A Young Person's Guide for Finding Truth
How to Find Truth
What does it mean to live in a world of “post-truth?”
A world where political and cultural groups operate on alternate facts, bad actors bomb news feeds with misinformation, and where institutions intended to prevent such things fail to keep pace with technological advancement?
What does it mean to “know” something in the 21st century?
Perhaps we should turn to academic philosophers and policy creators. These seem like quite philosophical questions after all, and if we give them enough time they will surely come up with satisfying answers to these abstract, ethical issues.
In reality, we should be knocking on the doors of Big Tech and Big Media executives. They, after all, control the means by which most of us get our information. For them, “how do we know truth?” is not an abstract question, but an engineering one. Truth can be measured. How often is something shared? What are the ratings for this kind of content? The higher those numbers, the more we’ll show it – and that is truth. If you are skeptical of this claim, then you do not know enough about how social media actually works and have not been paying attention to the death of local journalism in the US.
With all these dynamics in play, how can we find (and vet) information so we know that what we’re reading, listening, and watching are, in fact, close to the truth?
We must first accept that we will never have all the facts.
The world is an entangled mess of 7 billion people with 7 billion different agendas, all having 7 billion unique experiences and interpretations of everything happening outside their bodies. This isn’t a new dynamic; Vietnamese rice farmers rarely (if ever) knew what was going on in the palace of the Nguyễn dynasty. But for the larger part of human history, being ignorant didn’t affect your day-to-day life.
Today, smartphones and social networks have made it possible to be connected halfway across the world. The hurricanes that are wiping out the houses of my aunts and uncles have an effect here in the USA. I can see and hear their suffering, and then empathize with their pain. I can also Venmo them some money to help them get by. Now, what happens across the world does matter.
To survive in this hyper-connected world we must accept it’s complexity. Simple stories and a short list of facts will no longer be enough to understand anything. We must always be vigilant and willing to revise our opinions in the face of new evidence.
But how can we trust that evidence in the first place?
Deepfakes and other synthetic media are becoming easier to produce and increasingly convincing. And unfortunately, lies spread faster than truth.
So how can we trust anything we see, hear, or read?
First, it’s important to note that “fake news” is not a new phenomena. History is full of examples of various states and organizations faking events for various agendas. What is new is how fast social media can spread fake news. Fake news no longer spreads by traveling merchants visiting from town to town, nor is it only spread by TVs and radios that you can only see/hear at home. Fake news has a direct IV drip into our arm, and we carry the pouch in our pockets all day long.
The best way to combat this is to always be a bit skeptical of any notification you receive, especially if it makes you emotional. Apps and headlines are designed to trigger an emotional response, and so the larger your emotional response, the more skepticism you should have of whatever you’re seeing.
It is not practical to vet every single article or tweet you read. We simply read too much for that to be possible. But we should periodically vet who and what is sending us that headline in the first place. By building a portfolio of trusted journalists, friends, and centralized places for receiving information, we can have a better idea of what is “truthful” and what is not.
Periodically, we must revisit trusted sources of information. Just because they were right and truthful yesterday does not mean they will always be truthful and right tomorrow. Although we must be humble in never knowing all the facts, we must never degrade our standards for honest and complete information from where we seek it.
So, where do we start? We know the world is complex and we’ve become skeptical of sources of information. Now, where can we go to find good sources of information to rely on?
Jump Down Rabbit Holes
The web of social networks works both ways. Just as disinformation and misinformation has a one-way road to you, you have a one-way road to the smartest and most knowledgeable experts on practically any topic in the world.
First, we must grasp what the current discussion is and where it’s happening. Everyone wants to talk about current events like COVID-19 and political unrest in the US, but where are serious and thoughtful conversations actually happening?
The answer is simple: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is edited and vetted by thousands of people everyday. And articles that are highly controversial and visited (i.e. articles ripe for misinformation) will be vetted the most. If you ever wanted a bunch people talking about where they get their information and why they think the things they think, then you won’t have to look much further then the talk page of a Wikipedia article.
Wikipedia articles are not the end all be all of our search. They are only the beginning. Wikipedia articles serve as springboards for finding terms and events that you can plug into various search engines across the web to dig into truth. A handful of key words plugged into Google, Twitter, etc will help you find the places where discussions are happening, books by experts in the topic, and new evidence to evaluate and incorporate into your worldview.
But it is easy to lose hours crawling through the web, so where do we stop? When can we be satisfied with our current understanding of something before we call it quits and determine we know enough?
The future is becoming increasingly uncertain, and it can be difficult to make decisions for tomorrow if you barely understand today. I am here to tell you: it’ll be okay, stop panicking.
Panicking can make sense if a building is burning down and we need adrenaline to rush towards an exit. It does not make sense when you are trying to find truth. Being in a state of panic puts our priorities and worldviews above others, and more often than not, we are wrong. Our priorities are rarely the priorities of the world, and our worldviews are more likely to be cultural inheritances based on fiction rather than fact.
Instead, we need to feel confused. Headlines may make you angry, but after the anger subsides you should also feel confused.
It feels good to be loud and proactive. Sharing articles and re-tweeting content feels like we’re contributing. We know it’s a small part to play and that we can do more, but this is the best place to start.
In reality, the best thing we could do is to try and understand. Sharing content only amplifies a message; it rarely improves it and more often distorts it.
Understanding a situation and all its nuances takes time, but the payoff is much greater. The more we understand about the world, the better equipped we are to contribute our unique talents and skills. Instead of making a viewpoint or cause a little more known, we are able to find ways to truly push for progress.
Finding truth is stressful. It takes many, many hours and can often be uncomfortable and disappointing. And no matter how much effort and time we spend, we will never know everything.
Understanding the world is more than just knowing people, places, and events that have occurred. Truly understanding something is to know about all of the things you don’t know.
With its increasing complexity and infinite nuance, the world is just too much to be understood by one person. Rather than being upset or frustrated by this, we should accept this and appreciate it as a wonder of the world.
Much of this essay has been inspired by the work of Yuval Noah Harari. Specifically, his books Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. I can not recommend these books more if you work in a STEM discipline.
Thank you for reading,