A quick guide to finding truth and making magical thinking/conspiracy thinking mistakes. We humans are pattern recognising machines, but that pattern we see can be an error far too easily.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
A warning sign that you might be on the wrong track is that only you and a select few fringe thinkers see this idea and the evidence. You can all see the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the ordinary people can’t… but actually, there are no clothes and there is no special thing.
While generally true – that the general knowledge of experts is right, it can be that an idea is new enough that it hasn’t caught on. Experts in a field that is hunting for explanations to unexplained phenomena are going to come up with a series of hypotheses to explain this, and until good evidence comes in to put the question to rest, some of the ideas are going to seem quite fringe and odd. A good example of this is the various string theories in physics.
- Take home point: if your idea is so fringe, and you aren’t an expert in the field, it is far more likely that you are wrong. Even if you are an expert, it is important to note that most of the new concepts to explain the phenomena are wrong, so the odds are you are too.
The Null Hypothesis
This is a statistics concept where you start with the assumption that there is no difference between populations until you can prove that there are. We are going to coopt that concept and state that the world is boring and dull. If anything says otherwise, it needs to prove it. So we assume there is no magic, no conspiracy, no gods, no heaven and no hell. When we see some evidence of that, then we can start to shift our dull and boring starting position.
- Take home point: Assume it is boring first without evidence, then every new complexity requires actual evidence
Begging the Question
What kind of poop do centaurs have- equine, or human? One might start to look at the mechanics of the poop – do centaurs eat more grasses or more human food? But this is a major error. You missed the first question because you assumed it to be true before moving on – do centaurs exist? Going back to the Null Hypothesis, assume the world is boring and dull. Begging the Question is a tool that can be misused to con you into assuming the truth of the question and bypasses good reasoning.
- Take home point: Be careful of your assumptions
Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
If someone makes a claim past the null hypothesis, consider how far it is from dull and boring. The further it is, the stronger their evidence has to be. It is important to have a good grasp of the scientific principles of evidence – not because science is never wrong, but because it has worked out some excellent methods for ruling out bad evidence.
Another important aspect of this is that a great body of evidence for a theory requires extraordinary evidence to overrule the theory. For example, claims of antigravity devices exist all over the internet, but can easily be dismissed because they have provided no actual proof of their claims, which should be quite easy to provide.
- Take home point: The stranger the idea, or claim; then the more it is required to be proven
Put into modern English, “The simplest and most complete answer is generally the right one”. If you need a very complex series of events to explain a thing, and you compare that to a very simple series of events, then the odds are the one with extra complexity is wrong. However if the explanation is simple and incomplete, then it loses to the more complex but complete answer. So “God wills it” misses lots of details of explanation, so it fails compared to a complex explanation of evolution. The story that the twin towers were sabotaged by local government for insurance gains weeks before the 911 disaster, and thus explains some of the frames in footage is very complex compared to the simple explanation that this is what buildings that have an aeroplane collide with them do. In this case, both are complete answers, so the simplest complete answer wins.
- Take home point: If the idea is incomplete or overly complex to get there, suspect it.
Beware of when someone delivers a message or idea to you that is highly emotive. We humans catch emotions quite easily – it is a way that communities survive against a common threat. When we are told an emotional story, or the person telling the story is emotional, it is easy to get emotional too. That is fair and human. But it should also wave a warning flag. There are very few times that instant action is required, so take a moment and calm down. Now examine the message/story for factual qualities. When we are emotional, we don’t use logic very well and just assume things to be true, rather than questioning. Those who wish to manipulate us want us to not question, only feel. So rebel against this.
- Take home point: If it is an emotive message, take a moment to calm down and start asking questions
The Perfect Crime Scene
Someone who wishes to manipulate our thoughts and feelings will often present a perfect chain of ideas that fit just a bit too well. In police dramas this concept is known as the perfect crime scene. A scene that is set up to make us look at it and assume we know who the perpetrator was – which is exactly what the real perpetrator wanted us to mistake. A good way to unravel this is to note the emotive language, the lack of answering actual questions about the thing, and the black and white thinking. The story is just too perfect. Implement the null hypothesis, and use the rest of the tools above to work through the logic.
- Take home point: Beware the web of deception that is just a bit too neat
Literary Analysis Question – Who and Why
Ask yourself, why was this written/created and who benefits. When we start to look at why was this written, we start to question the motivation of the author. In this case, why I wrote this was to arm you against being conned. When we ask who benefits from this, we again look at the motivation of the author. In this case, if you are less easily conned, then society gains, and thus I gain. I’m practicing an idea of enlightened self interest – for me to live better, I need my society to be better. When I look at the stories about China creating the COVID-19 virus, I have to ask – why was this written, and who does it benefit? The answers to this make me suspect the authenticity of the message, especially as it is trying to emote strong emotions in me.
- Take home point: Question the source, question the message
Lies and Half Truths
If someone has to lie to make their point, then they don’t have a point. Check for inconsistencies or factual errors in their story. Keep in mind that every good lie contains some truth, but every good truth contains no lies.
- Take home point: Lies reveal manipulation