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.
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.