Truth and the Hard Work of Thinking

In the early days of the Trump Administration, we have been treated to conflicting information on a range of issues. Alternatively, we have been asked to believe that there has been massive voter fraud or that such claims have no basis; that immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries pose a serious national security threat or that they are just family members fleeing for their safety; that the inaugural crowd was the largest ever or that it was not. People on either side of these claims marshal facts and "alternative facts" to back them up. So how do we know what the truth is?

Effective government depends on truth, without which we get shoddy thinking and disastrous action. Reflecting on the Vietnam War in The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that it resulted from "the absence of reflective thought." In Iraq, sloppy analysis concluded first that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, second that we would be greeted as liberators, and third that his overthrow would spark the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. Each conclusion was wrong.

The lack of careful thinking is enabled when we accept it without question. Many of us just "know" things that turn out not to be true. Faulty thinking at the top, however, does not justify faulty thinking at the bottom, and thinking cannot be outsourced - to interest groups, politicians, pundits and social media friends. Though these are enticing options for busy people, in a democracy we have an obligation to think for ourselves.

Contrasting "facts," "fake news," and the tendency of false information to spread virally magnify the problem. So, how can we know if what we read, see, or hear is true? How can we be better thinkers? Here are at least some guidelines.

Feelings are not facts. "I just know it in my gut" may be comforting but is no substitute for objective evidence. Whenever you hear someone say this, even if that someone is yourself, realize that the "gut" needs a gut check. Indeed, when feelings are aroused, brain research shows that the logical parts of our brain are suppressed. The stronger we feel, the weaker we think.

A belief is not a fact either. I may believe that climate change is a hoax or that genetically modified foods cause cancer, but beliefs are not objective evidence. Objectivity requires facts and, in many cases, support from rigorous science - testable hypotheses, the gathering of data, and the willingness to subject tentative conclusions to criticism. Science takes a long time to reach a defensible conclusion; opinions can be had instantly.

A single study or report does not make for sound science. It's almost always possible to find a person or "research" to support a point of view, especially when the author has a conflict of interest. Sound thinking requires judging the quality of the source, the carefulness of the research and the objectivity of the researcher not just the extent to which it supports one's views.

Assertions and personal testimony may lead you to agree, but they are not the same thing as truth. The fact that someone I respect believes something to be true does not make it so. The fact that someone says "lots of people agree with me" does not make it true either. Factual accuracy is not determined by popularity contests or opinion polls. It is determined by objectivity not subjectivity.

Solid thinking requires energy and the capacity to cope with complexity. These two are related. The more complexity we encounter, the more energy our brains consume in dealing with it. Thinking is not just hard; it's tiring. That can lead us to take mental shortcuts, such as reading only titles of articles we then repost online, without verifying the information in them. It's better to set an issue aside until you are mentally refreshed than to let a surrogate serve as your brain.

Be wary of the desire for certainty. When we are fearful, stressed, or anxious to move on, we yearn for the comfort of closure. Physiologically, as nature abhors a vacuum, our brains abhor uncertainty. It leaves us in limbo about what comes next, and rushing to judgment is too often the way we choose to satisfy it.

Finally, we are all subject to mental errors. Humility is thus an essential characteristic of sound thinking. We should be wary of anyone, including ourselves, who is so self-assured that doubt, acknowledgement of fallibility, and regret are anathema. We should be thankful that people disagree with us - and open to hearing their reasoning. God may be perfect, but we are not.

Those who live under autocrats can certainly think, but their rulers have taken away their right to guide their future. Those who live in democracies have the right to guide their future, but only if they don't give that right away by shoddy thinking.