Getting at the truth – it doesn’t have to be so hard

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.

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.  First – climate change:

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 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.  Or at least, some other factor was at work in these periods.

And the biggest joke is this: while much of the US has now made global warming mandatory in the school curricula, German scientists Horst-Joachim Luedecke and Carl-Otto Weiss of the European Institute for Climate and Energy say we are heading for a little ice age.  I remember a sports shop that gave up its winter gear for surfboards, because they believed there would be no more snow.  Maybe that was a premature decision.

Now an example from my own life to show that what is simple and obvious can be wrong.
I sleep a lot.  Much older folk are animatedly carrying on conversations in my living-room while I’m already collapsed in bed.  I was told by my teenage nieces that the reason I sleep those ten hours a night is because I am fatigued by my abnormal diet. My diet is somewhat unusual, because 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. My compulsive behaviors led to extreme stress and unhealthy eating, which led to my feeling bad and long-term physical damage.  In turn all this damage and misery led to my adopting a diet that did make me feel better, but which caused 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 playing out, and not what could have been.  It has been said that the saddest words are “it could have been.”

Many of our categories leave room for error too. For instance, if we use another “health” example, I know a woman in her 70’s who has shaking hands, a back that sometimes hurts to the point that it interferes with walking, memory problems etc. It’s a no-brainer to blame this on old age.

Until, that is, you read the Wall Street Journal of 1/14/14, which tells you of four men in their 70’s that cycled (as a relay) across our entire 3000 mile continent in a week and a day. They are just as old, but obviously some other factor plays a part. In fact, its conceivable that old age has nothing at all to do with this woman’s problems. (Unlikely, but conceivable).

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 economics, there is a 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.  For instance, the government spends money on computers for its departments, so the truckers who brought the computers from the port get paid, the longshoremen who unloaded the computers from the container ship 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.

High Noon
High Noon

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…

Note that in the prior argument, I thought of a counter-example to the ‘money and power’ idea, but I did that by first thinking of other possible causes for bad actions.  If you can’t think of a counter-example, first try and formulate an alternative cause, and that may bring to mind an example.

One 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?


Another point is that we should be able to consider what seems totally impossible. About 400 BC, a Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that 200 years earlier, the king of the Egyptians, Necho, had sent out Phoenician sailors who sailed all the way down the east coast of Africa, round the bottom, and up the entire west coast and back to Egypt.  But Herodotus did not believe the story, because the sailors reported that at one point in their trip, the sun was at “their right hand”.  Today we interpret that as saying that when the sailors traveled west, the sun was always somewhat to the right of them.  In the Northern hemisphere (at least as far north as Greece, where Herodotus was, and Egypt, where Necho was) this never happens.  And yet, now in the year 2013, it is exactly this detail that tells us that the sailors really did get to the southern hemisphere and go around Africa.  The detail that was “impossible”, if you believe the world is flat, as Herodotus and his contemporaries did, now becomes the detail that proves the truth of the story.

Once you believe something that was “impossible” is really possible, then there may be a cascading set of conclusions that expand exponentially.  As an example, I still run into people who believe that criminals are only interested in money.  My own understanding has evolved to  include other motivations.  I also understand that the limits of conscience, decency, respect for others, and so forth can be totally and completely missing in criminals.  And that means, that given the right weapons, (which I believe some have obtained) they can become a huge and mighty force.  But that is for another post.

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.  That means we should even be willing to debate people we believe to be crazy.  Nothing should be off the table for debate. (of course in practice, we don’t have time to delve into every proposition that comes along, and we do have to choose).

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.  In fact, he thinks that much of what we call “reasoning” is just the process of confirming what we already believe or want to believe.  It doesn’t just apply to politics, let 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.


The Herodotus story is in Greek Geography by Eric Warmington, J M Dent & Sons (London) 1934

Heading to a little ice age


2 thoughts on “Getting at the truth – it doesn’t have to be so hard

  1. 1. Do you test your beliefs before believing them?
    3. In theory A could cause B and B could contribute to A. That’s a vicious circle.
    4. Your diet could be contributing to your fatigue.
    5. The argument that life is not intuitive because people have crazy beliefs is not a good one.
    6. You ask 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?
    — the answer is because if you believe that you don’t’ think your loved ones will get killed. You feel good.

    Regarding debating a lunatic, there is a saying of Mark Twain’s “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

    1. On #5, I mean that it is intuitive to many people that the way to cure poverty is to take from “the rich” and give to the poor. Or that if we are losing manufacturing jobs to other countries, that we should put up tariffs (a tax) to make the manufactures of other countries more expensive. Or that a minimum wage will help the poor. Economics is a good example where intuitions often gone wrong. The Obama health plan is too. Supposedly it should have at least lowered the number of people going to emergency rooms for basic care. The opposite has happened.
      On “Debating a Lunatic”, there are several people who actually experienced massacres – either they were shot at along with their fellows, or they saw it from the sidelines, and they were dismissed as lunatics. See the books: “All Rivers Run to the Sea” by Elie Wiesel, and “There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok” by Yaffa Eliach. If the listeners to the warners had just said to themselves “what would have to be true for these massacre reports to not be lunacy” and if they had done some testing, they might have saved lives – their own, and others.

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