How can you know if something is true? How do you measure it? In these strange times, where information flows unchecked through fact checkers or indeed even observable reality, this feels like a pertinent question.
You might be tempted to rely on your intuitions, but our intuitions are often wrong. A most obvious example of this is our intuition that the sun revolves around the earth. It feels that way watching the celestial sky move above you, but it is not true. Even up and down are the wrong terminology. When you lie in your backyard and watch the world go by above you, you aren’t staring up. You are staring out. You are pasted to the surface of a (spherical), rotating planet, circling the sun at 67 000 miles an hour. When we watch the sun rise, it is not moving, we are. We fall into and out of the sunlight.
We know this because, unlike other animals, we can put our intuitions to the test. We can do more than just observe the world from our own first world perspective. We can gather observations from different sources, run experiments to collect data, form theories, and test these theories by predicting things that should happen if they are true. This is what sits at the heart of science. The positing of an idea based on observation or conjecture, and then testing its validity.
This process is probably the most powerful invention of the human race because it recognises our inherent cognitive biases and aims to correct for them.
You might be tempted to “do your own research” in the search for what is true and what is not. Doing research is a good thing, of course. It is exactly what scientists do. But research doesn’t mean finding facts that cohere to your particular point of view and ignoring those that don’t. Research itself is actually quite complicated and specialised, and it builds on a body of constantly challenged and further developed previous work.
But more than that, doing research requires recognising that we are not objective evaluators of truth, and our pre-existing beliefs skew what we see in the world.
In our search for truth, we are hindered by the way our conscious brains work to notice and judge information fairly.
In particular, our attention systems are more likely to notice things that affirm our beliefs or goals and miss those that don’t (attentional bias) and we are more likely to seek out information that confirms rather than disconfirms our beliefs (confirmation bias). We engage in motivated reasoning, and as such are more critical of alternatives ideas than the ones that align with our beliefs. And we trust people we know (such as our friends or the people we follow), meaning we are less likely to check the validity of the information they share with us.
This is all made insidiously worse by social media algorithms, which serve up (mis)information not checked for veracity or truth, but on clickability and likelihood of engagement. Algorithms that tap into a better understanding of our cognitive and belief biases than we do. Algorithms used to drive advertising revenue or followings. Algorithms that create wormholes down which otherwise smart people can and often do fall.
Of course, conspiracies do occur, and science gets things wrong, and scientists themselves are not immune from being psychopaths or inherently dishonest. But this is not one sided. A conspiracy doesn’t have to be perpetrated by those in charge. It can also be perpetrated by nefarious agents with their own agendas. People who might want to destabilise society, or drive sales of their own products. How can you you know, if you are pushing a particular anti-establishment point of view, that you yourself are not the victim of a conspiracy theory?
How can you evaluate truth, if truth is really what you are after?
If you are “doing your own research”, here are five things you have to do to ensure you are actually doing research.
1. Ask meaningful, clearly directed questions . It is not enough to make a broad claim like “vaccines are unsafe”. So is driving, flying, eating dairy, swimming in the sea and taking paracetamol. Doing real research means asking a clearly articulated question that compares alternatives.
2. Seek disconfirming evidence for whatever position you hold. It is always easy to find a data point that supports your view, especially if you are asking unspecified questions. But real research involves looking for evidence in support of the counter view. This is the only way to overcome confirmation bias, and it is the basis of real research. If you believe vaccines are unsafe, for example, you have to make time to look at the body of evidence that says just the opposite, rather than only seeking out those occasions that support your view.
3. Apply critical thinking equally. It is an excellent idea to engage critical thinking. It is a skill we have to learn because it is not inherent in our nature. But that style of thinking has to be applied without bias across supporting and non-supporting positions, and to one’s own thinking too. If you are concerned about the efficacy of vaccines (tested to the highest possible standard), for example, but happy to promote a drug that shows little clinical evidence of efficacy, then you aren’t applying your critical thinking across the board. If you have to revert to claims that every country, almost every immunologist, every university or research institute, every chief health office in the world is involved in some conspiracy to hide “the truth”, then you aren’t thinking critically at all.
4. Check the validity of your sources. Expertise in one area doesn’t automatically translate to another, nor does receiving information from someone you trust, or who has a PhD in front of their name, automatically make the information valid. Checking where your information comes from, and what their agenda is in creating and sharing that information is essential part of not being duped. All scientists have to declare their conflicts of interest. If you trust scientists who have been eschewed by mainstream science, you might want to check why that is. It may just be because they are dishonest and untrustworthy, or working for some other interest than the wellbeing of humanity.
5. Balance the evidence. You’ll always find something that supports a view counter to the mainstream, especially if you don’t have a grasp on the underlying principles at work in any particular subject. An unseasonably cold day has climate deniers crying hoax at the science behind climate change. Looking out the window and not being able to see the curvature of the earth is the main argument for flat earthers. But it is the weight of evidence, and the logical conclusions drawn from it, that matters.
All this aside, it seems that people who engage with conspiracy theories and make statements like "do your own research" are not after truth (however much they tell themselves they are). Thus they need to resort to conspiratorial thinking, anecdotal evidence or the dismissing of evidence as “I just don’t believe it”. At least this latter statement is vaguely honest, because it is admitting that the filter for truth is alignment with belief. But when belief is the filter with which you engage with the world, there is no opportunity for rational conversation because there isn't a shared reality. Beliefs make people immune to truth, and easily manipulated by those they follow. And that is very depressing.