How Do We Know What is True?

"Separating truth from fiction is equal parts a mental battle and diligent research." —Thorin Klosowski, Life Hacker

Neil DeGrass Tyson on the Difference Between Objective Truth & Personal Truth

"For mathematics, the truth is in the solution to the equation; in science the truth results from experimentation; and in philosophy the truth is found in understanding… Children are taught to tell the “truth;” there are legal implications of “truth;” and religious tenets assign “truth” as a factor in salvation. Truth inundates our lives.

While most believe they know what is meant by truth, the version of truth we understand is in fact a fallacy.… The idea of personal belief factoring into the concept of truth is not far-fetched and the impact of individuality and personal bias on truth are tremendous. These influences can alter what is meant by truth and by what means truth is derived."

Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s definition: "The true is what corresponds to the real, and the real is what is in truth. The circle has closed again. What does 'in truth' mean? Truth is the essence of the true. What do we have in mind when speaking of the essence? Usually it is thought to be those features held in common by everything that is true. The essence is discovered in the generic and universal concept, which represents the one feature that holds indifferently for many things." (From a paper by Gregory Makuch)

The truth can be established. There are such things as facts.

For example, you can tell me you don't believe in gravity's existence, but like it or not, if you step off a roof, you're going to fall. How one defines and explains gravity may be subject to nuance, but its existence is a fact we experience. The question of what's true and can be trusted has become politicized. Many of us don't know what to believe about the realities facing the world: things like climate change or whether to trust national security professionals when they say Russia attempted to interfere in our most recent election. More often then not, where one stands on these issues tends to align with their personal politics. In my mind that's dangerous. Democracy depends on collective effort, and in order to move forward together we have to find a framework for agreement. We have to have common ground. The internet is alive with conspiracy theories and fake news. It is also host to provocative alternative explanations for certain well-worn ideas. The purpose of the information on this page, is to help you think about how to determine the truth of something, or at least arrive at your best judgment.

Conspiracy Theory: 4 in the Morning

Confirmation Bias

confirmation-bias.jpgResearchers have found that part of the problem of recognizing truth arises from "how people determine whether a particular statement is true. We are more likely to believe a statement if it confirms our preexisting beliefs, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Accepting a statement also requires less cognitive effort than rejecting it. Even simple traits such as language can affect acceptance: Studies have found that the way a statement is printed or voiced (or even the accent) can make those statements more believable. Misinformation is a human problem, not a liberal or conservative one.

"You have to be careful when you correct misinformation that you don't inadvertently strengthen it," says Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth and one of the paper's authors. "If the issues go to the heart of people's deeply held world views, they become more entrenched in their opinions if you try to update their thinking."
(From an excellent article on disinformation published by the Scientific American)

The bottom line is that to find the truth, first you have to be open to knowing the truth, you have to work against your tendency to assume you know already and that what you want to be true is true. You have to aggressively pursue knowing. Recognizing and understanding what is true and what is false is not for the feint of heart nor the passive bystander. You must begin, essentially, by asking yourself HOW you know what you know.

Descartes.jpgDescartes: I think therefore I am

The famous philosopher, Rene Descartes came to the conclusion that he must question everything, that he could be sure of nothing. Ultimately, he concluded that his ability to doubt what he knew was confirmation of one simple truth: he existed. The self that questioned could not question UNLESS it existed, therefore he could be sure of that one thing. "I think, therefore I am." This became his starting point for determining what he could know for certain.

Ancient Civilization: An Example of Controversy

The roots of civilization are controversial. There are credible individuals claiming evidence of an advanced civilization some 12,000 years ago, and new evidence that the debris of a comet may have caused a global disaster that destroyed most of the civilized life on the planet and is responsible for the myths of massive flooding, including the Biblical claim and Plato's report of Atlantis. Scientific American published an article in 2009 raising the issue of a comet hitting the earth.

"Roughly 12,900 years ago," they write, "massive global cooling kicked in abruptly, along with the end of the line for some 35 different mammal species, including the mammoth, as well as the so-called Clovis culture of prehistoric North Americans. Various theories have been proposed for the die-off, ranging from abrupt climate change to over hunting once humans were let loose on the wilds of North America." But now nano-diamonds (tiny diamonds that are associated with impact from a comet or asteroid) have been found in the sediments from this time period. They "point to an alternative: a massive explosion or explosions by a fragmentary comet, similar to but even larger than the Tunguska event of 1908 in Siberia."

cometImpact.jpg"The discovery lends support to a theory first advanced last year in that some type of cosmic impact or impacts—a fragmented comet bursting in the atmosphere or raining down on the oceans—set off the more than 1,300-year cooling period in the Northern Hemisphere known as the Younger Dryas for the abundance of an alpine flower's pollen found during the interval."

Besides, being interesting, the controversy is a good one to explore. Scientific American is a credible source. It is the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States and scientists with the stature of Albert Einstein have contributed to it. It's listed as a credible scientific source on the Blog, Questia, which tracks resource information for college students. Still, it is a "popular" magazine, not a science journal. There is a difference. The articles are not peer reviewed in the same way they would be if it were a journal, and lately Scientific American has had some controversy of its own. Even science is political. Looking further, we can see that an article was published in 2012 in a reputable journal: "New research findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) are consistent with a controversial theory that an extraterrestrial body – such as a comet – impacted the Earth approximately 12,900 years ago, possibly contributing to the significant climatic and ecological changes that date to that time period." The paper, we're told, is "the latest in a heated scholarly debate focused on whether such an "impact event" took place. (—"a leading web-based science, research and technology news service.")

comet_2013.jpgA December 2016 article casts significant doubt on the theory: Washington University (St. Louis) reports that physicist Tyrone Daulton with the Institute for Materials Science and Engineering has found no evidence to justify the claim of comet impact. Daulton is considered an expert in the field and has been a critique of the theory for over ten years. Reading the report, the argument seems to be over the existence of the nano-diamonds. Daulton says they aren't present. He disagrees with the findings that claim they're present.

So, the question is: How do we decide the truth? Or perhaps, more importantly: How do we talk about the controversy? The answer, in part, is that we must acknowledge both sides, and report where the weight of the argument lies. In other words, which side seems the most credible at this time? We need to do enough research to understand the issue. For example, apparently, the question of climate and ecological change at the time is agreed upon, but not what caused it and whether the cause included massive flooding. Reading further we find that journalist Graham Hancock is a major promoter of this theory and has established an elaborate and fascinating alternative history based on some twenty-five years of research. He's spoken on TedEx and then had his talk banned. He's a controversial character, in part because he's well-educated and a compelling speaker. In the following video clip, Mr. Hancock presents some of his arguments about the pyramids:

Truth is a slippery animal

The question remains: Who should we listen to and how credible are the various arguments? Chances are, where you come down on this controversy will reflect, in part, your personal "confirmation bias." You'll likely give more weight to those views that tend to align with your existing beliefs. The work is to do as much research as you can on the topic, to respect its complexity and note the parts where there is agreement as well as the parts where the controversy prevails. The more you know about the topic, the more you can bring to your own analysis to the process. The work is to pay attention, ask questions, challenge your assumptions and keep digging until you find a position you can defend with legitimate reason and evidence. In the end, it is essential you represent both sides fairly, and carefully explain why you have decided what you think is true. You may conclude you don't know and that's okay, too—as long as you've really engaged the topic. There are questions that have no answer, not only about our past, but about our present and our future. An open, inquisitive mind is the most important tool you bring to the discussion.