In his 1982 book, Megatrends, John Naisbitt famously wrote, “We are drowning in information, but we are starved for knowledge.” What was true 30 years ago is true today at a level that is both jaw-dropping and mind-numbing. The interweb highway speeds past at a breath-taking pace; yesterday vanishes rapidly behind while tomorrow constantly barrels down on us. The sheer volume of traffic (meaning both ‘lots of’ and ‘very loud’) can be overwhelming.
I’d like to take the topics from last Thursday and Friday to a new level and talk about how we find knowledge and truth amid all that information. In a world filled with opinion and conflicting assertions, how do we tell fair from foul? When facts and expertise compete with ideology and status quo, how do we pick among them?
This is about ways to separate the wheat from the chaff.
If your romantic partner — without reason to do so — accuses you of infidelity, perhaps they are the unfaithful one. They see infidelity, because they [pardon the pun here] are intimately familiar with it. That’s projection.
On the other hand, it can also be that they have experienced unfaithful partners in their past (or suffered as a child from fallout due to unfaithful parents). Projecting one’s past experiences into one’s current experience, is transference.
These usually happen on an unconscious level, but if you listen to the phrasing people use — especially what they say repeatedly — you often find sign posts reflecting inner truths. If someone repeatedly accuses you of being unrealistic, it may be their subconscious expressing itself. A red flag here is accusations that are just assertions with no support by example or fact (often called “hand waving”).
Rational thought is always based on experience and knowledge, so a valid position always has an explanation if you look deep enough.
Let me be clear that emotional thought — compassionate thinking, for example — is fully rational when grounded on reasonable beliefs. Rational thought transcends merely logical thought.
Fans of the original Star Trek saw this in action; it was a major theme of the Kirk-Spock-Bones triumvirate.
The best governance of a society requires leadership, logic, compassion, all informed by an understanding of human nature and the search for truth. (A starship armed with phasors and photon torpedoes is also helpful.)
To combat unsupported assertions — claims which may reflect flaws in thinking — seek the underlying rationale. Ask for specifics, examples, and the rationale. If a claim has real validity, there will be a rationale and a worldview.
A couple of times in life I’ve probed someone’s assertions and asked for their rationale only to have the other party realize — mid-explanation — that they didn’t actually support their own position. They’d just never really thought about it that way.
However, in other cases, the other party does a sudden fade (“shuts down”), recusing themselves from the conversation least the emptiness of their argument is exposed.
There are those that say they “don’t like to argue,” but I’ve found that sometimes means they are unable to support their own views. (There may be some who truly don’t enjoy debate, but in my view the unexamined life is no life at all.)
In some cases they remain but shut down and take refuge in repeatedly insisting they are right and you are wrong, regardless of facts or logic. These are all tactics of deflection, of dodging the argument. At that point, discussion is impossible. A game of paintball might be in order, since you’re only shooting at each other anyway.
Here are some fundamental tools for separating wheat from chaff:
1. Ideas must fight for survival in the cold hard light of reason. If they can’t survive examination, they are very likely bad — or at the least, weak. Good ideas easily survive the harshest inspection.
In fact, good ideas get better with examination, because no one gets it right the first time or thinks of everything. When a group focuses, not on adding their own interests to an idea, but on making the core idea better, amazing things can happen.
2. Evil doesn’t question itself. The more the other side relies on ideology without self-examination, the more likely it is in error. This is really just the first rule in action. It should be a huge red flag anytime someone gets shifty about examining the details of their thinking.
(Consider that historical footnote, Romney. A frequent observation of his campaign was the lack of factual meat and the slipperiness regarding real facts. (I’m sure there’s a pink slime joke in there somewhere.))
3. Facts is facts. There is no such thing as “my facts” and “your facts.” Facts are objective, physical realities. A decent casual definition of insanity is a refusal to accept the physical facts of the world.
Science is a good source of facts for two reasons:  What science is, is the search for the facts of our existence.  Science self-corrects its facts when it discovers they are in error. Turns out science is one of the best sources of facts we have. Time-tested!
4. Truth is personal. We all have our own truths. For me, it is true that Häagen Dazs Coffee ice cream is the best ice cream ever. Your truth may differ. Our truths come from our worldviews, and those differ.
Truth is personal and can co-exist with other equally valid truths. It is just as true that Häagen Dazs Chocolate Chocolate-Chip is the best ice cream ever. These truths co-exist equally.
5. Never trust opinion or assertion. People lie. All the time. People are also wrong. All the time.
Check the facts for yourself or find sources you trust. Use the rules above to separate the signal from the noise. Which sources survive examination? Which sources are based on verifiable, real facts?
6. Education is a Good Thing. The better educated you are, the harder you are to fool with lies. A good education trains you to think. It provides experience in how the world works.
History shows us what has worked and failed before. Art brings us stories about the how and why of those failures and successes. Science provides a way explore the real world to determine how it works. Philosophy explores what it means to be human in the universe.
That last one is hugely important! The best way to avoid being mislead or fooled is to expand your understanding of the world. When you see the world through a wide lens, it’s easier to see other opinions in their own lights rather than in yours. The more you know, the more you can understand.
One reason the media leans left (and with some exceptions, I think it does) is that working in media naturally exposes one to other worldviews. This is especially true for those who travel frequently to other countries. Direct exposure to other ways of life often opens the mind, which is why travel young in life is a powerful tool for personal development.
In psychology, this is sometimes called “experiencing the Other”.
We begin life in our own heads. There is the «me», and there is the rest of the world. Next comes the imprinting of early ideas from parents, teachers, and friends. As we experience the world, we come to recognize the co-existence of Others who, like us, are also experiencing the world.
A key part of civilization is the idea that all those Others are ‘Us’, and that all share equally in humanity. We achieve this insight through interacting honestly with good people with differing worldviews.
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To put all this to the test, how might we tell the difference between Righteous Activism and Moral Terrorism?
Let’s consider Woman’s Right to Vote, Civil Rights, and Feminism. Let’s also consider Temperance and Abortion (as causes, not as topics). Finally, let’s consider religious terrorism, such as permeates the Middle East. One common element of them all is the moral nature of the issue, which means it often turns on worldviews and personal truths.
In some cases, mutually exclusive worldviews create conflicts that can never be resolved. In such cases, it would seem finding some way to mutually co-exist is the only hope. The sticking point comes when one side, or both, cannot accept the existence of the other.
I hope that all readers are unanimous on first three causes listed as necessary for a civilized society. That doesn’t mean we can’t test the ideas to see if they are good ones. All three have at their core the assertion that humans are morally equal. The ideas are valid to the degree your worldview agrees with that assertion.
Historically however, the facts overwhelmingly support the idea your upholstery, plumbing, and paint job, are completely irrelevant to your humanity, your intelligence, and your ability. If you disagree you’re on the other side of most of human history, so your rationale had better be equally weighty.
What about Temperance and Abortion? Are they different from the first three? One key difference is that one side seeks to restrict the actions of the other. The first three cases listed seek to enable the groups of people central to the issue. In fact, they sought to enable the very groups espousing the cause.
Temperance sought to disable the actions of a target group; it sought to bring them in compliance with a worldview with which they disagreed. The anti-abortion movement has the same goal.
So there is a key difference in causes that has nothing to do with the cause, per se. Some causes seek to open doors, others seek to close them. (Which is not to say that all doors should be opened; some should, in fact, be nailed shut, epoxy-sealed, painted and wallpapered over, and then concealed behind a large bookcase.)
Do you feel alcohol is a major social problem that should be legally restricted and controlled in some fashion despite clear social and historical pressure strongly indicating vast numbers will ignore the proscriptions? Do you, despite the odds, feel it’s a battle worth fighting? That is a perfectly valid worldview (assuming you’ve grounded it in some sort of reason).
[I cannot stress this enough: Both the “conservative” and “progressive” points of view are perfectly and equally valid. Neither is “right” nor “wrong”. They are Personal Truths based on your perception of reality. Sadly, I would say the current politics does not fairly represent a genuine Conservative view, but rather a Big Money and Power one.]
The same is true for the abortion issue. If that’s a battle you find worth fighting, it’s understandable why you might. The worldview the issue is centered on — human life — is an entirely valid truth.
But in a free society, other worldviews, other truths, must co-exist. In a democratic society, at some point the will of the people obtains. At some point the message becomes, “Look, we appreciate the input, but we’re going to go a different way on this one at this time.”
That doesn’t mean the fight is over, societies evolve and change. Social perceptions of morality change. Keep your message out there, work for change, and if your ideas really are good, they will ultimately survive.
The fight isn’t over, but you do have to stop being an asshole about having lost. In particular, you have to stop hurting people.
If you don’t, if you believe your cause allows hurting people to try to force your point, well, then how are you any different from those assholes who fly planes into tall office buildings?