9 ways to find reality in a post-truth world

[ This is post #11 in the series, “Finding reality in a post truth world.” ]

Millions upon millions of people have latched onto a dangerous version of “alternate reality,” wherein they believe that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. Before we get on our high horse and condemn or ridicule them, we need to realize that we all engage in this behavior on some scale. Like it or not, evolution has endowed us with a brain that relies on both the Automatic System 1 and the Deliberative System 2. To find reality, we need to learn how to modulate the interplay between those two systems.

Hopefully, the reader will study the four books this series is based on, and then proceed to explore the many other studies and books devoted to this subject. The following is a list of actions that may help you in your endeavor.

1. Always remember this is a human problem

The minute you get on your high horse and sneer at others, you put yourself in danger of falling for the same traps. Daniel Kahneman writes about how for many years he assumed he was using the correct sample sizes. He fooled himself into believing he didn’t need to check his work because, after all, he was writing about AS1 deficiencies. As Dr. Novella writes, “The first rule of skepticism is not that we never talk about skepticism. Talk about it as much as you want. The first rule is to apply these principles of critical thinking to yourself foremost.” [Skeptics’ Guide, p. 431]

Political theater has ingrained in us the false idea that changing your mind is “flip-flopping.” This bit of pseudo-advice is a glorification of ideological glaciation and is the antithesis of scientific skepticism. Some ideas will cause you pain when you give them up, but in the long run, adherence to truth is much more fruitful than mythology.

2. Forget about the advice, “Trust your gut.”

Virtually every drama on TV repeats this tired cliche. Basically, it’s saying, “Stop using your Deliberative System 2 and rely entirely on your Automatic System 1.” It is an anti-intellectual slogan that is the basis of racism, misogyny, and a host of other AS1 based societal ills.

The idea that you should ignore your “gut” is just as ridiculous. AS1 is part of our biology. It is one of the reasons we survived to become the apex predator of the planet.

The trick is to learn to modulate the interaction between the two systems and learn how much of each system to take into account in any situation. When answering the question, “What is 2 + 2?” there is no need engage DS2 with philosophizing about the theory of numbers. But when answering, “What is 627 x 874?” your DS2 better be armed with a methodology to derive the answer, because your “gut” (AS1) will be helpless.

3. If you’re not an expert, rely on the expert consensus

Will the experts always be right? No. In the first month of the pandemic, experts, fearing a run on PPE, advised regular people to forget about wearing masks. There were videos used to support this argument that showed how only N95 masks were effective in stopping the spread of droplets.

Then science move forward. The experts found that 1) COVID was spread through not just droplets, but aerosols, and 2) that face masks in general were effective in stopping the spread of aerosols.

If you relied on expert consensus, you might have been “wrong” for a few weeks at most. Science is a self-correcting mechanism, and that’s what happened in this case.

Going with the experts won’t make you right 100% of the time, but it will have a better track record than anything else.

The good thing about this is that you don’t have to become an expert yourself, and with today’s search engines, it’s almost trivial to find the scientific consensus in any area, from global climate change to GMO. Before you “buy organic” or “non-GMO” or “gluten-free,” ask yourself honestly if you have bothered to find out what the scientific consensus is.

It’s especially important not to confuse juries with scientific consensus. Skillful lawyers are well-versed in the manipulation of AS1 to get a favorable verdict. This is particularly true where risk and probability are concerned. This year, a jury in California awarded a man $289 million in damages supposedly caused by glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. This verdict had much more to do with jury sympathies than science.

4. Continuously evaluate your information network

Many of us have never analyzed our information network once, let alone continuously. We tune into the same news station every night, talk to the same people about every problem. Even though we might start out with a fairly reliable network, it won’t be reliable in every arena because of the inability of all people to excel in more than one of two areas.

Failure to evaluate our information network is also a disservice to others in our network. We inevitably latch on to cognitive fallacies of our own, and our natural desire to socialize means we likely spread these fallacies to others.

5. Remember that the road to scientific skepticism is long and arduous

When I was in my 20’s, I believed aliens had visited the earth and made the lines at Nazca. It never occurred to me what a deeply condescending view this was. That was hardly the only ridiculous theory I espoused. The Dunning-Kruger effect had taken hold of me, and my very being was bound up with my crackpot ideas.

It took me twenty years to start relying on scientific skepticism. In your circle of family and friends, there are very likely some members who are as stubborn as me, whose very identities are bound up with various versions of “alternate reality.” Revising your identity is a painful process.

An identity based on false ideas is an edifice made of cognitive bricks. The mortar is more like toothpaste than concrete. Just remove one of those bricks, and the building starts to come apart. In other words, as Dr. Novella writes, “plant the seed.” Don’t try to convert anyone in one fell swoop. Recognize the difficulty you might have had coming to grips with your own cognitive fallacies and give others the breathing room you needed.

And, yes, I realize this is easier said than done. I have been known to be quite impatient with people who espouse what I now consider nonsense, especially if it’s nonsense I used to believe in!

This is not a reason to excuse racism, misogyny, or all the other ills caused by a too-dominant AS1. It doesn’t mean we should excuse people like Dr. Scott Atlas, who use their medical credentials to spread dangerous ideas. But we do need to differentiate between public policy makers vs. family and friends who rely on these policy makers.

6. Teach scientific skepticism to the next generation

The older you are, the more difficult it is to change your ideation. Most of us have grandkids, children, nephews, and nieces who are ripe for an appreciation of science, the scientific attitude and scientific skepticism. The objective world, precisely because our senses are incapable of understanding it directly, is full of wonder. We can take joy in conveying this wonder to the young people in our lives.

7. Accept that science is never a certainty

Ever wonder why it’s called the “theory” of evolution, or the “theory” of climate change? It’s because the essence of the scientific attitude is continuous testing of a proposition, which implies the possibility, however small, that it may be wrong or incomplete.

Einstein’s theory of relativity has been tested over and over again for 100 years. Most tests have resulted in confirmation, but there are some gaps, especially when it comes to dark matter and dark energy.

If and when there is a revised theory of gravity and space time, it too will be tested over and over again. Science is all about probability, not absolute certainty.

Saying something is a “theory” doesn’t mean, however, that it’s just an idea like any other. Again, we need to go back to the principle of relying on scientific consensus for areas in which we’re amateurs. Epidemiologists have “theories” about the spread of COVID. Nations that have relied on their expertise have fared much better than those that argued that one theory is as good as another when it comes to COVID.

When politicians advocate basing policy on “science,” they can’t mean basing it on absolute certainty. Smart public policy based on science means following the consensus of experts, and most of all, getting recognized experts to advise government officials.

8. Eliminate social media as a source of news

The objective of AI behind social media is to manipulate your AS1 to maximize the time you spend with a social media platform. In that respect it plays the role of a propagandist in your information network. However, it is much worse than that, because it does this far more effectively than an individual, and it does it at scale.

Part of the reason we have so many problems in our society is that far too many people get their news from social media. A Pew Research study in 2019 found that 34% of US adults preferred to get their news from social media. Pew found that 43% of Americans got some form of news from Facebook. Facebook, despite ubiquitous “apologies” from Mark Zuckerberg, has one goal: to manipulate your AS1 fears, prejudices, and desires so that you spend more time on Facebook, so that they can get more advertising dollars.

My recommendation would be to use platforms like Facebook for one thing only: to look at photos from your family. Notice I didn’t include friends. You’re very likely to have friends who only advertise their best moments, thus inducing FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in you. Of course family members can and will do that as well, but at least you’re limiting your exposure.

9. Do an annual inventory of your core beliefs

As I mentioned earlier, science is constantly perfecting itself. That means that the scientific consensus in an area will very likely change over the course of time. It’s tempting to be lazy about challenging yourself, but it’s a necessary antidote to from humble amateur status to nonsensical Dunning-Kruger status.

I have done this with a variety of my core beliefs, and found myself in need of an upgrade. I used to wholeheartedly buy into the “organic” point of view. I used to believe that the solution to our energy problems excluded nuclear power, at least that based on fission technologies.

Ask yourself which of your most cherished beliefs are based on research you did more than five years ago. Reexamine what the scientific consensus is in these areas. You might be surprised to find that the opinions you so fervently espouse have move from the mainstream to the fringe.

This concludes my series, “Finding reality in a post-truth world.” I may have occasional posts about it in the future, because this is a topic that interests me deeply. I welcome your comments and thoughts.

4 comments on “9 ways to find reality in a post-truth world

  1. Geez. I *SO* wanted to tease the ragged edges of your reasoning, to gnaw the weakest edges, to find the holes that need patching.

    But I got nuthin’.

    Sure, we could quibble on details, but the central points are strong: AS1 has its weaknesses and susceptibilities, but that does not mean it is weak or wrong: It merely means it is highly context-sensitive, and benefits from some context-specific training and conditioning, so it can help us rather than hinder or mislead us.

  2. I had this saved to read and finally got to it tonight. Thank you! A reminder to question yourself and your beliefs is always valuable.

    I’m a liberal secular humanist and have a conservative christian brother. In spite of our differences in core beliefs, we respect each other and find challenging each other’s ideas regularly helpful. And I actually know when I’m being a hypocrite and illogical.

    1. Thanks for reading the series. One thing I like about scientific skepticism is that it doesn’t need to address “why?” In other words, science describes the who, what, when, and where of things. But it doesn’t deal with the why on a meta scale. Science describes, for example, how a virus functions, when it is able to enter a cell, the difference between a virus and a bacterium, where viruses are. But it doesn’t attempt to answer why they are on the earth in a philosophical sense. So you can have a scientific attitude and coexist perfectly well with someone who believes in a god, as long as that person doesn’t try to use their religion to go into the domain of science. If religion stays in the purely philosophical realm, no problem. But when it tries to tell the world that the earth is only 6,000 years old, it looks ridiculous. I’m not sure if I expressed this correctly, but I guess I’m just saying that atheism isn’t a prerequisite for a scientific attitude.

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