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But Is It True?

Today I attended a short customer services course. It was kind of fun in some ways and there were some interesting points made, but to a large extent it was just a generic rehashing of the stuff that we all know anyway without any reference to the particular issues faced by the organisation I work for.

I realised that the trainer had a particular way of looking at the world, which included using various “psychometric models” which I usually think of as being more pop psychology than real science, and I realised that everyone has their equivalent to these models which they use to try to understand the complexity of the world. They have models based on personal experience, on common sense, and on the shared wisdom of their particular community.

The problem is that these sources of knowledge are often wrong. Here are some examples…

Many people find it hard to believe that human activity can have a noticeable effect on the planet as a whole. They can’t believe that by taking as many fish as we want from the ocean that a species can be virtually eliminated. They can’t believe that by burning fossil fuels the climate can be changed. They can’t believe that pollution from farming can degrade the environment significantly.

Others find it hard to accept the findings of science. They don’t think the quantum nature of the world is real even though anyone can do an experiment to show that it is. They can’t accept that evolution is the only sensible explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. They think a simple religious interpretation of the universe makes more sense than the reality revealed by science.

And others have social and political ideologies which they cling to despite evidence. They might believe that countries which follow a more socialist political path aren’t good places to live. They might think that more guns is the best answer to increased numbers of mass shootings. They might think that free markets always give the best outcome for the majority.

Then there’s those who think organic food is always superior. Or that vaccinations are a bad thing and might lead to autism. Or that homeopathy, reflexology, exorcism, faith healing, reiki, etc are effective and a good alternative to science-based medicine.

There are hundreds more beliefs I could add to the list above but I think that is a good, representative sample and a substantial proportion of the population would accept at least one of them. And who knows, maybe they are right because it’s impossible to completely dismiss anything as completely untrue. There is always room for doubt. But a good interim conclusion would be that all of the above are doubtful at best, and completely false at worst.

If you look at a subject, like evolution, without any knowledge of the real discoveries of science, it is almost impossible to accept it. How could the incredibly complex organisms (including ourselves) on the planet today have arisen through “random trial and error” from simple chemicals in the distant past? It just doesn’t make sense.

But many things which all evidence indicates are true don’t make sense until you look at that evidence. How could anyone possible believe the completely counter-intuitive findings of relativity or quantum theory unless they were aware of the experiments and observations which show that the world at the sub-atomic level and at the greatest scales actually doesn’t work how we would intuitive expect it to?

If you consider what intuition really is – a set of heuristic rules we use to understand common experiences – it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t work in many extraordinary situations, especially those involving the most basic levels of the physical world, the most complex situations involving the behaviour of large groups of people, processes occurring over vast time periods, or phenomena outside the usual range of experiences of a person or his immediate group.

I’m not saying that everyone should re-examine all of their most cherished beliefs. I’m just saying that unless they do they really shouldn’t enter into debates with people who have actually made an effort to look at the facts.

And finally, do I suffer from the same problem? Well I guess I probably do because one of the basic attributes of people who prefer personal opinion to facts is that they don’t realise they are doing it. I do have to say though, that I make a real effort to look at alternatives to what I initially think is true and I do hold several ideas in a state where I accept they are doubtful. I think that if everyone made that sort of effort we would all be much better off.

Look at it this way: I might like an idea and it might seem to make sense, but is it true?

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