taken to increase the reliability of the reports.
We typically consult a wide variety of information sources to form the many
off-hand opinions we
arrive at each day. Although much of the information we are exposed to is
inconsequential, it is essential to obtain reliable information before making
important decisions and choosing your most important and consequential
A variety of information sources are described below, with a discussion of their
reliability, limitations, inaccuracies, errors, and difficulties.
directly observe the world every day. We can see for ourselves that the sky is
blue and the grass is green. We can easily feel that the sun is warm and ice is
cold. We can hear dogs bark and birds chirp. Certainly first-hand examination of direct evidence
is the most reliable basis for forming beliefs. People rarely dispute these
easily verified matters of fact. Disputed beliefs usually arise when direct evidence
is not readily available, incomplete, ambiguous, or is open to a variety of interpretations.
Direct evidence is the only primary source of information, therefore it is
the most reliable. However it can still be overlooked, ignored, misunderstood, misrepresented,
misinterpreted, discounted, or
misapplied. Errors or limitations in observation, measurement, equipment
operation, equipment usage,
handling, identifying, or storage can all contribute to the unreliability of
evidence. Beware the
tyranny of evidence!
Evidence that challenges strongly-held beliefs is
particularly difficult to accept and interpret fully and accurately. A long list of logical fallacies and a
wide variety of common mental distortions make it
difficult to interpret and apply even the most reliably gathered information
and evidence. False or implicit assumptions,
perception sets; long-held beliefs,
and theories, unfounded beliefs, denial, deception,
ignorance, comprehension limits,
ego involvement, arrogance, certainty, interest in a particular outcome,
taboos; limits of inquiry, examination, skepticism, or imagination, and many
other mental obstacles can easily distort our
interpretation of evidence. Learn to identify and
compensate for these errors in thinking and reasoning. Revise your
beliefs and worldview
to accurately include and account for all the evidence.
Opinions run most wild where evidence is least available. Evidence is most
valuable when it can be independently verified. Truth is correspondence with
reality. Carefully examine the real world.
When it is inconvenient for us to examine evidence first-hand, we typically
rely on findings from people or published sources recognized as topic
experts to form our opinions. A true expert derives authority from the unique
information, experience, skill, or talent they command. We rely on secondary information
whenever we consult experts. Errors can easily be made in communicating our
questions, misunderstanding their explanations, misapplying what they say, or
choosing a source unreliable for the topic being investigated. Even
reliable experts often differ from other reliable experts on difficult,
ambiguous, or unresolved issues. Influential people may be consulted or offer
opinions well outside their areas of expertise. A common example of this is when
movie stars or other celebrities advocate political positions or speak out on
social or technological issues that are outside their areas of expertise.
To get reliable information ensure the source you are consulting is truly
expert in the topic you are investigating. Investigate beyond their formal credentials to
understand the basis, scope, and limitations of their expertise as it pertains
to your specific topic. Ensure there is a clear understanding of what you are
seeking to find out and what the expert is seeking to communicate. Explore and
understand the limits of the expert's knowledge along with the sources, scope,
application, and relevance of their information.
Experts are rarely independent. Know the affiliations, special interests, and
business, social, and family connections of the expert you are consulting. Any
of these connections or experiences can influence the expert to provide biased
information, either knowingly or unknowingly. As an example, pharmaceutical
companies often employ medical doctors. When these doctors provide advice it may
appear they are providing a well-rounded opinion on a particular disease,
treatment, or symptom when in fact they are simply advocating the particular
drug product they are affiliated with. This can happen more subtly if the doctor
was a researcher working on some particular disease or developing a particular
treatment. Although the doctor is not paid to advocate a solution, his
background and affiliations still favor a particular viewpoint.
Sales people collect commissions, financial advisors collect brokerage fees,
lawyers bill by the hour, doctors learn from pharmaceutical sales agents,
councilors and therapists charge by the session, and religious leaders advocate
their particular chosen faith. While each of these professionals may be well
intentioned and may have valuable
expert knowledge, they also have significant vested interests in advocating a
particular solution. You may be the only person who can put your own interests
first. Don't abdicate your responsibility to make your own informed decisions;
consult a variety of sources before drawing your own conclusion.
The English language use of the word “authority” has two very different
meanings. One meaning describes power—such as the right to control,
command, or determine—and the other describes expertise—an accepted source of
information. A person may gain authority through appointment to a
powerful position. This positional power and the accompanying authority is often
independent of any expertise or relevant knowledge they may have. Unfortunately
this may not prevent them from answering questions, providing information, or
offering advice that goes beyond their direct knowledge. A simple example of the
problems this can cause is asking the cashier an opinion about a product sold in
the store. Although the cashier may have no relevant knowledge, they may go ahead and
offer their unfounded opinion as if they are actually expert.
In the mid 1600's when it came to deciding if the earth was the center of the
universe, the Pope had the authority but Galileo had the expertise. The Pope got
it wrong, and forbid Galileo from ever dissenting. Don't confuse power, title,
celebrity, or credentials with expertise or a reliable source of accurate
The cautions and limitations described above for an expert are even more
relevant for an authority who is relying on positional power rather than expertise.
It is often their job to provide biased, partial, or even misleading
Estimates, Forecasts, and Other Projections
Estimates, interpolations, extrapolations, statistical results, forecasts,
opinions, and conjecture are inherently less accurate and reliable than correctly examined
direct, relevant, evidence. Be certain to distinguish these projections from direct
evidence. Understand and communicate the limits of the accuracy of these
indirect information sources. Understand the types and extent of error
introduced by the various methods used to make these projections. Understand,
apply, and report this projected information as a range of values or as a
statement of probability.
Do not mistake estimates or forecasts for precise and accurate data.
The Scientific Method
The scientific method relies on controlled experiments that are carefully
designed to disprove a specific hypothesis—a tentative explanation or
proposition. Full disclosure of the experimental methods used and results
obtained allows others to independently replicate experiments and verify
results. If a variety of experiments
carried out by a number of independent experimenters each fail to disprove the
hypothesis, then the hypothesis becomes well accepted and is called a theory or
natural law. This conscientious failure to disprove the theory provides
evidence that the theory is correct. A theory can never be proven, it can only
fail to be disproved. The extent of the efforts to disprove the theory establish
the degree of confidence in the theory. The goal of many theories is to describe
the cause for some effect observed in the universe. The
theory of gravity
precisely describes apples falling to the earth and the orbits of the moons and
planets. It was first proposed by Isaac Newton in 1687. Since then it has never
been disproven, although it scope has been clarified and it has been extended and generalized by Einstein's
general theory of relativity, published in 1915.
The scientific method is generally accepted as the most reliable way to test
We often face ambiguous information—information that can be reasonably
interpreted in several different ways. Did he fail to call me back because he
was busy, he forgot, he is plotting against me, or because he is angry with me?
We are often quick to resolve this uncertainty in our own minds; we make up an
answer and begin to believe it. Our minds insist on completing the story one way
or another, often by making unfounded assumptions and speculations. We are prone
to make attribution errors that we
soon regard as factual explanations. Partial or fragmented information, rumors, gossip, sound
bites, vague statements, homonyms, garbled or inaudible speech, blurry images,
inconsistencies, incongruence, unstructured or incoherent presentations, and fleeting
glimpses present uncertainty every day.
Be aware of ambiguity and the assumptions we make to resolve it. Increase
your tolerance for ambiguity as you work to resole it. Become comfortable with
complexity as you seek elegance. Suspend judgment, investigate,
identify and challenge assumptions, ask
questions for clarification, and get the facts before
Isolated examples can be cited as evidence for or against any premise, idea,
or position. As an example, consider a discussion on the dangers of driving while
under the influence of alcohol. One person may tell a story of someone they know
who was killed by a drunk driver. Another may boast they have driven home drunk
many times and never had an accident. Neither argument advances the discussion
or increases understanding; it generates more heat than light.
Dismiss anecdotal evidence in favor of systematic evidence and analysis. In this case it
is helpful to cite that the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System reported 15,945
alcohol-related highway deaths in 2006 in the United States out of a total of
38,588 fatal crashes.
Superstitions, good luck charms, gambler's rituals, magic spells,
incantations, and other
attempts to change random outcomes are often justified based on anecdotal
evidence. There is no systematic evidence that these rituals have any effect.
The justifications are often examples of a Post hoc ergo propter hoc
fallacy or of unfounded optimism,
intentional stance, or
Anecdotal evidence is often used to defend strongly-held beliefs that are not
supported by systematic evidence. The biases of racism, sexism, ethnic
superiority, xenophobia, homophobia, and other divisive beliefs based on
fear, or hatred are often prolonged by anecdotal
Do not generalize from anecdotal evidence, instead seek out systematic
Statistics are used to summarize, characterize, analyze, and interpret large
collections of data. Statistics and statistical analysis are essential tools for making informed
decisions based on systematic evidence. In addition to reporting measures such
as the mean, median, and range of variables, specific statements about the
accuracy, limits, confidence, and error range can also be made. Statistical
analysis begins by identifying a population to be studied. A sample is
then chosen to
represent the entire population. For example, to estimate the average
height of Caucasian American males aged 25-35, a sample of perhaps a few dozen to a
few thousand individuals fitting that description would be selected and the
height of each is then measured. The arithmetic mean is then calculated over
that sample and reported. In addition, the tallest and shortest measurements
could be reported, along with the percentage found to be in particular height
Statistics provide very powerful techniques for understanding data, however
errors can easily occur by mistake or in a deliberate attempt to mislead
or deceive. The height example described above can illustrate some of these
errors. The sample may not accurately represent the population, or the
population may not be accurately described. For example, if the ages of some men
in the sample fell outside the range of 25-35 years, or some were not Americans,
or they were not chosen at random from the entire population, or some classes of
men, such as those who are seriously ill, or disfigured, or dwarfs are excluded
then the actual sample does not accurately represent the population. If the
results of this study are used to represent the heights of all men, or men of a
different age, or from another part of the world, no valid conclusions can be
drawn. If the sample is too small, containing perhaps only 3 men, the results
cannot be accurately extrapolated. Several measures of central tendency are
commonly used. These are the mean, median, and mode. The statistician or the
user of the analysis may misunderstand or misapply the definitions, limitations, and
applications of these measures. Many other errors are possible as the
application becomes more complex.
When evaluating statistical results it is also important to keep in mind that
correlation does not prove causation. For example, although salary is positively
correlated with body weight, gaining weight does not cause salary increases.
Very often some not-yet-understood variable is causing the correlation. In this
example, as a person gets older both their weight and salary tend to increase.
Statistics provide powerful tools for understanding data. Like all powerful
tools they can be used to solve difficult problems, and they can also be dangerously
misused, misapplied, or misunderstood. Understand how the statistics were gathered and analyzed
before basing your conclusions on them.
Opinions can easily be swayed, especially if they are not yet fully and
carefully formed. Influence—attaining belief—originates and accumulates from many sources, including: observation, listening,
suggestion, recommendation, advice, opinion, education, reading, advertisements,
indoctrination, propaganda, censorship, counseling, peer pressure, and habits.
Most of our experiences are influenced by others. So what we may consider free
choice is actually constrained and influenced by the information we are exposed
to and believe to be true. Even apparently objective information gathering
activities such as unfettered observation are influential because the
environment we are observing represents only a tiny fraction of the world. In
any observation session you will be seeing some phenomena and not seeing many
others. As a result, your conclusions are inherently based on partial
information, and may not accurately represent the larger system. Influence is
ubiquitous, insidious, and unavoidable. Be aware of the influences that lead to
each of your decisions.
Power increases influence. Powerful people get more opportunities to address
larger audiences with their messages. More resources are available to research,
present, persuade, and reiterate the message. Audiences are more readily
available. They have the resources to dispute or suppress alternative viewpoints
and conflicting messages.
But might does not make right. The sugar water
relentlessly promoted by Coke and Pepsi
directly contributes to obesity and diabetes. The addictive tobacco products sold around
the world directly cause lung cancer and other deadly diseases. Big drug
companies and health insurance agencies decide what diseases we are allowed to
receive treatment for. As media
companies continue to consolidate, their message becomes the only message we
hear. While these powerful organizations continue to promote their harmful
and selfish myths, the faint voices of reason are fragmented and more difficult to seek out.
What did you say?
Many of us find particular styles of charismatic language alluring, almost
seductive. We are fascinated, almost mesmerized, by the words as pleasant images
drift through our minds and sooth our souls. (I admit to being a bit envious.)
Unfortunately, scrutinizing the language often reveals it as meaningless,
irrelevant, untestable, illogical, or unfounded. As a test, examine a typical persuasive sentence or
passage to identify the premise and the conclusion, if either exist. Explicate
and analyze the
syllogism. It may be
helpful to first restate the passage in your own words. Then examine the premise
to understand its foundation and factual basis. Next, examine the logic
used to derive the conclusion from the premise. Does the conclusion follow
logically from the premise? Is the
conclusion accurately stated? Are
any logical fallacies, or
distortions being used? Are literal truths being
used to send a false message? Is the conclusion helpful?
We are deceived whenever we are led to believe something that is not true. This
can result from propaganda, distraction, concealment, half-truths, mistakes,
gossip, rumors, falsehoods, hoaxes, and lies. Using literal truths to send a false
message is a common form of deception. Unrepresentative evidence, statements out
of context, unfounded extrapolations or projections, overgeneralization,
inaccurate analogies, emotional manipulations, false dichotomies, inaccurate
interpretations of facts, censorship, charisma, and threats are common manipulations that
can easily deceive us. Much of what we see and hear is inherently deceptive because it is
intended to advocate a single point of view and advance some
vested interest. Deception is ubiquitous, and it is our
discern the truth.
Don't be gullible. Curiosity and skepticism are our best defenses against
deception. Obtain independent opinions from sources representing a variety of
interests and viewpoints before making important decisions. Use only reliable
sources. Extend trust cautiously.
Points of View
Every single viewpoint we are exposed to is
one-sided, and therefore
inherently biased. Advertisements, infomercials, sales pitches, product descriptions,
presentations, preaching, advocating, proselytizing, stock tips, financial
advice, healthcare advice, nutritional advice, sermons, movie reviews, résumés, political speeches, press
releases, and editorials each present only a single viewpoint intended to advance
a special interest. Even media news stories, educational material, books, and
websites (including this one) typically present only a limited point of
view. Vested interests are ubiquitous and represent only one side of the story.
It is our responsibility to find and understand the other sides of each story.
Our understanding is incomplete and unreliable until we can attain and
neutral point of view of the topic.
As an example, the website shuteye.com appears to provide valuable information on
along with other helpful advice on how to get a good night's sleep. A closer look reveals it
is sponsored by “sleep solutions from sanofi-aventis” a drug company that sells
sleeping pills. They are selling their product under the pretense of providing
public service information. The wolf is wearing sheep's clothing.
How old do you estimate the woman is in the image on the right? If you see a
young woman, look again, adopt new viewpoints until you can see the old woman.
If you see an old woman, look again to see the young one. Both of these
viewpoints are equally valid, but each is only part of the complete picture.
Each of these viewpoints can be correctly and strenuously argued as being
correct. It is only when you see them both that you fully understand the image.
The most strongly biased viewpoint in the world is your own.
First-person viewpoint is the fundamental
asymmetry of humanity. Test the
validity of your viewpoint by considering equivalent
symmetrical points of
view. For example, if you believe that you deserve to go to the front of the
line, do you also believe that everyone else in line also deserves to go to the
front? If you believe your faith is the true faith, are you willing to believe
that other faiths are equally true?
People often base decisions on how they feel, snap judgments, impulses, or
intuition. It is certainly faster and easier than analysis, investigation, and
Feeling certain is typically more comfortable than feeling uneasy,
conflicted, ambivalent, undecided, or uncomfortable. It is remarkable that the
primary outcome we attribute to cognition is most accurately represented as a feeling.
What is going on here?
In his book
On Being Certain, author Robert Burton describes the feeling of
knowing as a pleasant sensation that arises involuntarily, analogous to feelings of strangeness,
familiarity (déjà vu), and realness. This feeling arises when the mind's sensory systems
autonomously detect a pattern of unconscious thought that may be correct,
important, or useful. It cannot be triggered by conscious effort, but may be
experienced as a moment of particular clarity. This is our basis for saying “I know”. This feeing of knowing is more the result of physiology
than of logic. As a result it can cause us to hold firmly to beliefs that do not
have a strictly logical basis. “I can't explain it, I know it might not make
logical sense but I know it is true” is a typical preface used to introduce
strongly held convictions arising
from gut feelings, intuition, a hunch, hope, or faith. This belief may then be
rationalized, after the fact, through faulty logic, unrepresentative evidence,
or other form of self justification.
This strengthens your conviction in the belief without establishing any valid
evidence-based foundation for it.
Because these firmly held beliefs do not
originate strictly from logic, they are immune from logical argument and
persuasion. This is at the root of our difficulties in holding
discussions on emotionally charged topics such as religion and politics.
Examine how you know. The feeling of knowing can
arise with or without a firm logical basis and lead to an unshakable sense of
conviction. Internal bias and misplaced feelings of knowing often overpower
and outfox even the best intellect. If you feel certain you know
something, but cannot describe its logical or empirical
basis, then take care to describe it as your belief, not as a certainty.
Be accurate with the distinction between I feel certain and I am certain.
Do not mistake clarity for certainty. Being certain when being
wrong is often very damaging. Review the empirical
evidence before claiming “I know what I know”.
seemed like a good idea at the time, unfortunately I happened to be drunk.
Drugs, alcohol, sleep deprivation, fatigue, hunger, medications, pain,
addictions, obsessions, stress, excitement, overwork, overload, time pressure,
coercion, indoctrination, anger, emotional states, emotional involvement, attachment, aversion,
distractions, multitasking, phobias, dizziness, vertigo, trance, disease, and
many other conditions impair our perceptions, cognitive abilities, judgment, and
memories. Decisions made under these conditions have to be carefully
reconsidered with a clear head. I believe I'll reconsider this when I am sober.
Sleep on it, the world may look very different to you tomorrow. Choose
mindfulness—a full awareness of the present realities—over impairment and
“Lots of my really cool friends smoke cigarettes, so maybe I should start
smoking”. Reasoning like this is all too common, even though the factual foundation for
the decision is often unknown and may not exist. The fallacy of
circular reasoning is often the only logic
being used here. If the circle of friends turn first to each other for guidance,
then their information, opinions, and decisions are unanchored by external
evidence or transcendent values. Their ideas and beliefs drift freely without constraint,
wandering were ever the group decides to
go. Popularity breeds popularity, and popular opinion can breed consensus
without any substance, skepticism, critical thinking, or relevant facts.
Compliance quickly becomes automatic.
It is not enough to go along with the crowd. Find out where the crowd is going,
why they are heading there, and if it is the best direction for you to go, now
and in the long term. Listen to others outside the crowd. Carefully choose
helpful role models and mentors. Humans are not sheep; don't go
along just to get along. You are a competent,
autonomous adult. You are fully
responsible for all your decisions and
beliefs. Have the
courage to question. Make your own decisions,
choose your own beliefs, act congruently with your
The Fragile Wisdom of Crowds
Under certain conditions aggregating information in groups results in
decisions that are often better than could have been made by any single member
of the group. Criteria that separate wise crowds from irrational ones are:
- Diversity of opinion—Each person has private information even if
it's just their own quirky interpretation of the known facts.
- Independence—People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of
those around them.
- Decentralization—People are able to specialize and draw on local
- Aggregation—Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a
collective decision while maintaining the required independence of each
When these conditions are not met, crowds often make very bad decisions.
Keep these distinctions in mind when evaluating decisions made by crowds,
including popular opinions and trends.
When we are undecided we often look to others for clues to the right or
expected answer. If a vote on a complex or confusing issue is taken sequentially,
so that each person sees the vote of the person who preceded them, the first
vote cast may influence the next person to vote the same way. As a result the
decision of the first voter gets amplified and validated by each subsequent
vote. What began as an equivocal issue quickly became a landslide.
cascades contribute to trends, fashions, public opinions, crazes, hoarding, and
other fads. Beware!
collective wisdom and avoid collective folly.
The ancient Greeks believed the universe was composed of only the four
air, water, fire, and earth. This seems entirely reasonable when examined only from
a human scale. The land is made of earth, the atmosphere of air, the oceans
of water, and the sun of fire. But this idea clearly breaks down when considered
from a reductionist (analytical, drill down) view—can these elements be further decomposed?
Taking a reductionist
view, we now know that air is composed of oxygen, nitrogen, and several other
chemical elements. These elements in turn are composed of electrons, protons,
and neutrons. These sub-atomic particles are composed of
quarks, and the
reductionist story may not even end there. The idea also breaks down when
considered from a holistic (synthesis, frame up) view—are these elements sufficient to
comprise the entire universe? Taking a holistic view, we now know
that the sun is made of hydrogen and helium and the heat is generated from
nuclear fusion, not fire in the ordinary, earthly, chemical sense. The universe
is composed of at least 117 distinct chemical
elements and held together by the forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the
strong and weak nuclear forces. The holistic story does not end there because
much about the makeup of the universe is still a mystery, including the nature
of dark matter and dark energy.
Facts are our friends. When a new viewpoint or new evidence emerges that is inconsistent with
your present beliefs, it may be time to rethink and revise those
beliefs. Accept and assimilate
Test your beliefs by examining them from a variety of reference frames. What
happens when we drill down to a much smaller and more detailed scale? What
happens when we frame up to a larger and more comprehensive scale? Test your
beliefs by subjecting them to the analysis of reduction and the synthesis of holism.
Integrate your beliefs into a coherent whole that is consistent with the
broadest collection of evidence.
Perhaps the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus lived on Mount Olympus and was
the king of the gods. Perhaps faithful people could hold onto this quaint belief as long
as they stayed close to home. But as people explored more of the world they soon
recognized that Mount Olympus is not a particularly large mountain, chariots are
not a very wide-spread transport vehicle, and climbing Mount Olympus fails to
reveal the home of the gods. As your worldview expands to consider more of the
universe, it is likely your beliefs will have to be modified to accommodate this
broader expanse of information, experiences, and phenomenon.
Here are examples of how beliefs have
evolved to accommodate our
expanding knowledge as the scope of our evidence and understanding continues to
- Believers in a flat earth were challenged to revise their thinking centuries ago as
sailors circumnavigated the earth.
- Believing the earth is the center of the universe became increasingly
unreasonable as astronomers viewed more and more of the universe. Beliefs
evolved from the earth at the center of the universe, to the earth as one
planet circling the sun.
- As billions of sun-like stars were discovered throughout the universe,
we could begin to believe that some of these stars have their own solar
- As planets were discovered circling other stars we could begin to
believe that planets are common and their may be billions of them in the
- As we accept the likelihood that billions of planets exist, we can begin
to believe that intelligent life exists throughout the universe.
In another example, American's beliefs about freedom and equality have
expanded over time.
- When the declaration of independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the
“All men are created equal” meant that a few white aristocratic men
no longer agreed to obey King George III.
- On November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln called for “a new birth of freedom”
as he gave his Gettysburg address. This expanded our beliefs in equality to
include abolishing slavery.
- When the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was
ratified in 1920 American women were granted the right to vote. Our belief
in the equality of man was expanding to include women.
- The 1954 supreme court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
officially expanded our belief in equality to recognize that “separate
educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This paved the way for
integration and the Civil Rights Movement.
- On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously tested our actual beliefs in equality
for Afro-Americans by refusing to obey bus driver James Blake's order to give up her seat
and make room for a white passenger.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation in the United
States that outlawed segregation in the US schools and public places. We now
officially believed that even more people are created equal.
- The civil rights movement and the women's liberation movement continue
their struggles today to encourage the beliefs that all American humans
really are created equal.
- The United Nations
Declaration of Human Rights,
adopted in 1948, declares that “All human beings are born free and equal in
dignity and rights.” This provides international
recognition for the belief that all humans really are created equal
throughout the world. This simple but profound belief is only beginning to
be accepted throughout the world. How long will it take for us all to
share this belief?
As your experiences expand, your beliefs have to be deliberately revised to
accommodate your expanding worldview. Assimilate new information into your
worldview and adjust your worldview to accommodate the new evidence. As your beliefs are revised to
accurately accommodate a broader a worldview, it becomes more likely that
those beliefs are correct and useful.
Ignorance is often the result of a narrow worldview. This may be a
deliberate, desperate, stubborn, or manipulative attempt to hold onto obsolete
beliefs or to advance a particular viewpoint. It may also be an unavoidable
consequence of the size and scope of the universe compared to the limits of
human comprehension. Narrow minds have the most room for expansion. Don't choose
to ignore evidence; all of it is a part of the world as it is and it
vital clues to a broader understanding.
Hoaxes, practical jokes, myths, legends, rumors, speculation, ambiguity, misunderstandings,
mistranslations, misquotations, misrepresentations, censorship, cover ups, disinformation,
docudramas, indoctrination, hearsay, magic tricks, clairvoyants, retouched photos, sound bites,
edited audio and video, special effects video, gossip, blather, bluffs, bluster, boasts, bullshit, opinions, traditions,
assumptions, predictions, and so many more of the communications we see, read, or
hear are incorrect, misleading, or deceptive. Overcome your gullibility and approach it all with a healthy
Satisfy your curiosity; ask questions, probe for answers, investigate improbable
stories, follow your hunches, highlight inconsistencies, challenge assumptions,
go to the source, and uncover and examine direct evidence. Make your
Physicist Richard Feynman's skepticism played an essential role in
investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
His investigation style relied on his own direct methods rather than the
commission's carefully controlled presentation schedule. This put him at odds with investigating
commission chairman William Rogers, who once commented, “Feynman is becoming a
real pain.” During a televised hearing, Feynman famously demonstrated how the
O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at cold
temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water. This
simple demonstration quickly exposed the true causes of the disaster. His
skepticism cut through the pretentious façade protecting the status quo and uncovered the truth.
Many unlikely beliefs endure only because they cannot be disproven. Alien
abductions, faith healing, astrology, conspiracy theories, chain letter spells,
witchcraft, superstitions, religious dogma, and many other strongly held beliefs
are not supported by evidence, yet cannot be disproven. These beliefs are
defended by the claim: “I can't prove it true, but you can't prove it false.”
This challenge seeks to shift the burden of proof from the faithful to the skeptics. Such beliefs,
especially an unlikely belief, can be reasonably rejected simply because it
Shift the burden of proof to minimize regret if the decision turns out to be
wrong. Prosecutors hold the burden of proof in US courtrooms to protect the
space shuttle disaster could have been prevented if the managers accepted the burden
of proving the launch was safe.
A reasonable assumption is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary
evidence.” Doubt claims unsupported by evidence, but only supported because they
cannot be disproven.
Stories persuade us. Human memory is story-based. Stories are how we package
our experiences into a consistent and memorable framework that helps us make
sense of our world. The stories we remember determine what we believe. Every
day we are fascinated by stories from religious or cultural traditions, stories
of miraculous events or divine intervention, stories of good triumphing over
evil in classic literature, myths, and comic books; and stories of
adventure, hope, perseverance, discovery,
wisdom, foolishness, warmth, and love in
books, movies, conversation, and television shows. We enjoy telling our own stories
and listening to the stories of our family, friends, and even strangers. Some we
accept, recall often, retell, and base our own beliefs on. We reject others and use them
to ward off challenges to our beliefs.
Keep in mind that the story teller controls the narrative, and although there
are many sides to every story, you may be hearing only what this story teller
wants you to hear. History is usually written by the victors. Many stories are
deliberate distortions designed to pitch a particular viewpoint or idea. Critically reexamine your own collection of stories; get the facts, research
and analyze representative evidence supporting and refuting each story. Question
the relevance, timeliness, accuracy, and generality of each story. There can be
profound truth in a story of fiction while other stories can use facts to send a
false message. Constantly research,
rewrite, revise, and retell your own story to make it as true as can be.
Believe what you want!
Horoscopes, astrology, fortune tellers, clairvoyants, faith healers, and fad
diets are all very popular.
Many people believe that smoking is harmless and sophisticated, fast food is
healthy, magnets improve health, if you don’t eat fat you cannot become fat, and
honey, molasses, and high-fructose corn syrup are healthy alternatives to sugar.
Tapping the top of a soda can will prevent it from foaming over, eggs can
be balanced on end only during the equinox, we only use ten percent of our
brains, and “tip” is an acronym meaning to insure prompt service, are all
false legends that won’t die.
Anything that is comforting, flattering, convenient, fun, popular, charming,
inspirational, promising, or justifies what you are already doing is easy to believe.
Despite a total lack of evidence, overwhelming counter evidence, consistently poor
results, and your own deep-seated doubts, you cling to these convenient beliefs.
Self-justification runs deep. Get the hard
if they contradict the comfortable and convenient beliefs.
Superstitions—beliefs founded in folklore rather than fact—influence many
people's beliefs and behaviors. You may believe that Friday the thirteenth or
walking under a ladder bring bad luck. Perhaps you believe that a four-leaf
clover or crossing your fingers bring good luck. Have fun with these
quirky beliefs, but don't base important decisions on then.
Rumors—widely circulated but unconfirmed stories—are seductive; many of us
seek them out, accept them as fact, and can't wait to pass them on to our
friends. But they are very often false, or at least major distortions of the
truth. Don't get carried away. Rather than pass on a rumor, ask for the source,
apply critical thinking, check the facts for yourself, and set the record
Myths, Legends, and Folklore
The stories are often fun, and the facts are always suspect. Examine the
evidence, decide for yourself.
Fear Mongering—exploiting peoples' fears to advance your objective—is
extremely common and effective. In one recent year faulty toasters killed 791
people; sharks only 9. Yet the media coverage concentrates on the dangers of
shark attacks and surf swimming. Defense spending, war mongering, insurance
policies, security systems, and many other calls to action are driven by
exaggerated fears. Get the facts and decide with a cool head.
We only see what we focus on. We can only focus on what we are exposed to. If
our exposure is limited to a small circle, or similar circles, our evidence is
intrinsically incomplete. We don't know what it is that we don't know. We don't
even know if it is important. Walk miles in other moccasins before deciding.
In his book
Leaving Truth, Keith Sewell presents the Knowledge Selection Process
he uses to determine if a belief is justified or not. It incorporates many of
the theory of knowledge concepts presented here in a hierarchy of five rules,
- Knowledge = any clear and useful proposal that is potentially falsifiable
through on-demand repeatable physical observation (this causes him to accept the
present findings of science because they are based on the scientific method),
- Any proposal that he can understand to be rational and grounded in his own
personal observations, unless it is contradicted by rule 1 (this allows him to
believe what he sees with own eyes, subject to the complexities of
- Childhood beliefs that have not yet been contradicted by rules 1 or 2 (this
allows him to retain family lore and other fond memories that are not otherwise
- Reliable un-biased testimony offered in good faith by a reasonable person
knowledgeable in the topic that is not contradicted by rules 1–3 (this allows
him to learn by reading well-researched books, attending lectures, and engaging
others in honest speech),
- Any appealing proposal not contradicted by rules 1–4.
If you are uncomfortable adopting his Knowledge Selection Process as your own
theory of knowledge, he invites you to write down your own method for justifying
A Partially Closed System
Any Theory of Knowledge can easily become a partially closed system. The
principles used to select beliefs will inevitably become reflected in the Theory
of Knowledge itself. This tendency can be somewhat counteracted by expanding the
scope of the world-view used to construct the theory of knowledge to encompass
as broad a range of phenomena as possible.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with what we can know. It
addresses questions such as: “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge acquired?”,
and “What can people know?” It is the formal study of the theory of knowledge
and has provided much of the material presented here. But epistemology also raises
several difficult, fundamental, unanswered questions. For example the theory of
radical skepticism doubts any premise that is used as the basis for further
knowledge. This leads to an infinite regress where literally nothing can be
known for certain.
While these deep questions are fascinating and may eventually shake the
foundation of understanding as we know it, they don't seem to help us make the
day-to-day decisions we need to make as we live our lives. Studying and applying the
practical suggestions presented on this web page can greatly improve your
understanding of the theory of knowledge. This can help you choose
on a firm foundation and make better choices every day.
Responsibility Harnesses Free Speech
The right to free speech is perhaps the most important right ever granted and protected
by law. It is an essential element of freedom. One result of free speech is that
much of what is written and said is not accurate, complete, or representative. This places
the responsibility on each of us to apply the theory of knowledge to all that we
see and hear. We have the responsibility to decide for ourselves what it is we
believe. The right of free speech requires a thorough understanding and
diligent application of the theory of knowledge. Responsibility harnesses free
speech. Don't be fooled, lives literally depend on it.
- “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” ~ Folk wisdom
- “The source of all problems today comes from the gap between how we
think and how nature works” ~
- “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people
some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time”. ~
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
- “Won't get fooled again.” ~ The Who
- “Responsibility harnesses free speech.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” ~
Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli
- “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” ~ Book title, Richard
- “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” ~
- “Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.” ~
- “Throughout history, those bent on domination have always seen reason as
their enemy.” ~ Al Gore
- “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” ~ Alex Hamilton
- “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”
~ Voltaire, in Essays on Tolerance
- “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” ~ John
- “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” ~ Voltaire
- “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.”
Alfred North Whitehead
- “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” ~
- “...our stories are our limitation” ~ Peter Block
- “The search for hard to vary explanations is the origin of all
progress.” ~ David Deutsch
- “Science is truth found out.” ~
A Rulebook for Arguments, by Anthony Weston
Introduction to Logic,
by Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio
The Wisdom of Crowds,
by James Surowiecki
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,
by Charles MacKay
Informational Cascades and Rational
Herding: An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Reference website.
Refuting Unfalsifiable Claims with Superior, Incompatible Explanations, by
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief,
by Lewis Wolpert
The Assault on Reason,
by Al Gore
The Story Factor,
by Annette Simmons
On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not,
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,
by Jonathan Haidt
Starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Being certain, no doubt, has its own implications.
Thank You for Smoking,
Untangle the spin and decide for yourself.
A new way to explain explanation, June 2009 TED talk by David Deutsch
The Mind, The Brain And Complex Adaptive Systems,
by Harold J. Morowitz, Jerome
The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, April 18, 2011, Chris Mooney,
Why we should trust scientists, TED talk, May 2014, by Naomi Oreskes