I recently received an email bashing an article because it was published in Rolling Stone magazine. It was a political article – the content of which is not important here. What is important is that it was well researched, all the facts were linked to footnotes, and the backing material was open to public scrutiny. Those are all signs of good reporting – good scholarship. Does that mean that the article was correct? No. It doesn’t. It does mean that it’s worth looking into.
On the Internet – the First Amendment gets interesting. Freedom of the press means something different if suddenly everyone has one. It’s scary – because there’s no gatekeeper. There is no-one out there to keep out the blatant and patent falsehoods, and protect people from the effects of those falsehoods. There are also no protections in place to keep people from finding out things that are true, but inconvenient. No protections, that is, but the trifling fact that few people are ever taught how to think, and most people (possibly for that very reason) never learn.
Research is easy. Type a few words into Google. Make a few trips to libraries. Read a few books. Most of the raw “facts” are easy enough to find. The problem is, raw facts are only the first step – the easy part. The painstaking (and painful) part is analysis. Analysis is the detailed work required to determine which facts are true, and which are false – and to give those facts meaning through context. The effort involved in reading between the lines and squinting, trying to find a pattern when you don’t have all the data. Looking at all the information you have, and knowing that some of what you see is true, some is merely false, some is deliberate deception of the part of someone with an agenda.
To make matters worse, the person with the agenda may be four of five steps removed from where you found your information. This means that you not only can’t trust your enemies – you can’t trust your friends either. Any piece of information, no matter where it comes from, may be false – may be based on in incorrect assumption or be the deliberate fabrication of someone with an ax to grind. What’s worse? So might this article.
Okay. Having said that, how do you tell truth from fiction? There are two really powerful tools for this job. The first is formal logic. The second is the scientific method. Formal logic is the premier tool for avoiding fuzzy thinking and misplaced assumptions. The scientific method is the best tool currently known for separating truth from fiction. They are designed to work together.
Formal logic and the scientific method are almost universally hated. Most religions want nothing to do with them. Politicians don’t like them at all. In fact, even in education they are given little more than lip service. Religion and politics ask for faith and trust. Logic and science ask for doubt. At least doubt is honest.
How do I know what is true? I don’t. You’ll hear me speak of “fairly certain”. You’ll see me dance with “almost sure”. I reserve the right to be wrong. I’m guessing. Why should anyone believe me? Don’t. Go check it out for yourself. Maybe I’m lying. Worse – I might be telling the truth.
Homework: What are formal logic and the scientific method? What is falsifiability, and why is it important? It has been said that questions are more important than answers. How could that be true? Name at least one way that it it false.
Bonus Questions: What’s the origin of this essay’s title? What recent Rolling Stone article is the most likely candidate for pushing my buttons? Why?