Finding Truth in Information

We all live in very uncertain times where truth is often obscured and controversy rages. Our world is changing faster than it ever has before. A millennium passes and two buildings collapse in violence. A disease unknown a few decades ago is now claiming the lives of millions. Communication and information once difficult are now almost effortless. If there is only one thing we can have certainty of in our world it is that there will be change.

Despite the seemingly grave depiction I have given, I strongly believe that in this immense change also lies a subtle power that would have been unavailable a century or even a few decades ago. The power to access more information gives us more control. It is estimated that the majority of all scientists who ever lived are alive today. Not only is information more available and accessible, but research has accelerated so that new discoveries are coming to us every day.

Unfortunately, the abundance of information comes with a cost. With more information and new information being made available more rapidly, being able to sort through it all and decide what is true has become more difficult. More information creates greater uncertainty and controversy. The skill of being able to sort through information intelligently and decide for ourselves what is true is not keeping pace with the amount of new information being given.

This isn’t a new conversation. You have probably already see how most people clutch to false information in order to remain certain. Satisfying the emotional need to feel certain with the external world can have the unwanted side effect of causing you to have a completely inaccurate model of reality. If you are smarter than most you probably recognize this quality in yourself. You may even think to times when you resisted information that conflicted your previous viewpoint.

Finding truth in information is essential if you want to get the most out of life. If your behaviors are based on inaccurate assumptions or false beliefs, you can’t possibly be as effective as if you were operating from the truth. If life is like a game, then we can understand how it is impossible to win if you don’t know the rules. Even if it is impossible to fully understand the rules, at least accepting your own ignorance is more effective than basing your actions on a lie.

I don’t claim to understand reality and I am often amazed at how ignorant I am of how life works. However, I accept that it is often better to play a game where you don’t know all the rules than it is to play a game where you believe rules that don’t actually exist. I have found techniques for improving my ability to sort through information and sort out truth from garbage.

So how can you improve your ability to find truth in information? It starts with several beliefs. Finding truth in information is as much about your core beliefs as it is an intellectual skill. There are some people that seem to operate with an open mind about things and can take simultaneously hold two conflicting viewpoints. These same people often seem more able to make accurate predictions of what information is true and what is not.

Belief One: I know far less about the world than I think I do.

This is the first belief. In order to find new information you can’t have certainty about the validity of old information. If you believe that, although you believe it now, a certain proportion of your current beliefs are inaccurate assumptions, you have the power to change it. Assuming that what you think you know is always the truth removes the potential for finding new truths.

Belief Two: Others know far less about the world than they think they do.

Similar to belief number one, this one is also necessary. You cannot use another persons certainty that their belief is correct as validation that it actually is. Scientists who spout figures and politicians who give facts may look sincere, but as we discovered with belief number one, they can be sincerely wrong. If you look back hundreds of years you may even laugh at the things that they believed with absolute conviction. Is it not possible that humans of the future will laugh at some of the things we think are true?

These two beliefs are the two starting points for any reasonable ability to find truth within information. Attitudes of curiosity and humility are also necessary, but I doubt if you were already sure you knew everything you would even bother coming to visit my website. With a good attitude and those two beliefs, I’ll tell you how you can begin to sort through information for truth. This can work for anything from your religious and political beliefs down to decisions about health or any issue where there isn’t a clear answer.

Volume Is Important

The first thing you need to do to find the truth in information is to gather a lot of it. One source, fact or reference is a very unstable thing to weigh your convictions upon. Gathering a lot of information allows you to average out unreasonable claims and begin to see truth more readily. This isn’t a wildly original idea, so I’ll share with you some of the methods I use in order to gather a lot of information and process it more quickly. If the subject is more minor, you may not have the time to read a hundred books about it, so finding a way to get a larger volume of information more quickly is necessary.

Thankfully, the internet has made gathering a lot of information quickly relatively easy. If your subject can be approached from an objective and scientific viewpoint, then internet researching is probably the best and fastest way to gain a large volume of information. Philosophical or social concerns may have a little more trouble as they tend to be largely matters of opinion and not fact.

The method I use for researching something on the internet is a rapid skimming method. Unless you plan on writing a report which requires sources, this method works well. Simply open up a search engine and search for information about the subject. Scan the information for relevant details, such as statistics, facts and possibly even anecdotes if they are not as emotionally charged. Your goal is to get exposed to a lot of different viewpoints and facts and statistics. Some of these will invariably be incorrect, so finding a large amount is critical.

When searching for ideas try to balance viewpoints. Some opinions are more prevalent than others and some rank higher in search engines. Most issues have a couple different viewpoints. From evolution vs intelligent design debates to whether soy is natures godsend or a substance not to be ingested by humans, there tends to be a clumping of opinions onto one side or another. Finding as much information that supports both sides allows you to avoid subconsciously biasing one side.

Look For Patterns

The second reason to get a large volume of information is so that patterns begin to emerge. If a fact is stated only once in your entire base of information, it has a lower chance of accuracy than one stated by many independent sources. Anecdotes are generally useless on their own, but they can also become more relevant if they keep recurring independently.

The biggest benefit of looking for patterns in information is that you will begin to notice the difference between observations and conclusions. Observations are generally facts. Conclusions are what those facts mean. Generally people will blur the distinction between actual observations and what those observations mean. By looking for patterns you can start to distinguish between observations and conclusions. When you do this you can sometimes find people who have drawn completely illogical conclusions based on observations.

I recently used this process after looking into some of the controversy over soy proteins. After skimming over dozens of articles from various viewpoints I began to notice patterns of facts and a separation of observations and conclusions. One of the substances in soy proteins is similar to the female hormone estrogen. Some authors took this information and concluded that this meant soy products raised hormone levels causing all sorts of problems. Other authors concluded that the compound may, in fact, limit estrogen because it would bond to estrogen receptors with less potency than the actual hormone. Who is correct? I can’t be sure, but I can separate those conclusions from the actual evidence.

Personal Experience

Ultimately the best way to discover what is true is to use your own personal experiences. With so much controversy with ideas in the world it can be hard to decide what is really true. If you can’t trust your own experiences with ideas, then you really can’t trust any information. Since all information basically comes to you as an indirect experience, if you can’t trust direct experience how can you possibly trust indirect ones?

Science may be able to provide some truths, but I believe strongly that science still has a very long way to go in providing real truths. It will probably take hundreds of years until science has figured out how ignorant we truly are right now. Until the time when we know exactly how the universe works, personal experience must be the primary guide in our decisions and beliefs.

We may live in uncertain times where information is both plentiful and truth is often disguised, but that doesn’t excuse us from constantly trying to improve our own perception of reality. An inaccurate perception is like trying to play a game with the wrong set of rules. Play to win and find your own truth in information.

  • Mike

    I often find that the act of actually writing information down – key points, etc. will help me in coming to a conclusion I am comfortable with. This is something like a pros and cons list, but with more detail. I will also sometimes keep thoughts in a journal and expound on theories, conflicting information, etc. Sometimes it’s amazing how often I will “write” my way to the answer. Which reminds me of Robert Frost: “I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.”

  • Reality Bytes

    Scott, I really like your blog, on any other topic I admire your wisdom and common sense. However, I have to take issue with what you’ve stated here. It is not that what I think you have stated here is erroneous in any way. Per se. People play a lot of value in their belief systems. To the extent that they will even die for them.
    If you state that; others don’t know, and you don’t know as much as you think you do. It seems as then you are somewhat absolved from responsibility. I would rather say you know more than you think you do, and you are responsible for that knowledge. My own lack of faith in my own knowledge has kept me out of great investments, and greater conviction in controversial subjects. My predictions and assessments were later vindicated by corroborating events that followed
    It may be true that there is far more to know about the world than I think there is to know, but I refuse to downplay my own understandings. I think it would be actually dangerous to do so.
    You suggest that scientists and politicians can be wrong. That is misleading. Scientists are rarely wrong. There is an objective truth to the universe, which is well reflected in physics. Politicians and media will of course pervert their interpretations, and those motivations usually aren’t hard to understand. Money and politics can influence all media. Politicians shouldn’t even be catergorized next to scientists.

    “You have probably already see how most people clutch to false information in order to remain certain.”

    This is an excellent point, and I can easily ascribe it to many people sticking to their own perspective despite a contrasting reality. Take global warming for instance. I am intimately familiar with the details of this issue. There has been a lot of misinformation, and outright propaganda defying it’s existence. There is no more need for debate, and regrettably my own convictions have been proven accurate. Largely, in part, because I was listening to the scientists and not the politicians. Also, in accordance with your advice, I gather information from a broad realm of sources, and observe patterns.
    So what frustrates me is that this is an issue on which the public consciousness needs to be high in order to have any chance in combating it. With the current abundance of information, and mis-information,our civilizations chances of taking any effective counter active measures are dangerously lowered.
    At present I am an American citizen living in Japan. It occurs to me that there is indeed a lot of inaccurate information, indoctrination, and fundamental misunderstandings in US society today. Considering that leads me to think that perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism toward any information is, in fact, healthy.
    Then again, what do I know? ; )

  • Scott Young

    @Mike – Yes, writing is a good way to gain a better understanding. I believe I wrote about that as one of my first few posts…. 😉

    @Reality Bytes – There is a funny truth in science that when we make one discovery we actually know less because that new discovery creates a greater room for questions. What my two beliefs really promote is humility with our own knowledge of the universe. If you at least leave room in your mind for the possibility that things are quite different than you believe them to be, you open the potential for new learning.

    Scientists observations are rarely wrong, there conclusions, on the other hand, can be strife with problems. The best example is in the realm of health. One scientist does a study with a few monkeys and some compound and the monkeys react a particular way. An interesting observation to be sure, but this information is usually taken and spread as an indication that we shouldn’t consume that compound or we should sprinkle it on everything we eat. Some areas of science are more stable, but there are other areas where the sheer magnitude of our ignorance makes most definite conclusions suspect. Scientists are humans just like politicians. They too can distort information or reach different conclusions from personal motivations.

    I believe skepticism is healthy, but if you’ve been reading Steve Pavlina, you’ll seem him go about trying to debug skepticism itself. Maybe from Steve’s stance that is a logical choice, but for 99% of the population, skepticism is the only thing keeping us from being brainwashed.

    Thanks for the excellent comment!

  • Reality Bytes

    Thanks for the response. Humility toward the awesome amount of knowledge presenting itself to us continously, is to remain in a state of constant fascination. Fascination, I believe is one of the most appropriate reactions to the universe. I will have to mediate on humility a bit more. I have more faith in the objectivity of scientists than you, but I rarely intimate with the details of their research. It is often filtered through some middle man, and therefore I agree, everything deserves a discerning eye.

  • Reality Bytes

    I just came across this at the blog, and felt it was relevant:

    “In the preface to his book “Unweaving the Rainbow,” scientist Richard Dawkins tells the story of what happened when the editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, publicly exposed a television spiritualist as nothing more than a con artist. Rather than being outraged at the charlatan, the audience “turned on the debunker and supported a woman who accused Shermer of `inappropriate’ behavior because he destroyed peoples’ illusions.”
    I find this story fascinating and disturbing. The moral seems to be that people cling to their beliefs until they are confronted with contradictory information, and even then they may resent having their fantasies shattered. In a way, I envy people who can operate on total denial, for whom facts are annoying irrelevancies. I am as full of biases and capricious ideas as the next person, but I do have a fondness for hard evidence. . .”

  • Reality Bytes

    Here’s the link to the actual article. It’s quite good.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the link, Reality Bytes.

    I recently watched a forty minute segment of the documentary, The Corporation, which was basically how an overemphasis on capitalism was destroying the environment and human rights because corporations were too motivated by profit and weren’t accountable to the democratic process.

    All in all there were some interesting points of thought, but I left thinking that, ultimately, this is an issue that doesn’t have any easy answers and many of the proposed solutions are rife with problems. So, as you mentioned about global warming, it may be destroying our planet, but fixing the solution is not as easy.

    A parallel issue is the issue of diets. In theory dieting should be incredibly easy, simply don’t eat so much! But as we have seen with the Western worlds struggle with weight, solving the problem seems more difficult than just restating the obvious. Einstein once said that a problem cannot be solved with the level of thinking that created that problem. Unfortunately, until we as a people evolve to a higher level of thinking many of the seemingly glaring problems in our society and in our own lives cannot be solved…

  • Amlan

    Really thanks a lot, learnt something ….Please keep posting