In a world of overwhelming misinformation, how can we know what’s true?
It’s a common problem, especially today when the Internet gives us access to seemingly unlimited information at our fingertips: how do we know what’s true?
How do we know what to believe, or at least consider, when so much is clickbait or intentionally misleading? How do we know what information may be valid when so many “experts” are cited making so many contradictory assertions?
Let’s assume there is an objective reality and that we’re not all living in solipsistic individual universes in which anything (unicorns, anti-gravity chewing gum, basic human decency) is possible. Otherwise we may as well give up and start rocking back and forth while emitting high-pitched whines.
So: how do we know what’s real and what is spurious?
We tend to apply, often unconsciously, some rough & ready heuristics. If the topic is medical, we assume doctors know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, very often they don’t. Medical training is still stuck in the mindset prevalent more than two hundred years ago, and doctors aren’t taught how to think rationally. Despite all the talk of being evidence-based, most medical practice lacks true scientific rigor.
For example: in 2018 total US spending on trying to treat back pain exceeded $88 billion. Yet analysis of outcomes shows conclusively that almost all of this money was wasted. Doctors prescribed opiates, which do nothing to help but which do contribute to the USA’s endemic opiate addiction problem. Doctors prescribe MRIs, which all evidence shows are useless for this condition. Doctors perform spinal fusion surgery, which has been known for decades to be totally ineffective.
Doctors have also been responsible for over-prescribing antibiotics which has led to drug-resistant bacteria evolving. Doctors are the reason so many US children are addicted to ADHD medications and the additional medications they take to attempt to offset the side-effects of ADHD medications.
And let’s not forget that doctors have written silly books about vaccines causing autism (which is untrue) and wheat causing weight gain (which is untrue). And let’s not even start on the dozens of utterly spurious books written by doctors on the subject of losing weight…
So when it comes to matters of biology it seems that our heuristic of assuming that doctors know what they’re talking about is deeply flawed.
But what about “scientists?” You know, those unfeeling abstractions in white coats who know the secrets of the universe? Surely they can be trusted?
Unfortunately, the layperson’s conception of how science works is wrong, which means that the layperson’s interpretation of scientific results is also wrong. Meanwhile the media needs to grab eyeballs, so even modest and sensible studies are misreported in order to attract attention.
A classic example: one small study using a tiny worm (Caenorhabditis elegans) doused in a particular kind of fatty acid (alpha lipoic acid) showed the worm lives 30% longer than when people just leave it alone. So the clickbait title is: Scientists prove humans can live to 130 years old!!
Of course the study showed no such thing. Biology is very complex, and no one who knows anything about biology would even for a second think that the worm experiment has any relevance to human biology. But for an ordinary person glancing at the headline, it would seem to confirm the hype about life extension pushed out by people who want to believe we’re only five minutes away from finding ways to cheat death entirely and live forever.
Science works by very slowly amassing a body of empirical evidence around a topic. Unless validated independently by other scientists, any individual result is potentially meaningless. Science is imperfect because people make mistakes in study design, they analyze their data incorrectly, and sometimes they cheat. But it’s the only method we humans have ever developed for arriving at real solid understanding of the world around us. So it’s worth being patient with science, but we should not regard it as infallible in the short to medium term.
Even the two leading journals of scientific reporting, Science and Nature, have stated that at least half of all scientific papers are either misleading or entirely incorrect. Which means that even a reputable team whose results have been published in a reputable journal may have produced garbage output. We need to avoid jumping to conclusions and we need to acquire the habit of patience.
Only if a result is replicated independently can we begin to trust its accuracy.
This is bringing us a little closer to a heuristic of knowledge acquisition, because there’s one thing above all else that science has revealed to us: the universe is consistent.
What this means is that across scales large and small, the universe works in a consistent manner. Gravity works the same way on Jupiter as it does on Earth. Photons emitted by a distant star work in the same way as photon emitted by our own sun. The fundamental bio-energetics utilized by the leaf of an acacia tree to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar are the same bio-energetics utilized by a blade of grass. The fundamental constraints of physics determine the evolution of life. Plants can’t magically take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into multi-colored paint any more than a human can flap her arms and fly up into space.
Once we realize there’s a fundamental consistency to the way the universe works, we can use this knowledge to assess new information.
So if Doctor X publishes a book that gets onto the NYT best-seller list that tells us we can all live to be 1,000 years old by chewing cactus pith we ought to be skeptical because everything else we know about biology indicates this is a highly unlikely proposition. Unless Doctor X’s claims can be validated by independent researchers under stringent test conditions, it’s unlikely these claims are even remotely true. Likewise if Sanjiv Gupta, PhD tells us he’s invented a magic black box that generates unlimited power from vacuum energy we ought to wait until this claim has been validated independently by several studies because his claim flies in the face of everything we know about entropy.
Marcello Truzzi back in 1978 pointed out that “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof” before we give it any credence.
Sadly, we usually forget this important idea and blindly accept all manner of absurd claims merely because it’s easier for us to do so than to attempt to reason things through from first principles.
Furthermore, the human brain has not evolved to perform consistency checking, which is why we reliably fall for scams and false claims. So while we may know intellectually that anti-gravity chewing gum is impossible, our simple brains will latch onto the idea precisely because it’s simple. Belief avoids the need to expend effort thinking, so we default to belief nearly always.
Unfortunately, belief is no indicator of adequacy. No matter how strongly one believes in something, there’s zero guarantee that reality conforms to the belief. History shows us clearly that nearly all beliefs turn out to be utterly false. The Earth is not supported on the shoulder of a giant man standing on a tortoise. The sun and moon do not revolve around the Earth. Wearing magic amulets don’t protect us from bullets. Draining blood from a patient doesn’t cure a fever. Fairies don’t live at the bottom of the garden. Crop circles were not made by visitors from another planet.
In retrospect all these beliefs, and millions more, are obviously silly. But that didn’t prevent hundreds of millions of people fervently holding and defending them resolutely. So we can’t depend on the strength of our credulity to be any kind of indicator of reality.
But by adopting the habit of saying to ourselves, “Wait a minute, is this new claim compatible with everything else we currently know about this subject? Has this claim been supported by reputable independent studies?” we can avoid a lot of false belief.
This is especially important when the topic is highly emotive. Who wouldn’t want to cure cancer or invent an unlimited source of clean power or become a billionaire overnight by chanting some special mantra? We all yearn to be told there’s a magical solution, which is why most people at all times and in all places have believed and continue to believe in magical tales.
No matter how much we’d like something to be true, however, we need to remember that wanting something is no guarantor of its reality. And we can do ourselves great harm when we opt to believe in fairytales instead of facing up to real life. Think of all the children who’ve died recently because some parents thought vaccinations would give their child autism (a totally false belief). Think of all the people who’ve been tortured and burned over the millennia because people believed in gods and goblins. Think of all those who’ve died or become vegetables because they believed they’d magically be safely “thrown clear” of their vehicle in the event of a collision.
The list of harms we humans do to ourselves because of false beliefs is nearly limitless.
It’s well past time we started doing better. And with today’s overflow of misinformation that is delivered to us on a daily basis through the marvel of the Internet, it’s essential that we stop being so credulous and start exercising a bit of intellectual judgement.
Of course there’s a problem: if we don’t know much, we can’t compare any new claim to our existing knowledge base. If we know nothing about cellular biology, how can we assess a claim that involves cellular biology? If we know nothing about physics, how can we know that Dr Gupta’s magic black box is impossible?
There are two general options open to us.
The first is skepticism combined with a little research. For example, a decade ago many people believed that coconut sugar was “better” for us than regular white sugar. There were literally hundreds of articles stating this “fact” spread across glossy health magazines, Internet blogs, and podcasts. But it didn’t take much research to discover that all of these articles always cited a single study conducted in the 1930s by…. the Coconut Sugar Marketing Board.
This study was hilariously biased: one teaspoon of coconut sugar was dissolved in a liter of water, while a much larger amount of sugar was also dissolved in a liter of water. A handful of people were asked to drink the water with the small amount of coconut sugar added, while an equally small number of people were asked to drink the water with the much greater amount of white sugar added. Not surprisingly, when urine and blood was analyzed, the people who drank the water with more sugar had more sugar in their bodily fluids. And so the myth of coconut sugar being “better” for us was born, and no one ever bothered to go back and look at the original study.
The second option is pure skepticism. Whenever we read of some miraculous new discovery or breakthrough, simply treat it with great caution. Wait until multiple independent validations have been reported. Only then give the idea any credence.
Unfortunately the human brain hates waiting, hates ambiguity, and loves to rush to conclusions. It’s very, very difficult to avoid believing whatever we’re told. It’s far easier to believe a guru has been given a magical truth box from the Angels of Zorca than to stop ourselves from believing that we can all extend our lives by drinking lots of red wine.
There’s a limitless flood of misinformation pouring into our heads every single day, much of it intentionally malicious and the rest merely misguided nonsense. Unless we begin to be more rational and skeptical, our civilization is doomed.
Because when we base our actions on false beliefs there is no chance those actions will be positive and every chance they will be harmful.
Just how much harm can a society endure before it collapses? Brexit and Trump show us clearly that the answer is: nowhere near as much as we used to assume.
So let’s embrace a healthy skepticism, let’s look for solid proof before we believe in things, and let’s remember that it is always easier to believe blindly than to reason with open eyes.