Thursday, May 05, 2011

Seth's Blog: Seeing the truth when it might be invisible

Seeing the truth when it might be invisible

I’ll believe it when I see it.

This is a problem.

It didn’t used to be. It used to be a totally fine strategy to work your way through life only believing what you could see and touch, only caring about what impacted your life right now.

Two things changed:

First, over time, the base of knowledge we have about the world has increased exponentially, and that knowledge compounds. Electrons and ozone and game theory and databases might all be invisible, they might be beyond your understanding, but they’re still important, still looming right at the edges of the life you live right now.

And second, of course, is the notion of a worldwide web of information, a system that brings every bit of news and data and discovery right to your door. While you may want to disbelieve what’s happening around you, that won’t make it go away, and what’s “around you” is now a much larger sphere than it ever was before.

If you are too trusting of the invisible, then you buy that $89 ebook that comes with the promise of instant riches, or you sign up for ear candling, or invest time and money with a charlatan. If you haven't figured out how to discern the invisible stuff that's true from the invisible stuff that's a trick, you're helpless in a world where just about every decision we make has to do with things that are invisible.

Thus, two kinds of serious errors: believing in invisible things that aren't true, or insisting that the truth might not be. They're caused by fear, by deliberate misinformation and by being uninformed.

We have to accept that once we start down the slippery slope of always (or never) believing, we end up in Alice-in-Wonderland territory. Do you have firsthand knowledge that the Earth is round (a sphere)? Really? Have you ever seen the tuberculosis bacteria? Perhaps it doesn’t exist, they might say it’s just a fraud invented by the pharmaceutical industry to get us to buy expensive drugs... Or consider the flip side, the Bernie Madoff too-good-to-be-true flipside of invisible riches that never appear. After all, if someone can't prove it's a fraud yet, it might be true!

Eight things you’ve probably never seen with your own eyes: Buzz Aldrin, the US debt, multi-generational evolution of mammals, an atom of hydrogen, Google’s search algorithm, the inside of a nuclear power plant, a whale and the way your body digests a cookie. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor does it mean you can’t find a way to make them useful.

Do governments and marketers lie to us? All the time. Does that mean that the powerful (reproducible, testable and yes, true) invisible forces of economics, history and science are a fraud? No way.

Once you go down that road, you’re on your own, no longer a productive member of a society built on rational thought. Be skeptical. Test and measure and see if the truth is a useful hypothesis to help move the discussion forward. Please do. But at some point, in order to move forward, we have to accept that truth can’t be a relative concept, something to use when it suits our agenda but be discarded when we're frightened or want to score a point.

Richard Feynman said, "I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!"

Merely because it's invisible doesn't mean it's true--or false.

Is it a skill to figure out what's true, even if it's invisible? I think it is, and a rare and valuable one.

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