The Right Questions


In the previous article, we took a closer look at the flaws of our perception, using the visual apparatus as an example – today let’s contemplate the assessment of the perceived.

Firstly, one has to realize an important principle: there is only one reality.

True, the same fact does not mean the same for everyone, but reality nevertheless has a certain shape.

Things exist and processes happen – not in several versions at the same time, as they do in the quantum world, but simply and unambiguously.

This truth is often enough so complex and multi-layered that one can create vastly different versions of the same story just by picking out different aspects.

This is precisely the key to understanding the eternal struggle for truth: every processing and appraisal of an occurence, as well as every scientific model, always represents a simplification. To put it into exaggerated terms, a truly unbroken retelling would have to include the path of every atom, describe every rustling in the background, and even more so the pre-history of all the agents leading up to the described moment, not even to mention their thoughts, motivations, and plans in its course, which remain hidden to us anyway. A selection by relevance must, therefore, be made. Even with the best intention, this can never be done perfectly – which makes it all the more easy to play fast and loose with this principle, spreading untruths and half-truths without ever directly lying.

Once again: there is only one truth, only one actual procession of events, no matter how complex. Thus, if two claims contradict each other (and there is no misunderstanding), at least one of them must be either an error, a half-truth, or a deliberate lie.

In our day-to-day interactions, it is of course reasonable to make compromises, because everyone’s perception and memory are known to be unreliable. The situation is different, however, if we want to shape our world view as realistically as possible. To this end, laziness is really out of the question, and no information, including (and in particular!) that hammered in from early childhood on, should simply be believed without challenge.

Even without any malice or bad intent, misinformation can sneak in, which we might then spend a lifetime basing our decisions on, never leading to the desired results.

When assessing new information, questions such as the following are useful:

Might there be a faulty observation involved?

A historical example of this: in the case of incineration, contrary to our everyday experience, you end up with more material than what was originally present, because oxygen has combined with the burnt material. The remaining ash is only lighter than the starting material because the smoke (which is by no means weightless) is missing. For centuries, however, building on this faulty observation, scholars believed that incineration deprives the substance of something. If you want to know more about this, you might want to google the phlogiston theory.

Are the prerequisites correct?

If one assumes, for example, the earth to be the motionless center of the universe, the stars must move in extremely complicated, partly retrograde orbits. If you do not know the laws of aerodynamics, you would have to assume that airplanes never get off the ground. If, on the other hand, only aerodynamics, but not electrostatic forces are considered, one would have to come to the conclusion that bumblebees are flightless.

Does it contradict established science? If so, can the current view be false or incomplete?

For this, one must note that science is anything but infallible, and that its well-thought-out principles are continually broken, because it is, after all, conducted by people who are partly corruptable, partly vain, and sometimes simply operationally blind.

Again and again, one can observe that scientists defend the current state as the only true and possible view – a very foolish and also quite unscientific attitude. But in spite of this limitation, formulae that are used thousands of times on a daily basis and principles that are continually tracked and checked by each new student are likely to be correct with great (but never 100%) probability. Theories, which are constantly verified with new findings, just as much.

Does the author have a firm grip of the subject matter, has he been using a wide range of information sources?

A person who cannot explain something well often has not fully understood it themselves. If the author conveys knowledge in a structured and intuitive manner and makes many meaningful cross-connections, which stimulate the reader rather than overwhelming them, things are as they should be. The exception here is literature written by specialists for specialists – obviously only their peers can judge the work’s quality.

How transparant is the research, does the author quote reliable sources, are all links traceable?

If, upon following a link, one ends up on obvious propaganda pages (which create strong feelings with the help of emotionally moving images or rash assertions, thus circumventing the logic in our inner monologue), scepticism is appropriate.

Are contradicting views mentioned

– or simply ignored? Are they debased argumentatively or attacked on the emotional level? Sweeping anything unconvenient under the carpet, just so a theory does not begin to wobble, is bad style. So is discrediting it through psychological tricks.

Do you, after all, want to spread truth and stimulate thought, or convince others of something, regardless of whether or not it is true?

Is the theory itself based on feeling and faith rather than on facts and logic?

The creationist explanation of the world, for example, builds on the firm belief that the Bible is to be taken literally and that the Earth was created in its present form. The perfect matching jigsaw of geological strata, the fossils and bones that lie under our feet in the sediment, can thus only be a trick to lure us onto the wrong track. Regardless of whether, according to this logic, we want to place the magic wand in the hands of the Creator himself or the devil … if the world is so haphazardly directed by the supernatural, the search for truth generally has no meaning and everything becomes arbitrary.

Is the claim conclusive without mental acrobatics or must very many unlikely coincidences be invoked?

This, for example, is a weak point (not a counter-argument!) in the usual theory of evolution, which assigns mutations exclusively to chance and treats selection as a subsequent regulator. However, some of the earliest developments, as one can now calculate, ocurred too fast and purposefully to be really indiscriminately random. It is therefore possible that either living organisms were introduced from elsewhere (meteorites), or that a principle or natural law (or even a consciousness of the world), which favors the emergence of life, has so far escaped science.

The rejected theories of Darwin’s colleagues Lamarck, too, are becoming interesting again. He believed that frequent use or the need for a skill reinforced it in genes. Indeed, it has been shown that in plants and bacteria certain gene sequences cannot only be activated, but also newly developed, as required. The mechanisms are thus much more complicated than thought, and currently largely unexplained in their function.

Does it fit to other observations?

A huge building of coherent research on a subject – for example, in geology, biology or astronomy, with which entire armies of people are professionally engaged or choose the field as their hobby – cannot simply be dismissed in their entirety as nonsense simply because a single observation is in seeming contradiction. However, it must also be pointed out:

None of science’s disciplines has been clarified as completely as it is habitually proclaimed. Within each of these, there are large and small puzzle pieces that are consistent and practically indisputable in themselves, yet in between there are zones of uncertainty.

If a new observation explains such a missing piece and fits elegantly, it is a good indication – but not proof – that it could be true. If, on the other hand, it contradicts all that has been found so far, it is either a revolutionary discovery which requires a completely new explanation of the world or, more probable, simply not correctly observed or interpreted.

Finally, it should be said that absolutely no source is ever 100% trustworthy, but also no information can be completely and automatically excluded because of its obscure origin. Take in – double check – ponder for yourself: this is the only reliable way to escape manipulation!


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