Discerning Truth from Error

Photo by Chen YiChun on Unsplash

Truth is Truth. And everything that is reflects it.

Truth is indifferent to our individual needs or wants, and our beliefs or level of understanding make no difference to it whatsoever. Yet it affects all of us at all times, so whether we want to seek understanding or not, it is important that we have at least some level of understanding to reap the greatest benefits in our existence. 

Truth’s infinite nature makes it both complex and intricate. This can make it seem capricious or changing, but it doesn’t change, and it’s not random. There are always reasons why things are the way that they are at any particular time, but the truths behind it tend to be beyond our ability to see them all, let alone understand.

Truth being infinite both in duration and breadth, it is impossible for any human to have either the time or capacity to grasp it all, so we both rely on the communicated learning of others to increase our capacity to understand what we need.  

Everyone has some glimmer of knowledge of it, because we all need to know it. Whether it’s as simple as knowing that eating food makes the pain in your gut go away, or as complex as knowing the engineering of a suspension bridge, or as ethereal as understanding some of the intricacies of morality and our spiritual nature. Some people lean more towards seeking the understanding, others towards more practical application. We as humans need both. We have scholars (including scientists, philosophers, and other pure understanding-seeking roles) and religious leaders to distill and clarify more of the practical understanding for the rest of us. 

Yes, I include religious leaders with scientists. They are not at odds, as many may contend. They are both positions dedicated to seeking and sharing truth–in their purity. (There are many persons in both categories who may have the label of scientist or prophet/guru/lama, but they are not seeking truth, but seek the position for various other reasons, usually a form of power. That is the subject of the dissimulation of man, not the nature of truth, which rabbit hole I’m trying not to cover right now. 🙂 )  They seek it from different directions, but just like seeking information from your ears is as valid as seeking information from your eyes, both are important to give us a more complete picture of things and bring us closer to Truth. Both science and religion are subject to both well-meant but gormless error, both are subject to malicious abuse of the position by those whose motives are selfish and are using the power of the role rather than actually seeking truth. 

This brings up the important point of “what’s this to me?” Why can’t I just deal with the truth that I need right now and be done with it? Let’s break it down, shall we?

Understanding of Truth makes our lives better. On the simpler scale, this is obvious: knowing about fire, including how to make it and contain it, made primitive life safer and more pleasant, right?  Early Homo sapiens didn’t need to know the chemistry behind combustion or the physics of heat distribution to experience the benefits, but learning those things later helped us make it more easily, contain it more effectively, and deal with the side effects of an uncontrolled interaction with it (such as oxygen with smoke inhalation, treatments for burns, reseeding forest areas, etc.). Do you see how this gets more complex?

Here’s the rub: just like truth is infinite, the capacity for our lives to be improved in some way by understanding of truth is infinite–even if we don’t fully understand the truth ourselves. We don’t have to know how to make the statin drugs that lower cholesterol, or the medical science that better understands why lower cholesterol can help us avoid heart attacks, to benefit from the fact that SOMEONE figured that out. But you DID have to be able to understand enough to utilize that knowledge. In this instance, that understanding includes:

  • understanding that the doctor has a lot of training you don’t.
  • understanding that the training the doctor received allows him or her to have more knowledge of certain Truths you may not know.
  • understanding similar things about the bloody tests the doctor ran
  • understanding similar things about the pharmaceutical research behind the medication prescribed, the production thereof, and the distribution to you
  • etc.

Now, this gets into belief. Belief is basically an understanding that we’ve held long enough (whether learned from others or from experience doesn’t matter) that we don’t challenge it (much) and we behave as if it were true. This is very important, as is this fact: we can and do believe in things which are not true. This can be something positive we believe (that someone ‘would never’ do a particular bad thing) or negative (that no one of a specific occupation or race can be trusted). In this example, someone might not believe that pharmaceuticals ever make good things, so they might refuse to take the medication. Or they might believe that because they ‘feel fine,’ that this feeling overrides the information about their cholesterol levels, so either the doctor’s information and understanding is wrong, or the tests are wrong.  And, as with most things it takes lots of study and seeking to understand, the eventual consequences of certain choices (consequences are part of the Truth) are not obvious at first because it is a cumulative truth, that is, the effects build over time and have a few other contributing factors.

But Truth is Truth, my friends. And regardless of our belief, it affects us. So even if we aren’t full seekers of the deeper truths, we need to be able to discern well enough to make better decisions, for ourselves and our families and those around us. 

So how the crap do I do this?

Yes, I’m finally getting to the point.

There are skills you must develop to be able to better discern truth from error (or outright lies), no matter what role in the “truth seeking” spectrum you hold. Some of these skills involve utilizing tools available to you. Some of them are internal skills that you can improve on if you practice.  All of them must be perpetual–the moment you stop, you will stop learning and growing.

  1. Be humble.
    If there is one thing that is guaranteed, it’s that in one way or another, in every subject, you are wrong. Maybe not completely, and maybe not substantially enough to make a difference, but you have to acknowledge that and be willing to at least examine new information and adjust your behaviors or beliefs as needed. This also needs to apply to outside information: sometimes we learn something from a respectable source, but as that respectable source continues to gain more information and understanding, they might change what they said. This is all good, and as it should be. Others can be wrong too, even if we trusted them. It doesn’t make them, or us, ‘bad.’ Just keep being willing to learn and update and adapt as more truth is discovered.

  2. Discard all-or-nothing thinking.
    Not only is all-or-nothing thinking generally wrong, but it closes our mind to more information that will bring us closer to the truth and can push us into emotions that cloud our perceptions. Remember the example above about the cholesterol and statins? Lots of the trouble comes in when someone starts to place absolute values on something, then make decisions based on those values. Say, you’ve had a bad experience with a doctor, or your parents did. That led to distrust, which can lead to some bad rationalizations. Bad experiences–whether through incompetence on the provider’s part or something as tragic as incomplete medical understanding of a condition or treatment (which is constant and why we keep doing research)–are real, but to extrapolate from those that all doctors are bad, or all medical research is wrong, is jumping to all-or-nothing thinking and moves away from truth. Truth being infinite doesn’t just apply to it being bigger than we can conceptualize. It also applies to being more infinitesimally detailed than we can conceptualize as well. Which means that very tiny things that we may not be able to see can make some serious differences in both perceptions and outcomes.

  3. Learn some basics about statistics.
    I feel a disturbance in the Force, as if thousands of voices suddenly cried out in pain….
    No, seriously. I don’t mean that you need to become a hardcore statistician. I mean that you need to understand how and why and when a single percentage point can be a big deal. You need to understand the difference between mean and mode and median, as they are useful in different ways but can be used to misrepresent things. You need to understand what demographics mean, how they can affect results, and how they can be used to skew (that is, make less accurate) a number. You need to understand It is said that there are “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but the truth is that a lie is a lie, and the statistics are not lies. They present far, far more accurate and useful information than the skewed perceptions of the few people in one person’s social circle. The problem perceived in statistics lies in how the statistics are generated or presented–and you need to understand that sometimes statistics are manipulated to manipulate people, sometimes they are skewed accidentally by bias someone didn’t realize they had, and sometimes there are just mistakes. The point is that the more you understand about statistics, the more you will be able to recognize the truths and how they affect you. 
  4. Learn about cognitive biases and logical fallacies. 
    Again, you don’t have to become a full-on logician, but these rules will help us identify both mistakes we might be unintentionally making in our own thinking (cognitive biases) and mistakes others might be making in presenting information (particularly in argument form) (and yes, sometimes people use logical fallacies on purpose, but I think lots of times they don’t realize what they are doing). There are a lot of both of them, so I find it useful to have infographics and other quick resources to help me keep them straight and ‘check myself before I wreck myself.’ Here is a good one for cognitive biases and here is a good one for logical fallacies. 
  5. Watch out for auto-pilot.
    Auto-pilot is term that I have started using to refer to the things we do without really thinking of them anymore. We all do it, and we NEED to do it to a point, because no one has the capacity to think every single action through like it’s brand new every time. However, auto-pilot can be dangerous when the situation has changed (whether we know it’s changed or not), especially if we are unwilling to shut auto-pilot off. Yes, it’s easier to leave it on. But you WILL have problems if you do this because things are always changing around us. It’s also important to note that auto-pilot is there because it was programmed, that is, because you learned it. Which means that, by definition, if you are in auto-pilot, you are not learning and not growing. Learning requires change. 
  6.  Learn to recognize the difference between data and interpretation of data.
    This seems weird and science-y, but it’s relevant to everything. Basically, ALL data–that is, information–we receive is filtered in some way. Sometimes it is filtered physically by our senses (if you’re red-green color blind, or having hearing loss, you are going to miss things. Not to mention that no human body is capable of seeing all colors or hearing all frequencies anyway!), some by limitations of perspective and proximity (for instance, if you just turn your head to look around you, you can’t generally see things above you, you can’t see through the walls or objects in the room, etc.), but it can also be filtered intellectually by our culture, our personal experiences, our language, historical context, etc. If you gain the information from another person, then you have more than double the filters, because it also goes through their interpretation of the data and their ability to convey it accurately to you. Whether reading scripture or a scientific article, you need to understand as much about the potential filters both the writer had and you as a reader will have and take those things into account when trying to find the truth of what is trying to be conveyed.
  7. Seek good sources but recognize their limits.
    You can utilize the first six skills to start to recognize good sources for various types of information. Be willing to challenge the information from them as needed, and avoid putting them on a pedestal where we stop thinking about their information on our own. Recognize that an expert in one thing may not be an expert in other things. Also recognize that they are human, just like you, and CAN’T know everything, even in their field of expertise. This doesn’t make them bad (just like it doesn’t make you bad), nor does it make every thing they’ve ever said suspect. 
  8. Seek direct information whenever possible and pragmatic. 
    This isn’t often possible–gathering all the information for proper statistics is difficult at best, building backyard observatories tends to be cost-prohibitive, and lots of chemistry experiments can be very dangerous at home (I am not going to mix bleach and ammonia just to discover ‘for myself’ that they actually make nerve gas). But there ARE some things we can and should try for ourselves, and that’s the most complete and best way to figure out the Truth of them. Psychological therapy might seem hokey or wrong when you have some well-established (but dysfunctional) coping skills that you’ve been using all your life. But if you try out the techniques taught by the therapist, you can gather your own data and discover it works. The extreme diet your doctor is telling you to use to combat your body’s inability to deal with certain foods properly is painful and may feel wrong, but if you try it out for yourself, you will get more data that will help you find more what truth is there. God and the various religions and scriptures and belief systems may seem hokey and flawed and such, but if you seek a connection with God directly–prayer if nothing else–you will find Truth there as well.

It won’t be perfect. We aren’t capable of that right now. But the seeking will get you closer and make life more bearable. 


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