Skepticism - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Off-the-Wall Stuff



The other day my teenage daughter was reading a news magazine -- World -- and she made a comment to me about something in one of the articles. (I don't remember what it was now, it's not important to my point here.) I answered, "I wonder if that's true. How would you prove that?" And my daugher said, "You are the most skeptical person I know! You don't trust anybody!"

I was about to object that this wasn't true. And then I stopped. This is a magazine that we subscribe to because we believe it to be reliable and honest, and we generally agree with the editors' perspective. Surely I should trust somebody who is an expert in his field, who I believe to be unbiased, and who, in fact, I am paying to tell me what he has to say.

But I don't "just believe them". My daughter's statement is true. And I'm glad of it. I think more people should be seriously skeptical about everything they hear or read.

How do you know?

Think about how you know what you think you know. How much do you know from first-hand experience, or because you have carefully followed a logical argument and concluded that it was convincing? Probably very little. How much do you know because you saw it on TV or read it in a book? Probably most of it.

How do you know that the people who wrote the books or made the TV shows are right? How do they know? Where did they get their facts? Maybe they know the truth but are deliberately lying for one reason or another.


When we're talking about events that happened more than a generation ago, then by definition, there is no one alive today who was there to see it. Most of what we know is what we read in books left us by the people of the time, with some additional information available from archaeology.

In many cases the writers of these books have every reason to be biased. They are often describing conflicts between their nation or ethnic group or ideology or religion, and someone else. In many cases there are no surviving accounts from the other side to even challenge the claims these writers make.

When I read about things from ancient times, I often find myself asking, "How do you know?" Like, I've read many times that prehistoric men painted pictures of animals on the walls of caves as a form of sympathetic magic: painting a picture of an animal would magically give them power over the animal in the next day's hunt. How do the anthopologists know this? By definition, "prehistoric" people have left no written history. Maybe they painted pictures of animals on their walls because they thought they were pretty. I wonder if anthropologists hundreds of years from now will say that 21st century American men hung posters of automobiles on their walls in the belief that this would magically give them power over the automobile so that they would be succesful in their next day's commute to work.

Current events

At least on current events there is lots of information available, and we can hear both sides of a conflict.

But do we? Do you get your news from multiple competing sources? (Like the man who said that every day he likes to read a little bit from the Bible and watch a little bit of CBS News, so that he knows what both sides are saying.) Most people don't.

How much do you really know about any contemporary issue? How many people have you spoken to who live in Israel or Iran or Afghanistan? Have you seen first hand how the people live? Personally observed the conflicts? For most of us, the answer is no. You have probably never even been to any of these countries. Perhaps you have never even met anyone who lives there.

A few years ago I was active in politics. For a while I was an officer in a Political Action Committee. So there were a number of occasions when I would see stories in the newspaper or on television about events where I had personal knowledge. And I discovered that they frequently got important facts wrong. Sometimes this could be attributed to political bias, sometimes it could only be explained as laziness or incompetence on the part of the reporter. For example, a reporter once called me and interviewed me for about half an hour. When I saw his story the next day, absolutely nothing that we had discussed in the interview was mentioned. Instead he wrote that I favored a proposal that in fact I had never heard of until I saw it mentioned in that article, and that sounded to me like it was well-meaning but probably impractical. At one point I kept track for a few months and found that over half of the articles where I had first-hand knowledge had important errors.


If anything is truly knowable, it should be science. You could perform experiments to prove or disprove many of the key theories of modern science. While some require expensive equipment and years of technical training, there are many experiments that can be done with household items, or by a simple visit to the woods. How many such experiments have you done? My guess is: few to none.

When I was in high school we did a few experiments in physics, chemistry, and biology. Maybe you did, too. But these experiments tested only a tiny fraction of what was in the textbook. And even at that, when a student did not get the results that the textbook said he should, did the teacher say, "Zounds, Newton and Pasteur were wrong! You just proved it by that experiment"? Of course not. The teacher always said, "No, that's not the right answer. You must have done something wrong." And the students always meekly accepted that what they had just seen and measured with their own eyes must be wrong, because the teacher and the textbook said so.

Even as I sit here and write this article, I do not for a moment seriously believe that my high school experiment was valid and the famous scientists described in the textbook were wrong. I take it for granted that my results differed from theirs because I was sloppy in my measurements or made some other mistake. But why? Why do we believe "authority" over our own eyes? I've occasionally mused that there might be important scientific results that are routinely accepted as proven facts, and yet are completely wrong, and that every day in high schools across the country students perform experiments that prove them wrong, but then they always dismiss their results because the teacher and the book say something different. (Maybe there's a clever science fiction story there if I could come up with some interesting details.)

How can you know?

That's a big question, and one that philosophers have debated in depth. But there are simple and obvious ways.

If it's a technical or scientific question, you can perform an experiment. I write computer software for a living. When I have a question about some technical aspect of a computer, I set up a test and find out what works.

In some cases you could go and see for yourself. Whatever it is that you would see, depending on what the issue is.

If it's a political, social, or historical question, finding the truth and proving it can be very difficult, because there are people on both sides trying to push their view, who at the least will try to frame the truth in a way that favors them, and at worst may outright lie. But still, I often find it effective to read arguments from both sides and try to weight them against each other.

Oh, and by the way, I don't mean, Find one source who gives the arguments for both sides. I've had plenty of times that I've heard someone say that he's going to present the case for each side so the audience can make up their own minds. Then he presents a series of very strong arguments for side A and very weak arguments for side B, and you wonder how any serious person could really agree with B. Then later I hear someone from side B explain his position, and I discover that this supposedly objective person has grossly mis-represented B's side of the argument.


Of course in practice, you just can't analyze and verify everything that you hear or read. I routinely accept many things that others tell me as good "working hypotheses". I apply a simple three-part test:

  1. Is the person who is the source of this information likely to know the truth?
  2. Does he or she have reason to lie about it?
  3. Is the question important enough to me to be worth the cost (in money, time, inconvenience, etc) of verifying the information?

I don't mean that I actually take out a piece of paper, make a list, and assign probabilities to each question. Especially not for the most trivial questions. But this is my underlying principle.

You might think that such a test is so strict that it would almost never apply. But in fact I think it applies to many things.

To take an every day example, suppose I hear on the radio that there's a big traffic tie-up on Route 75. To verify this I would have to drive to route 75 and see if I get stuck in traffic. If the claim is true, then by the time I have verified this I have lost any advantage of having the information. The radio station probably has a traffic helicopter so they know where the tie-ups are, and I can't imagine why they'd want to lie about it. So I accept such reports as very likely true and work on that assumption.

Much of what you learn in school probably scores so high on the third test that you don't care much about the first two. Suppose the teacher tells you that the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.5 light-years away. How does the teacher know? Because he read it in a book. I wouldn't be surprised if the teacher has no idea how astronomers came up with this number, and I'm almost certain that he has never performed the experiment himself to verify it. He hasn't verified it for the same reason that you are unlikely to verify it: Neither of you particularly care. What decisions in your life will you make on the basis of this information? How would your life be different if Alpha Centauri was 9 light-years away, or only 1 light-year away? If at some time in the future people are actually travelling to Alpha Centauri, this might be a fact they care about. But to 99.99+% of the world's population today, it just doesn't matter.

So I reserve my investigative efforts for things that matter to me. How much money could I make if I quit my job and went to work somewhere else? Are my children staying out of trouble? Which candidate's policies are most promising? Etc.


Don't trust anybody. Not your teachers, not your boss, not some guy on TV, and certainly not politicians. Be the most skeptical of people who tell you that you must believe them because they are experts or they are the authority. If they had convincing evidence to back up their position, they'd show you the evidence, not demand that you believe them without evidence.

If it doesn't matter, okay, you can accept what they tell you as a working hypothesis until they are proven right or wrong, or you have sufficient motivation to investigate.

And don't trust me either. Who says that I know any better than the next guy?

© 2009 by Jay Johansen


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