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Nothing’s Quiet on the Western Front

A week ago – it feels so much longer – I drafted you into a fight. I asked that you stand for duty, honor, and right. We’ll get into what all that means, the philosophy of morality, forging a code of honor (and sticking to it) down the line; for now, I want to define an aspect of the war that we all must begin to fight today. The fight that I speak of is one that is fundamental to Liberty and Freedom in the Information Age. It is a fight that your schools should have taught you to fight, but the truth of the matter is we’re all too human.

Now I want to stress that this is only one front one of many. But it is the first step in becoming awakened to a greater world. I hope you’re good and rested and ready to fight, because from here on in, once you begin to take these steps with me, your life will begin to change and unravel in ways that I cannot predict.

You are being lied to. Constantly, from all sides. Your friends are lying to you. The media is lying to you. Your politicians are lying to you – even the politicians on your side are lying to you. You are lied to because control of your thought – your market share – means more money, more power, more influence along the “Invisible Hand”. We’re hearing a lot about “fake news” sites playing a major role in the election, and how destructive they are, and how there are calls to censor them…

That’s all well and good, but you cannot rely on others to tell you what is true and what is false – that is another system of control. You must take active cognition of the media that you consume and, once you have learned how to digest it, use your knowledge to help others in kind.

Now, it’s not as bad as it may sound. A couple paragraphs above I told you everyone is lying to you – that’s only partly true (see what I mean?) Some people will give you misinformation because they don’t know any better. Some people will do so because they don’t have all the facts. Some people will give you misinformation because of our limited human knowledge. While I do make a distinction between lying – actively passing misinformation – and just unintentional misinformation, I felt that I had to make a dramatic point.

You must question everything.

Beware, Ye Who Enter Here

This is called skepticism. There are only two basic tenets of skepticism: 1) Question Everything, and 2) Demand Evidence. We’ll take a look at what that means in a second – but first, a warning.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all one has to do is question what you’re told and demand to hear evidence and explanation of what you’re given by other people. This is not true skepticism, but rather a kind of hypocritical skepticism that starts with the premise “I’m right, you’re wrong.” True skepticism begins with that most philosophical and humbling proposition: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

We must turn our eye inward, before we can go out into the world and do battle with the intellectual forces arrayed against us. Search, analyze, and become comfortable with the idea that you don’t know everything, that you aren’t right all of the time – or even most of the time. That’s going to require a removal of ego – a willingness to be wrong even on the most fundamental aspects of life. And even if you aren’t wrong, a willingness to prove oneself wrong can lead you to understanding things both about yourself and your subject that will make you a better steward of knowledge.

Question Everything

The first part of the equation is simple: If you receive a piece of information, you question whether or not it is true. What facts are there to support that allegation? What are the sources for those facts? What method did those sources use to gather their information? How reliable is that methodology?

Personally I demand at least two independent sources before I begin to consider anything true. One good, solid source – such as a scientific, peer reviewed study – could be enough to at least get me considering things as correct, but even these things are flawed and often misinterpreted. (This is why it’s important to check those sources too.)

Apply that to something in your life now. Find a deep held belief – climate change, the need for a social safety net, questions on public education and schooling, the need for a strong military, to name a few political beliefs – and apply the first part of the test to that. First, define the scope of your belief. Then, list out what evidence you have that supports that belief.

You will find that a lot of things we take as “evidence” is anecdotal. Anecdotal evidence is tricky, because it’s something that we hold dearly to. Personal experience is one of mankind’s primary shaping factors. But it is also inherently bad information – it is limited in its scope to only one person, one viewpoint, one very specific set of circumstances. The circumstances that created that anecdote are extraordinary – everything had to happen just so in order for it to come to be. So you cannot rely on anecdotal evidence.

What do you truly know of your belief? Is there science behind it? Have people written about it? What are other people’s experiences with what you believe? How do others who aren’t in your position feel about your belief, and why?

When you start to question things, you will find that a lot of the things we build our lives on is built not on a strong and rocky foundation, but rather a series of blind leaps of faith.

Demand Evidence

The second step is to demand evidence of your belief. If you have managed to honestly and properly question your belief, and it has not evaporated in a puff of logic, then it is time to demand evidence of it. Some things – some beliefs – cannot have evidence. The existence of God, or a soul, or an objective morality – these are questions for saints and philosophers that beggar evidence. I have no interest in making atheists; feel free to make up your own mind on these issues, they’re matters for the next life, not this one.

But matters that affect this life, those require evidence. And what is evidence is a bit of a complicated issue. A lot of people can supply explanations. A lot of people can talk at you and hope to get away with verbal con artistry by throwing up walls of text or walls of words your way. Or fancy, scientific sounding terms that confound and confuse.

For those people, simply apply step one: Question everything that is being said. If you don’t understand something, look it up in the dictionary, or ask someone who does know to explain things to you.  It’s alright not to understand something. Just don’t pretend you do, and don’t allow yourself to think that failing to understand is the same as accepting something as true.

When you’re given raw data – in other words, raw numbers to look at, the results of scientific experiments, surveys, polling figures, studies – you need to learn to interpret that data yourself, or have someone you trust interpret the data for you (but then again, see above about questioning everything.) Raw data, uninterpreted, is the only true evidence – everything else is secondary.

For instance, say you don’t know what a word means. You could ask a friend, but he’s only going to give you what he remembers the word to mean (unless he outright lies to you to be malicious.) That could be wrong – and often is. So you can search Google, and that will tell you how people use it (unless it links you directly to a dictionary, but we’ll get to that.) That is a little more helpful – the opinion of millions of people is slightly – but only slightly – better than the opinion of a single person. And finally, you consult a dictionary – the raw data of what a word means, interpreted only by those people who wrote the dictionary. (So, really, you should check multiple dictionaries, as there is no “raw data” on language, per se, so perhaps it was a bad example…)

You must then question whether there is any data missing. As a public defender, I deal with laws pretty regularly. The first thing I do when working a case with an offense I am unfamiliar with is to go directly to the law. I read what the statute says, and I ask myself “is there anything in here that I am missing?” Usually – too usually, in my opinion – the good people who wrote the laws also redefined certain words so that they do not mean what you think they mean. They don’t bother to point this out to you in the statute – usually these definitions are somewhere else entirely. So you have to go looking for the missing pieces of the raw data.

Apply the same principles to every piece of evidence you get. Is there missing data? Is there a way that the data is being presented to me that could be pointing me in the wrong direction? Am I taking too narrow a view of the data, such that data could be interpreted to mean something else?

Keep punishing and pushing your raw data, until what is left is strong, and pure, and leads to an unavoidable and inescapable conclusion. That is what I call a kernel of truth.

They Won’t All Be Kernels

Skepticism is not a hard line rule of black and white. You’ll find that there is much area for gray in most of your life. Some things will skew closer to “true”, but maybe not arrive there. Some things will skew closer to “false”. You will rarely have kernels of truth, and those that you do have will only convince you that we know so little about the world around us.

Sometimes you need to have a little faith. And that’s okay. If you’re more likely right than you are wrong, I think at that point you can call it an honestly held belief. But be prepared to be wrong, because you will be.

Congratulations, you have taken your first step into a larger world.

3 Comments

  1. EggMoney wrote:

    Alex, this is the best summation of skepticism I have seen that I can remember. It would easily be used to teach an intro lecture on the subject. I especially appreciate the often overlooked points that 1) one’s skepticism properly begins with oneself; and 2) in real life, we are mostly operating on a set of informed beliefs, and that’s ok. Fantastic stuff, thanks for posting.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  2. Alex Ramos wrote:

    Thanks! I really can’t stress those two points enough. I might very well make examination of the self its very own post.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  3. EggMoney wrote:

    Once skepticism is focused on the self, I think it very quickly ends up in a space where existentialism, Hinduism, and Sufism are equally important frames of reference for the work. Mentat, know thyself. It would indeed warrant examination as a separate subject, IMHO. I look forward to reading it.

    Thursday, November 17, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

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