Seeking and Sifting for Truth: Navigating Through a World of Misinformation

By Shepard thinks
(March 25, 2020)

Earlier this month I visited a voluntaryist pal in Nevada. He is an older fellow and has had an interesting life, including mining the claim he inherited from his grandfather near Cherry Creek. We chatted about dowsing, alternative medicine, sifting rocks through a mesh to only let the correct ore pass through, conspiracy theories and many other topics. Flynn and I both yearn for the truth and do not wish to be hoodwinked by false versions. Throughout our lives, we have observed some people providing dishonest information in a very convincing way.  

I decided that it was time to contemplate more deeply how I arrive at my conclusions, principles, values and worldviews. Join me as I examine how we think (reason), how we argue (logic) and how we examine data (scientific method).

Reason and logic

Reason and logic are important to me. I attempt to live a stoic life, and I have discovered that combining reason, logic, and the scientific method provides a pretty accurate way to observe the world and draw conclusions. I also appreciate the subconscious, and I know that my front brain’s analytical nature can also benefit from the much more powerful back brain.

Having mentioned the tools that I use in discovering the world, let’s enjoy a crash course on reason, logic, and the scientific method. Many people that teach the use of these tools are not “people-people,” and their personality types lean more toward the engineer, scientist, analytic type of person. I am better at drinking beer at barbecues than understanding how to write a proper bibliography. My hope is that my lay-person approach and communication style will appeal to you regardless what type of person you are.

Familiarity with errors in reasoning is very important. Reason and logic have more to do with the structure than the content. Something can be logical and reasonable, and at the same time “false.” Say, for example, a fictional character named Bill declares that, “I like joy and I think joy is good.” If Bill gets joy from kicking puppies, then logic and reason would allow him to say that according to his worldview, kicking puppies is a valid behavior. According to the structure of reason and logic, Bill’s argument is sound, even though abhorrent to most people.

If we want to argue with Bill, we must first decide which of his premises we share. We must not attack, either in our thinking or in our critique, the solid parts of Bill’s argument. As it turns out, we agree with Bill that we also like joy and that joy is good. But we do not share his premise that kicking puppies brings us joy. We simply have different values and worldviews than Bill about what brings us joy. These can be very strong beliefs based on our values, or can be casual preferences.

In this example, Bill has different values in terms of kindness to animals than we do. I do not like Bill’s actions, and while his arguments might pass the tests of logic and reason, they can still be “bad” and “wrong” from my perspective. We can either persuade Bill to change his values, or, if he refuses, we may decide to take some other action. 

Easy stuff, right? Kind of. Most government schools do not teach the topics of logic or reason. A good starting place to understand errors in reasoning and conclusions is a review of logical fallacies, which are easily found online. It is important to be familiar with them, even if we don’t recall their names. Let’s continue with Bill’s ridiculous example and imagine that we tell Bill that we value being kind to animals and not kicking them. Bill might retort, “So basically you think animals should be able to get away with anything, even biting a harmless child without provocation.” What Bill just did was create a Straw Man argument. He built an argument that is ridiculous and easy to defeat, and pretended that it was part of our argument.

Knowing that the above fallacy is called a “Straw Man” is not important. However, knowing that his argument is faulty and is potentially fallacious is important. I suggest that you learn about a new logical fallacy every morning for a month. In this way, within 30 days, you will be better versed than 99% of most people. There are many other fallacies that you should understand, including the Bandwagon Fallacy (also known as democracy), Circular Reasoning, and Causation versus Correlation.

I have mentioned reasoning, logic, and the scientific method as valuable, but what are some of the means of acquiring knowledge that I dislike? First would be the absence of any system. Secondly, ideas commonly called “they make me feel good” are of little use to me. “In my 58 years of life and 35 years of marriage, no car or woman has ever felt more right than that Corvette and that 23-year-old waitress I met yesterday.” Feelings are important in interpersonal relationships and examining one’s own self. However, they are a poor way to make important decisions or to arrive at important conclusions.

Scientific method

The modern scientific community has a number of systems and tools to evaluate the things they examine. One of these tools is the “scientific method.” The scientific method has a number of steps that must be followed to examine a question, including forming a hypothesis, systematic observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. In many modern legal systems, there are “rules of evidence” that also serve as an objective system of observation. As a businessman, I appreciate systems, and I also allow for some flexibility so long as the structural stability remains intact.

Frequently, we do not have time, interest or energy to do all of the research on a topic for ourselves. We decide instead to turn to trusted experts. Do we really want to individually test which rubber compound makes the best windshield wiper? Do we really want to research all things that we have slight curiosities about? Of course not.

This creates a challenge in that many experts shape their truths to suit those who pay them. A couple excellent examples are drapetomania and climate change. When overt slavery existed in the US, the federal government had fugitive slave laws which legalized the forced return of escaped slaves to their masters. A doctor who practiced in the deep South in the mid-1800s invented a medical condition labeled “drapetomania,” which he conjectured was the “condition” that made slaves want to run away.

In the first part of the 21st century, world governments are pushing the concept of catastrophic climate change. A researcher with a hypothesis suggesting humanity does not need to worry about climate change, would not receive funding for her research projects. The scientific community knows that the only acceptable results of their “studies” must include the existence of man-caused climate change and that action must be taken now!

In these two examples, we see that we cannot fully trust everything that credentialed scientists and media-approved “experts” say. Who then do we trust? Do we trust conspiracy entertainers, governments, people with government board-approved doctorates, quacks, salesmen or preachers?

Conspiracy theories

Hillary Clinton is really an alien, and most of the mass violence incidents are fake.” I find these to be ridiculous statements. I do not believe that a large percentage of political rulers are pedophiles. I do, however, believe that people conspire for both good and bad purposes. Conspiracy, as it pertains to our discussion, can be defined loosely as, “some folks chatting and planning about doing something.”

Most conspiracy theories violate the rules of logic, reason, and the scientific method. However, is there ever a reason to believe something that is not 100% provable? Yes. I believe so.

Imagine that you and I, and three of our trusted friends had speculated in the “right” crypto-currency, and now find ourselves to be among the five wealthiest people in the world. We would spend and invest our money and still we would each have many billions of “extra” money. Is it possible that we would meet up and chat for a few days about how we might pool our money to create a better world for others? Is it possible that we would not want to be bothered by beggars and main-stream media, and that we might want to meet in private and all agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement? Might we agree not to record or document anything we discuss unless necessary to carry it out? Whether we and others have good or bad intentions, people do sit down and chat.

Not everything that is true is provable to everyone. Not everything that happens leaves evidence. Books like THE CREATURE FROM JEKYLL ISLAND by G. Edward Griffin and THE UNERGROUND HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN EDUCATION SYSTEM by John Taylor Gatto are two examples of books that do not pass the scientific evidence test, but that are well worth reading. On the other hand, governments and others put out a massive amount of information that is designed to make a listener believe their falsehoods. Much disinformation is spread using modern persuasion and propaganda strategies. This is sometimes done maliciously, sometimes as a prank, and sometimes accidentally. 

Snake oil salesmen sell medical cures, preachers sell salvation, bankers and governments sell fear and war, and many use similar techniques. I suggest you study propaganda, persuasion, sales, and the structure of multi-level marketing. The more you learn, the more easily you will be able to spot someone using strategies that just might not be trustworthy.

In my study of propaganda and my observation of mass communication tactics, I have been impressed with the proclamations of governments and mainstream media that their truths are not to be questioned. Of all of the professions, one of the least trusted is that of politician, and a close second is “government employee.” It is a brilliant persuasion strategy to claim to be the only reliable source of “true” information. 

From governments that accept drapetomania, to those that encourage the fear of climate change, to the ones that require politician worship, how are we to sift through all of the junk to find the nuggets of truth? My friend Flynn has spent countless hours crushing ore to sort out the tiny amount of gold that exists within. It was not easy for him and it is not easy for us.

How do voluntaryists think in the free market of information?

I have observed that most people that arrive at the philosophic destination called “voluntaryism” get there through sound thinking. Voluntaryism, which I define as a worldview that includes belief in, and a preference for, non-violent or non-coercive social situations, does not require others to think well. However, it seems that most voluntaryists do so.

I have also observed some people that identify as voluntaryists that do not think well, or have areas in which they depart from their good thinking processes. In most cases, as I speak with someone that believes in lizard people, that the earth is flat or other unproven things, I learn that they are not in fact defining voluntaryism as I am. I find that they think voluntaryism is simply, “I think differently than most folks, you think differently than most folks in other areas, so if you are a voluntaryist, I think I am as well.” This faulty reasoning exposes that the person is not in fact a voluntaryist, at least by my, or common definition.

The free market allows for lousy thinking methods. The popularity of mega-lotteries, which some joke are “a tax on those that don’t understand statistics” is an example of faulty thinking being a “winner” in the marketplace. There is room in the entertainment marketplace for wacko conspiracy theorists who charismatically “expose the truth” about their favorite topics. The free market is a concept, a process, and an open system. There is no management staff at the head of the free market offices promising a perfect outcome. What the free market and voluntaryism do reject is the idea that violence or its threat can win an argument. It has been said that “you can’t shoot a truth,” and “if he who employs coercion against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because [his argument] is weak.”

This brings us full circle to recognize that we are each responsible for our own beliefs and how we arrive at them. When the screaming YouTube host says that the Corona Virus is making unicorns come to life, and that the government is hiding the truth, it is up to the receiver of this “information” to decide how to evaluate it. Do you need a mid-sized city zoologist to say it is true? Do you need to see a photo of a unicorn, handle unicorn poop, or is there some other proof that you require? Again, there will not be hard evidence for every single thing that has ever happened, and you get to choose the facts that appear correct to you. If you decide that the man with the hoarse and urgent voice on YouTube is correct, no one will prevent you from building a unicorn defense fence around your home. There is no president of the free market that will warn you not to spend your money that way. While these silly examples seem harsh, and it is clear that the smart people will do better than the dumb people. This is how the real world works. You pay your money and you make your choice!

You may buy unicorn fencing, you may buy the quack’s sagebrush vinegar potion for which he gives you anecdotal evidence, and you may buy lottery tickets. Tools exist to help us think better. Reason, logic, the scientific method, and an understanding of statistics, history, and economics can hone your thinking abilities. It is likely, for psychological reasons, that you will “feel better” taking the potion (or a sugar pill), and that the person with a unicorn fence will indeed live many years free of unicorn attacks. So long as we each accept responsibility for our choices, and so long as we do not coerce others to take actions based on our own personal preferences, we may enjoy an exciting voluntaryist life and live with happiness, relishing the many nuggets of golden knowledge we find.

My undergraduate degree is in social science, and my 20 years of casual study since has helped me to better “mine” for truth. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I do not have a fail-safe solution for sorting out the “gold nuggets” from the “fool’s gold.” The best any of us can do is use our common sense to apply logic, reason, and the scientific method, and then introduce an occasional dose of gut-check and intuition into our search for the truth.

When I read an article, I hope that the author can tie a neat ribbon around all the questions and answers that have been discussed. My ribbon is humility, and I will now tie it into a nice bow around this article.  We have eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and skin, all of which send information to our brains.  Then we make meaning out of it, and nearly always, the meaning we make out of it is not 100% accurate.  Our past can interfere.  Our preferences can interfere.  A lot of other things can interfere, so how can we know what is true?  It’s okay with me that I can’t know.  I have working assumptions and whenever I need to, I update them. If I update one, it means I’m accepting that my previous views, which I’ve held for almost 50 years now, were wrong.  I was wrong.  And that’s okay, because I can update my working assumptions.

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