How do we get at the truth? Think of how many people in this world believe things diametrically opposite to what you believe. We can’t all be right.
On the one hand, we seem to know how to get at the truth, since we as a species have sent probes outside of the solar system, and split the atom, and have sequenced the entire genetic code of our own species. We can build cities, and supersonic jets, and so forth.
But I find that the techniques of thought that lead to science and engineering successes are not used often by ordinary people in everyday life. The simple idea of testing something before you believe it (or dismiss it), often does not occur to people. I admit that life is not a controlled experiment, and usually we don’t have time to check all our sources, and test every assertion that comes our way, but we could do better.
And much of our reality is shaped by other human beings, and human beings are very hard to understand. For one thing current psychology says we have an “interpreter” in our minds that tries to make sense of what our own minds decide, but that interpreter is not always correct.
Now as far as life not being a controlled experiment, here is an example of what I mean by that. We have an economic crisis that started under a Republican President. It continued, and got worse, under a Democratic President. The Democrat blamed the problems on the “mess” created by his predecessor.
Now if life really was a controlled experiment, we could rerun the election, have a very libertarian free-market type be elected instead of the statist Democrat, and see what the economy would be like now. Then the assertion that the current mess is due to the past president could be better tested. Likewise, there is now much discussion among leftist young people about our ‘crisis of Capitalism’. It would be nice to see if that crisis is really a crisis of Capitalism, or of bad policies.
There are other ways to test propositions, though not as rigorous. For instance, suppose I claim that “Socialist” policies lead to economic problems. I could look at Nicaragua, an extreme socialist state where extreme poverty is common and conclude that Socialism is incompatible with prosperity. But then I could be surprised at Evo Morales’ Bolivia, which is just as Socialist, but also awash with drug money.
A common fallacy to watch for is that correlation always means causation. I’ll give one example from my own history, and the other from “Climate Change” debate. The first one may seem ridiculously trivial, but it does have a point to it.
I was told by my teenage nieces that the reason I sleep ten hours a night is because I am fatigued by my abnormal diet. My diet is somewhat unusual, but I eat two large meals a day with all the basic food groups. To my nieces, the crazy part is that the diet is low in fat, and moreover I won’t eat snacks, or even lunch.
This issue, though small, is worth examining, because it is plausible. A deficient diet could indeed lead to fatigue. A diet lacking enough calories would too. So we have a causal chain from diet to fatigue.
But then we have anomalies. Such as multiple doctors praising my health, and one telling me I had a physique “to die for.”
And my nieces did not know that for several years of my adolescence I had been diagnosed as a bulimic. I could not stop eating. This was combined with severe stress due to compulsive behaviors that eventually became splashed right in front of my fellow high-schoolers. I actually felt like my body was burning up from pure stress in those days. And when it was all over, I could not run even a mile, and I had to sleep a lot.
So the real causal chain might be this. Compulsive behaviors lead to extreme stress and unhealthy eating, which lead to feeling bad and long-term physical damage, which lead to my adopting a diet that does make me feel better, but which causes my nieces to associate the physical damage with the new diet.
So instead of “A” (diet) causing “B” (oversleeping), we have “C”(bad lifestyle) causing both “A”(a new diet) and “B” (oversleeping).
That experience also made me think that people can damage themselves in a way that just doesn’t register in medical textbook. I met a fellow cyclist who was doing poorly in a trip she and I were on, and she explained that she had spent much of her teen years on a diet that consisted solely of ice cream and popcorn. My guess is that this was her way of dieting, or she had some strange teenage theory of health. There is no medical textbook that has a chapter on the effects of “three years of nothing but ice cream and popcorn on bicycling ability”, but she was sure it had had its effect, and that there would never be a full recovery.
What we see in life is one scenario, not what could have been.
In science, there are big questions of what is true and what isn’t. For instance, “Man Made Global Warming”, we are told, will lead to disaster unless we spend trillions of dollars, and change our lifestyles. This is supposedly the consensus view, and the people who deny it are compared to “holocaust deniers”.
Governments have spent a great deal of money on “green” “sustainable” energy because of this theory.
One piece of evidence for this theory is that in the ancient past, when Carbon Dioxide levels go up, so does the temperature.
However, some “deniers” point out that when a soda full of Carbon Dioxide gets warm, all the Carbon Dioxide bubbles out, and the soda goes “flat”. This holds for the ocean too; when the oceans get warmer, they hold less gas in them. So to the “deniers”, there is a correlation, but the cause is backwards. ”Warming causes CO2 increase, and not CO2 causes warming.” Normally I would tend to believe the first explanation – that CO2 causes warming – because of the greenhouse effect. But the alternative becomes convincing if you realize that in the past, the rise in CO2 followed the rise in temperature. There was a time lag. Obviously “A” can’t cause “B” if A came after B in time.
While many believe that the man-made contribution to climate is as undeniable as evolution, some simply pretend to believe it. For instance, China just led a walkout from the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw because a promise of reparations was not forthcoming by the “rich countries” for the climate damage their man-made warming had done to poor countries. How do we know that is cynical? Well, China is adding a large number of coal plants, I believe one every month, to its energy mix, and obviously coal is a big source of CO2. China does not practice at all what it preaches.
Some compare the believers of impending environmental disaster to members of other social movements in the past that believed of other types of apocalypse – see the book cover on the left.
If they are right, we are in a kind of mass illusion. If not, we may be ignoring science at our peril.
Much of life is also not intuitive. Economics for example. I personally think “you cannot get something for nothing” and “there is no free lunch”, which inspires my understanding of the subject. But many people think that if you don’t want people to work for low wages, all you have to is pass a law saying that high wages must be paid.
Or if we want to have a car that causes half as much pollution, we just pass a law that says that in five years, all cars must meet those standards.
If prices are too high, we will just pass a law that they must be lower. Interestingly, it’s not just people on left who believe in price controls, we had a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who imposed wage and price controls. The usual bad results happened when he did this. If you prevent people from making even a small profit on what they produce they won’t produce it, and shortages ensue.
In Venezuela, which exports oil, the socialists who took charge thought that the oil money could be used to pay for the needs of the poor. But somehow, that didn’t work. Runaway inflation and shortages plague the country.
Every night of a recent week Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro launched on radio and TV accusations against the country’s merchants : “Parasites” , “viruses” , “bloodsuckers” and “termites of evil.”
As one writer says about Maduro’s followers “They just know that they want free stuff now and the “rich people” are keeping it away from them.”
Back to economics, there is the theory that if the government spends money on a good, that this spending is good for the economy. Not only that, but there is a “Keynesian Multiplier” so that every dollar spent leads to more than a dollar of value. The government gives out free food to the poor, the farmers get paid for the food, the truckers who bring the food from the farms get paid, the food-warehouse owners get paid, and all these workers can then spend money on their needs. Perhaps the trucker uses his profit to buy flowers for his wife, which helps the local vase factory.
One problem with the above idea is that if the dollar spent by government leads to more than a dollar in value, then that should also hold true for anyone who spends money. So when the recipients of the government dollars spend money that should lead to yet more and more value, with a positive feedback until the whole country is rich. Somehow that doesn’t happen.
One tool we can use to test reality is to use counter examples.
For instance, I once heard a talk show where a caller insisted that the reason for the violence in American schools was the legacy of the “Wild West”. (It is true that the Wild West was often a lawless place, and our frontier was often out of the reach of law enforcement.) The talk show host felt there was something wrong with that assertion, but he could not say exactly what.
I thought about it, and I realized that some schools are violent, and some are not. I graduated from a very peaceful suburban high school. But twenty miles away, there was an urban high school where students threw a chair out of a high window and killed a passerby on the street. If the “Wild West” was the reason for violence, then my school should also have been violent, and there should be no particular reason why the “inner city” tends to have more violent schools than the suburbs.
Counterexamples often exist, but it’s not always easy to think of them. Sometimes they exist in “time”, that is, you can think of a situation in the past with the same supposed cause, that had a different result. Sometimes they exist in “space”. East and West Germany occurred at the same time, but different space, but one did much better than another. One was a counter-example to theories of socialist utopia.
Human motivation is also paradoxically, something that humans really don’t understand too well. Part of the problem is that humans vary tremendously.
I knew a fellow who thought that bad people are primarily motivated by “money and power”. I think this leaves out a lot of motivations. For instance, the men who put a bomb in Fraunces Tavern in New York were interested in Puerto Rican independence, not wealth. They created “a scene of “utter havoc,” with blood- and dust-covered men and women, many in business attire, writhing in agony in the streets, or shrieking under piles of rubble…
Or the suicide bomber who sat in a restaurant, had a meal, looked at her co-diners, and then blew herself up, was not interested in money and power. She was interested in making a scene where “people who were one second earlier smiling and eating were lying on the floor in pools of blood.”
Another problem that some people have is an intolerance for ambiguity. Life is not always presented to us as a whole story, with all the loose ends tied up, all the mysteries explained, all the contradictions resolved. So there are times when we should believe something, or at least investigate it, but we lack an explanation, or a causal set of links and we assume it cannot be possible. This happened in various situations in World War II, for example. Britons did not believe Hitler wanted war, Americans did not believe Hitler was massacring Jews, Jews did not believe they would be massacred, etc. Not only that, but when they were confronted with eye-witness accounts, the eye-witnesses were dismissed as “hysterical” or even crazy. We could suppose that “people believe what they want to believe”, but why believe something that will give you a false sense of security to the point that not only you get killed, but your loved ones do too?
Here is a scenario: suppose you went on a walk on a deserted beach, went to sleep behind a rock, and suddenly a small submarine surfaced, and several Spanish speaking men carrying sacks of white powder came out and headed inland. Without any other proof, you might be accused of making it up, or hallucinating the whole experience in a dream as you dozed behind the rock. In this case, you are coming to an extreme conclusion, which is that Latin American drug runners are landing on that beach, after a very long journey, but the only evidence is “an experience” by you.
Personally, I would say while subjective experience can be completely wrong, it also can be completely right, and moreover, it may be all we have to go on, at least for a while.
In the above story of the submarine, the motivation at least makes sense – some bad guys from Latin America want to make money selling drugs. If you have a story with a motivation that does not make sense, then forget being believed. And yet, we often hear about “senseless crimes”, or we get mystified why some attractive, sociable girl (Phoebe Prince) gets bullied to the point she commits suicide, or at the sadism of an American housewife (Sandra Bearden) to a domestic that she made into a slave, or many other behaviors that appall us, and that we do not understand.. Also we do know that people have made terrible, even fatal, mistakes, by not understanding motivation of bad guys.
So, to sum up, in life, we unfortunately don’t test things often, we do not act like scientists confronted with a theory. we don’t act like a judge hearing lawyers for both sides, and many of us have tendencies to poor thinking habits. Life may be too short to act like a scientist in every instance. We should learn from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal, but then, as part of his research started reading the thoughts of conservatives. To his surprise, some of what they said made sense to him. It doesn’t just apply to politics, lets us remember that we can be mistaken, and try to use the basic tools of getting at the truth that we do have available to us.
“Bullied to the point of suicide”: - http://understandingevil.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/bullied-to-the-point-of-suicide/
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