10 Questions to Ask Before You Believe Something

How well does a belief that you currently subscribe to hold up under these ten questions? And wouldn’t it be nice if we all asked such questions before professing belief in something?

  1. Do I have any actual evidence for the thing I say I believe, and what is the extent and quality of that evidence?
  2. If I don’t have direct physical evidence or data that support my belief, do I at least have other good reasons—deductive, inductive, abductive—for believing what I say I do? (Abduction is reasoning to the best hypothesis: laying out all the logical possibilities and asking which one best fits the evidence.)
  3. Given the quantity and quality of the evidence and reasons available to me at this time, how strongly should I actually hold my belief?
  4. Is my belief coherent with my background knowledge (the things I think I already know about the cosmos and how it works)?
  5. Have I actively sought out disconfirming evidence and arguments against my belief?
  6. Have I weighed alternative beliefs or explanations about this matter, and really come to the best belief and explanation on offer? (In this question, we’re back to abduction.)
  7. What framing or spell-casting associations, stories, metaphors, or analogies have I been telling myself in support of this belief which, on closer inspection, might be misleading me, making it difficult to think clearly about the matter at hand?
  8. What role is desire or aversion of any sort (pleasure, hope, fear, optimism, group approval, pessimism, ego gratification, financial interest, aesthetics, comfort, etc.) playing in my conclusion?
  9. What blind spots might I potentially have about this belief, and what might be causing them? (This is a hard question because it brings us into a confrontation with our psychological repressions, projections, sublimations, compartmentalizations, etc.)
  10. Are there forces at work that are fogging my ability to objectively, patiently, and clearly focus on this matter (time pressures, illness, electronic distractions, noises, decorum, lack of sleep, envy, guilt, strong-willed influencers, emotional blackmailers, authority figures, pessimism, etc.).

A lot of us are brought under the spell of false beliefs because we can tell a good story about how they might be true, they are consistent with logic (they are logically possible), and we want to be believe them. And so the above questions would certainly clear up a lot of life’s fog if we actually asked them.

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled “In Front of Your Nose.” In it, he lays out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” It’s a funny line, and it rests on a powerful syllogism: our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; they rarely match reality; therefore, our conclusions rarely match reality. And so, in the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but that of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out your eyes. The above questions might actually help you do that (should you really want to).

And wouldn’t it be nice to take hands with Truth and samba through life with it (as opposed to Falsehood)?

Maybe not.

Therein lies the problem. Contra Keats’ memorable line from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”), such things as beauty and comfort, unfortunately, are not always on the side of truth.

Do we, therefore, need our distortions, illusions, fantasies, and delusions–our false beliefs? Something or someone that stays with us, right or wrong, till death parts us? Do we want to be wed to the truth or do we want something else?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to 10 Questions to Ask Before You Believe Something

  1. Alas, Astrud Gilberto’s voice is so much more appealing in her native Portuguese!

  2. Staffan says:

    Most people can’t handle the truth. The late Stephen Jay Gould for instance insisted that intelligence was not inheritable and that is was a meaningless concept since it contradicted his Marxist views. He talked a lot of critical thinking and bias and how extremely important it was to be aware of such matters. I bet he always asked himself the questions above.

    And are you not the same in you’re 50/50 position on nature/nurture? Did you actively seek out disconfirming evidence?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Actually, I have. If you would like to direct me to something you think demonstrates that who we are in most aspects is determined by our genetics, I’m happy to have a look. To the best of my knowledge (and I have read a fair amount on the subject over the years), the classic Minnesota Twin Study pretty convincingly demonstrated that 50-50 is a good rule of thumb for most traits. Intelligence may well be 70%, height 70%, etc., but a lot of other traits are 30% heritable and so the fifty-fifty rule is just a generalization that keeps both in play when discussing the issue.

      An especially interesting example is type 2 diabetes among twins. It’s 95% common to twins (if one has it, so does the other). And yet if twins eat differently and have different weights their outcomes can dramatically diverge.

      See the 20 minute mark in this video and watch the twin segment:

      As for Gould, there are some topics, such as race, gender, and religion, to which it is very difficult even for highly trained academics to apply a decent degree of dispassion. That doesn’t mean that they are total shits in all aspects of their research for failing where the rest of humanity also tends to fail. We are all crooked timber.

  3. Staffan says:

    Here is one article that discusses this issue : http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593100/

    A quote:
    “Nonshared environmental variance terms reflect the variance remaining after the effects of additive genetic and shared environmental variance have been estimated, and therefore random error variance is included in this variance component.”

    For personality traits it’s been found that the shared environment is very small, some times negligible. So we have the additive factor of around 50 percent and then 50 percent of nonshared environment containing an unknown portion of error variance. Error variance is not environment, in fact given the low reliability of most measures it must be assumed to be substantial.

    Here is a study that has used self- and peer reports in combination to minimize this error. They ended up with heritabilities of Big Five from 0.66-0.79. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1997.tb00324.x/abstract;jsessionid=BD25C11175BA19C26B68283E68E1F351.d01t03?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

    Here is a full article by Avshalom Caspi (a highly regarded expert on these matters) and colleagues http://www.subjectpool.com/ed_teach/y4person/1_intro/refs/Caspi_Roberts2005_AnRevPsych.pdf

    A quote to confirm what I’ve said above,

    “First, measures of personality that incorporate multiple viewpoints or
    perspectives (e.g., by consolidating information from multiple reporters or across
    multiple situations) yield larger estimates of genetic influences (as well as smaller,
    but more reliable, estimates of nonshared environmental influences) than measures
    based on a single viewpoint (e.g., Arseneault et al. 2003, Phillips&Matheny 1997,
    Reimann et al. 1997).”

    In other words, the more accurate measures show much higher heritabilities. And again, shared environment is very small – and that’s things like school, family, community etc.

    Yes, we can treat diabetes. Stupidity? Not so much. There have been endless of attempts to increase schoolchildrens IQ levels and they have all failed.

    “As for Gould, there are some topics, such as race, gender, and religion, to which it is very difficult even for highly trained academics to apply a decent degree of dispassion. That doesn’t mean that they are total shits in all aspects of their research for failing where the rest of humanity also tends to fail. We are all crooked timber.”

    I don’t agree with this. I can respect a creationist who says “I don’t care about science because I have my faith.” But Gould essentially said that he cared very much about science and then he abandoned it out of concern for his personal feelings. I don’t think many people can respect a man who doesn’t live by his own code. I sure don’t.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree that it is a moral failure in Gould. He let his politics influence his presentation of biology far too much (as did his colleague at Harvard at the time, Niles Eldridge). I’ll concede that. And I’m not troubled by a high rate of IQ inheritability (70%). If that’s what it is, it’s what it is.

      I have a cousin who is good at math. I used to try to turn her on to literature as a major in college without much success. It wasn’t her thing. She wasn’t especially good at it. She didn’t try to become especially good at it. She went on to get a PhD in pharmaceuticals. It’s probably cruel to set people up for failure, pushing them in directions to which they are ill-suited.

      I suppose the key is to have enough freedom and prosperity in society so that everyone can land where they are intellectually and temperamentally suited and be reasonably happy there. Fortunately, I think human civilization, via technology, is moving ever more toward this level of broad and global human prosperity. I think the world will be better and richer (and with less crime) fifty years from now. That will be good for the rich and gifted as well as the poor and average–and those below average. At least if the rich and gifted behave somewhat responsibly.

      The key is to get people to buy in to society via their own “immortality projects” (religion, raising a family, becoming a marathoner, making more money than their neighbors, etc.) in a nonviolent and productive manner that keeps resentment for what others are doing or achieving in pursuit of their own immortality projects down. You don’t want people with different immortality projects crashing into each other (marathoners getting smashed into by Islamic jihadists, for example).

      One problem in the United States is that positive immortality projects for the majority of black men have faltered for them culturally. That’s an environmental thing. My argument is that if you can restore or find positive immortality projects for people (or they can find them for themselves), you can see a degree of happiness and direction come to their lives, far more than if they flounder.


      • Staffan says:

        We had something like your vision in Sweden under democratic socialism. It seems it was ok to just live your life back then, it wasn’t a competition. And rich people payed up. The super rich Jewish family Wallenberg always complained about it, but on top of the taxes they sponsored research and higher education with huge amounts. They seem to have been proud of being Swedish and of their role as benefactors of one of the most civilized countries in the world. But during the 1980s we introduced multiculturalism and from there on rich people were less interested in paying taxes and it was suddenly every man for himself. Community was replaced by hierarchy.

        I’m skeptical of how much material wealth will matter in a society based on social hierarchies rather than on a sense of community. Social status is a zero sum game. Although I’m sure rich people, or anyone paying taxes, would be more willing to do so if they were allowed to do this as benefactors rather than under the assumption that they are oppressors who owe various minorities money.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with being skeptical. The future will tell.

  4. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 05/04/13 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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