In my previous post I talked about the problem of determining the truth in current events (and in other areas) when we’re faced with conflicting views from thousands of media and Internet sources. In this post I’ll offer some advice for dealing with the problem:
1. Become more conscious of the assumptions that you’ve been making about truth. Most of us bury our truth assumptions so deep in our subconscious that we don’t even realize what we’re assuming. We accept things as the truth because people around us believe them or because we were “brought up that way.” That doesn’t mean those things are really true. They might be true, but it’s important for us to decide for ourselves.
2. Accept the fact that different people will have different views on many subjects. Those different views aren’t necessarily right or wrong — they’re just different. Everyone is entitled to their own view, even if they disagree with you. Try to be open-minded and understand where the other views are coming from.
3. Don’t commit yourself prematurely to a particular point of view. It’s perfectly OK — even a good thing — for you to see and understand the different sides of an issue and to understand how different people can believe different things. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
4. To understand a view that’s different from your own, try to focus on similarities rather than differences. What are you both agreeing on? What assumptions are you both making? Are you starting out with some of the same objectives but then differing in your methods? Are you considering the same methods but disagreeing on how you assign importance to different decision factors? Once you sort out similarities and differences then the other view becomes more logical. You may still disagree, but at least you’ll understand the basis for your disagreement.
5. Remember that language and emphasis are at the root of many disagreements. Often you may find yourself “in violent agreement” with someone. You may use different words, or you may use the same words with different meanings. But if you really clarify what you’re both saying, you may find that you’re trying to say the same thing.
6. For important issues, ask yourself these questions about the views of the speaker or writer:
- Does this make sense? Is it likely? The more unlikely something is, the more skeptical you should be. People make outrageous statements because that kind of statement gets them attention or gets them in the news. Outrageous statements are also more likely to be repeated to others — without validation of course.
- Is it hurtful to others? If so, then you owe it to those people — even if you don’t know them — to verify the statement before you repeat it to others.
- Is the statement based on facts? How do you know? What is the source of the alleged facts? Is the source trustworthy? Where did the source get the information? Trace the facts back to their origin to confirm their validity.
- If the statement isn’t based on facts, then the speaker or writer is asking you to trust them. Should you? Do you have a basis for that trust? Is there any reason the speaker/writer might want to deceive you or to “spin” the facts in a self-serving way?
- Watch for loaded words (e.g., racist, terrorist, meltdown, bailout, etc.) that add emotional meaning to an alleged factual statement. Replace the loaded words with unemotional words and see if the statement still makes sense.
- Look for exaggerations that distort the importance of something that’s otherwise commonplace (e.g., “A recent study shows that half of the people in the world are below average.”)
- Don’t let statistics fool you. Adding numbers to something that’s not true shouldn’t make it more credible, especially if the numbers are made up or if the numbers come from a biased survey or study. Verify the source of the statistics, and if the statistics are based on a survey then make sure that the survey questions aren’t misleading (a common way to bias an answer) and that the sample used for the survey fairly represents the relevant population.
- Watch out for confusion between correlation and cause/effect. Just because some factor (e.g., poverty) is correlated with another factor (e.g., obesity) doesn’t mean that the first factor causes the second factor, or that the second factor causes the first factor. Both factors may be caused by something else. But advocates of a particular point of view may use statistics to make it appear that there is a cause/effect relationship between two things when in fact there is only a correlation.
7. Build a base of sources you trust, and make sure it’s a solid base. For media, political and religious sources, look at how other people view your potential source. If a large number of people view your source as extreme, then reconsider whether the source really ought to be in your base.
8. Use your base of sources as a “norm,” and evaluate other sources of information based on their variation from your norm. Any source of information that varies a great deal from your norm ought to be subjected to additional scrutiny before you accept that new source as credible.
9. Don’t be too volatile in your views. If a news story suddenly goes off in a crazy direction (e.g., a massive conspiracy theory), then question it. Let your response be incremental, in stages, changing your view slowly as you get more and more information to verify the news. Don’t overreact.
10. Be an extremist only if you want to be. If your base of sources is considered to be extreme, then you’ll be an extremist. But recognize that extremist views are quite different from the norm, that those views are considered by many to be inappropriate, and that extremist views are seen by most people as lacking credibility. You might want to consider getting some of your news and information from more moderate sources so you’ll understand mainstream views better.
Everyone has beliefs. The beliefs may be different from your own, but that doesn’t make those people wrong, and it certainly doesn’t make those people bad for having those beliefs. It just makes them individuals. If the individuals aren’t interfering in the lives of others, and if the beliefs aren’t leading to hurtful or unlawful actions, then let people believe what they want. Respect the beliefs of others, and maybe they’ll respect your beliefs as well.