A new year’s gift: two tools to help discover truth in the news

Summary: To give you a powerful start to the New Year, here are two brief passages I strongly recommend. They can be transformational for you. Both are excerpts from longer essays well worth reading, but even these excerpts will help you in the years to come.

Clear vision

Rapid change in every aspect of our complex ever-larger world — confusion and disorientation are natural results. Every day brings a bombardment of new information and insights, often mind-bending. Often revolutionary.  How do we decide which ones are accurate? How do we even decide which ones deserve attention?

I have asked this question hundreds of times on this website. Readers frequently give the “He-man solution”, saying they determine the truth about what they read by first principles — looking at raw data and reasoning from humanity’s core knowledge (e.g., basic principles of science and logic). Of course, they have mad hubris. Nobody has the time to research the major public policy issues of our time, or the knowledge to reason from first principles to answers about them.

Here Maciej Cegłowski gives us a better solution: rely on common sense to sort out ideas that don’t deserve your attention, supplemented by the advice of relevant experts. It’s not a perfect solution, but then perfection is rare in this world.

Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People

By Maciej Cegłowski (see Wikipedia). At his website, 29 October 2016.

…When you’re evaluating persuasive arguments about something strange, there are two perspectives you can choose, the inside one or the outside one.

“Say that some people show up at your front door one day wearing funny robes, asking you if you will join their movement. They believe that a UFO is going to visit Earth two years from now, and it is our task to prepare humanity for the Great Upbeaming.

“The inside view requires you to engage with these arguments on their merits. You ask your visitors how they learned about the UFO, why they think it’s coming to get us — all the normal questions a skeptic would ask in this situation.

“Imagine you talk to them for an hour, and come away utterly persuaded. They make an ironclad case that the UFO is coming, that humanity needs to be prepared, and you have never believed something as hard in your life as you now believe in the importance of preparing humanity for this great event.

Maciej Ceglowski

“But the outside view tells you something different. These people are wearing funny robes and beads, they live in a remote compound, and they speak in unison in a really creepy way. Even though their arguments are irrefutable, everything in your experience tells you you’re dealing with a cult.

“Of course, they have a brilliant argument for why you should ignore those instincts, but that’s the inside view talking. The outside view doesn’t care about content, it sees the form and the context, and it doesn’t look good. …”


Zetetic Ruminations on Skepticism and Anomalies in Science

By Marcello Truzzi in Zetetic Scholar, August 1978.Marcello Truzzi

“…Regretfully, the term “skeptic” today is being used by many who adopt that label for themselves in a misleading way. To many, it is falsely equated with the term “rationalist.” The dictionary meaning of the term indicates that a skeptic is one who raises doubts. Thus the word is meant to reflect nonbelief rather than disbelief. But when we look at those who trumpet that they are skeptics towards claims of anomalies, we find disbelievers and debunkers rather than those who express uncertainty or doubt. The public “skeptics” of today present us with answers rather than questions.

“…none of this is to suggest that disbelief is always in error or that there is not bunk that needs to be debunked. I only point out that disbelief should not be confused with skepticism and nonbelief.

“…As Thomas S. Kuhn (The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, 1977) has termed it, there is an “essential tension” within science since it must on the one hand preserve its accumulated knowledge by acting cautiously and conservatively while on the other hand remain an open system ready to take in new and potentially revolutionary data and concepts. This balance is maintained through a number of methodological prescriptions which make it difficult but not impossible for the claimant of an anomaly to obtain acceptance of the claim.

First, science places the burden of proof on the claimant. Second, the proof for a claim must in some sense be commensurate with the character of the claim. Thus, an extraordinary claim requires “extraordinary” (meaning stronger than usual) proof. This latter prescription seems related to the rule of parsimony in science that states that the simpler adequate explanation is the one to accept. {A variant of Occam’s Razor.}

“…these rather conservative rules for evidence of extraordinary claims mean that a claim that is inadequately supported results in a simple nonacceptance of the claim. Evidence is, then, a matter of degree, and not having enough results in a claimant’s not satisfying the burden of proof. It does not mean disconfirmation of the claim. The proof is insubstantial, and the claim is unaccepted rather than refuted. The claimant is, in effect, told either to give up or go back to find stronger evidence and arguments for a possible later day in the court of science. …”


The Truth is Out There


Americans are buried in propaganda (for reasons discussed here). After 50 years of this we are lost on the information highway that we have built. Left clearly sees the lies of the Right and vice versa. Conspiracy theories abound, about everything — evil at the Federal Reserve, invisible jihadist cells, toxic vaccines, and scores of others — poisoning the public space. We cannot discuss our different values and possible futures when we cannot agree upon simple facts.

The two insights provided here can help each of us, as individuals, sort through the daily tide of stories to find the new information and insights worth evaluating in detail — and conclude what should be believed. It is a small step towards a better America.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about information and disinformation, reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

  1. We live in an age of ignorance, but can decide to fix this – today.
  2. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
  3. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.
  4. Ways to deal with those guilty of causing the fake news epidemic.
  5. The secret source of fake news. Its discovery will change America.

10 thoughts on “A new year’s gift: two tools to help discover truth in the news”

  1. We lack a compass– something against which all things can be measured. One one finds the instrument that stands up an consistently shows you a trusted direction, then you can use it effectively to travel about.

  2. Carl Sagan’s ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ is mistaken. Another person (I don’t remember who) stated that extraordinary claims simply require evidence. Once evidence is supplied and accepted, the claim ceases to be extraordinary. It becomes ordinary. Common place, even. You’d be a fool to dispute it. Why this matters is because you then have to ask who defines what proof is ‘extraordinary?’ Someone might be tempted to say, ‘Oh, your proof is not extraordinary enough. It doesn’t prove anything.’ That’s too many variables.

    1. Jon,

      “Carl Sagan’s ‘Extraordinary claims …”

      If you read this article, you would know that in 1978 Marcello Truzzi said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. Carl Sagan in 1980 gave a similar but illogical version: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Proof refers to the level of evidence required (how high the bar). “Extraordinary evidence” is an almost meaningless phrase.

      “Once evidence is supplied and accepted, the claim ceases to be extraordinary.”

      I suggest you read the article before giving a rebuttal to it. You’re missing the point.

      1. Here is Carl Sagan in the “Encyclopaedia Galactica” episode of Cosmos on PBS, 14 December 1980.

        “What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we’d like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” {At 01:24 minutes.}


    2. Jon,

      The problem here is the hand-waviness of qualitative definitions. The maxim under discussion is a natural consequence of Bayes’ theorem, which tells us how to quantitatively update beliefs in the light of new evidence: P(A|B) = P(A) * (P(B|A) / P(B). If A is the claim and B is the evidence, then our belief in A given our observation of B is simply our prior belief in A without any evidence, P(A), multiplied by how much more likely we are to observe B if A is true, P(B|A), than we are of observing B overall (P(B)).

      So, if P(A) is small (extraordinary claim), then to make P(A|B) large, we need to find evidence B that is relatively common if the claim is true (P(B|A is high), but very unusual to observe otherwise (P(B) is low). That comprises extraordinary proof. Of course, the hard part is estimating such probabilities for non-trivial events, but we can quantify the relationships between them quite nicely.

  3. Wisdom here. Good and maybe, since these are rare today, great stuff. Outside view, common sense, raising doubts, seeking truth, good faith. Sign of the times is how seldom such qualities are even discussed in the public realm or even sought in a discussion. Mad hubris seems an apt description.


  4. “Conspiracy theories abound, about everything — evil at the Federal Reserve, invisible jihadist cells, toxic vaccines, and scores of others — poisoning the public space. ”

    Probably unavoidable. When things get worse, and for a large chunk of the unwashed masses in the west this has probably been the case ( even if by broad historical standards things are still good), people will start to look for scapegoats, buy into conspiracies and turn against existing authority even when it is trying to do something good.

    1. marcelloi,

      “When things get worse, and for a large chunk of the unwashed masses in the west this has probably been the case ”

      (1) I don’t know what you mean by “unwashed masses”, or what time period you are considering. Statements like that are meaningful only for decadal or generational spans, since there are always downturns.

      (2) That’s not true in the US, where living standards have stagnated — not fallen — for a large fraction of the middle class, but not the lower or upper classes. I doubt that is true for most of non-FSU Europe over horizons of a decade or more, other than some of the worst-hit nations in southern Europe.

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