I want to begin this post with a simple thought experiment. It is not original with me, and unfortunately, I don’t recall where I first heard it, but I think that it is a useful exercise. I want you to think about all of the thousands of different views, beliefs, ideas, etc. that you hold. Think about all of the things that you think are true. Now, estimate the percentage of them that are actually true. In other words, if you are honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that you are almost certainly wrong some of the time. It’s extremely unlikely that you are right 100% of the time. So how often do you think that you are right? 80% of the time? 90% of the time? 95%? Are you presumptuous enough to go to 99%? Regardless of what number you settled on, it was surely something less than 100% (unless you are hopelessly arrogant). You’re not correct 100% of the time, and neither am I, and neither is Stephen Hawking, and neither was Einstein, etc.
Now, having established that you are wrong about at least some of your views, I want you to divide your views into things you’re right about and things you’re wrong about. Go ahead and try it. You can’t do it, and neither can I. You inherently don’t know which of your views are wrong, because if you knew that a view was false, then you wouldn’t hold it as a true belief (as least I hope that is the case). In other words, we all hold the views that we hold because we think that they are true. So we inherently think that all of our views are right even though, if we are honest, we have to admit that at least some of them are almost certainly false.
At this point, we have established two fundamental and critically important points that should act as guiding concepts for you.
- Some of your views are wrong
- You don’t know which ones are wrong
The implication of those two facts is obvious and inescapable: you must always be willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong about any given topic. This is one of the guiding principle of skepticism, and it is one that everyone should take to heart. It does not matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, and it doesn’t matter how well educated you are, you could still be wrong about any of your views. Therefore, you must always consider contrary evidence when you are presented with it (see note at the bottom).
In concept, this sounds simple enough, but actually practicing it is admittedly difficult. We like to think that we are right. We take comfort in thinking that we understand the way that the world works, and being faced with evidence that disagrees with our views is unpleasant. We don’t like being wrong. As a result, we tend to cling to any source that agrees with us, and blindly reject any source that disagrees with us. More often than not, when we are presented with a source or argument that disagrees with one of our views, we simply write it off as “fake news,” we claim that the author had an agenda, we invent elaborate conspiracy theories, we cherry-pick evidence to hurl back at it, etc. We are willing to do anything that it takes to avoid facing the harsh truth that we might be wrong. This is called motivated reasoning, and it is a very serious problem because it prevents you from actually considering evidence and making rational decisions. Fortunately, it is a problem that you can overcome.
You can train yourself to be skeptical. The first step in that is simply to admit that you might be wrong, and, following that, force yourself to actually consider contrary evidence. When you read an article that you like, don’t instantly assume that it is true and hit the “share” button. Rather, stop and think carefully about it. Look at the arguments that it is making, look at the sources that it is citing, fact check the article, read the opposing articles, talk to people who hold the opposing view, etc. Similarly, when you see an article that you disagree with, don’t automatically assume that it is false. Don’t assume that it is “propaganda” or “fake news.” Again, fact check it. There are lots of great fact checking websites out there, and you should use them. Try as hard as you can to find information from good sources that supports the opposing. In other words, you should try to disprove your own position. What most people do is simply look for information that supports their view, rather than looking for information that opposes it, and that’s a serious problem. Indeed, it leads to what is known as a confirmation bias. Most people “fact check” by looking for other articles that agree with them. They, of course, easily find them; then they instantly assume that those articles are true, and the existence of those articles further bolsters their view. Do you see why that is a problem? It is a feedback loop that will always leave you with the same view that you started with. There will always be other people who think you’re right, so if you only look at what they have to say, you will only ever see arguments that agree with you, and you will never have to actually consider the possibility that you are wrong. That is a monumental problem.
On that note, try to avoid echo chambers. Don’t unfriend everyone who disagrees with you, and don’t block sources that say you’re wrong. Rather, you should engage with those people and sources. See what they have to say, listen to their arguments, and always be willing to be wrong. I don’t want to get political here, but it politics present a very good example. In recent months, I have seen a large number of people reach the conclusion that only one major news company is trustworthy, and all of the others are agenda driven liars. Thus, they now get their news from only one source. That would be problematic regardless of which source they chose, but it is especially problematic since their chosen source (which won’t be named) is notoriously biased towards one extreme of the political spectrum. Thus, these people have created an echo chamber for themselves, where all of their “news” comes from people who agree with them, and any source that disagrees with them is automatically considered to be false. That is a tremendously huge problem regardless of which end of the political spectrum it falls along, and you should strive to avoid it. Get your information from multiple sources, fact check, and actually read/watch and consider opposing arguments. Also, make sure that the sources that you are using are actually legitimate sources. Although you shouldn’t automatically assume that a source is fake news just because it disagrees with you, there are, nevertheless, a lot of fake news sources out there, and you should be careful to avoid them. Similarly, be leery of sources that are known to have an agenda, because they tend to be biased.
In short, you should always consider the possibility that you are wrong, carefully fact check everything (especially if it agrees with you), listen to opposing arguments, avoid echo chambers, get information from multiple sources, and even try to discredit your own views rather than trying to support them. I realize that this isn’t easy to do. It is against our nature to be that willing to dismiss our views, but in our modern age of misinformation, this type of skepticism is invaluable and you should strive for it in all areas of life (science, politics, religion, ethics, etc.). I doubt that anyone has ever achieved perfect skepticism (I certainly haven’t), and we are all prone to confirmation biases (myself included), but this is something that you can get better at. You can train yourself to be a skeptic, and as with most things, the more that you do it, the easier that it will become. Make fact checking a habit, rather than something that you only do when you want to disprove someone, and above all else, be willing to be wrong.
Note: Some people may challenge my thought experiment by pointing out that not being able to know which of your views is false is not the same thing as not being able to know that some of your views are true. In other words, you could argue that it is possible to divide your views into things that you are 100% certain are true and things that you are less than 100% certain about. I agree that you can be more certain about some things than others, but I disagree that 100% certainty is ever possible. There are lots of philosophical reasons for this, some of which I discussed here (for example, look up Descartes, the brain in a vat argument, etc.). More practically, however, I think that claiming 100% certainty is the epitome of arrogance. By claiming that you are 100% certain about something, you are saying that you are so knowledgeable, intelligent, and infallible that it is impossible for you to be wrong on a given topic, and that is a rather extreme claim to make. I don’t care who you are, you aren’t perfect enough to achieve 100% certainty. It is always possible that some piece of evidence has alluded you or some cognitive bias has crept in. Thus, you should always be willing to be wrong. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you can’t be highly certain about some things. You can reach strong conclusions based on the available evidence, but you should always be willing to challenge those conclusions when presented with new evidence (to be clear, I mean actual, proper scientific evidence, not anecdotes, assumptions, conjecture, conspiracy theories, etc.).
Note 2: As several people have pointed out in comments, mathematics are a legitimate exception to my statements regarding absolute certainty (as are the rules of logic) because they are abstract and do not rely on observations of the physical universe. In other words, 2+2 must always equal 4 even if we are living in the matrix, being deceived by an evil genius, etc. Nevertheless, that is clearly quite different from the types of views and beliefs that I was addressing in the post.
- Don’t mistake an assumption for a fact
- What does it mean to be a skeptic?
- What would it take to convince you that you were wrong?