How Do We Know What is True?

This is an interesting question. The world around us is amazing, and often unbelievable. The very fact that I am able to type these words on a computer has required tens of thousands of inventions across centuries, and the amount of complexity that is abstracted away astonishing.

I do not have to understand the intricacies of how computers work to use one. I can just turn it on and start typing. This abstraction creates a divide between the observable functionality of technology and its factual underlying truths. Modern computers rely on extensive abstraction – their inner workings are obscured behind user-friendly interfaces. When the technical details are hidden, it becomes easier to fill the gaps in our comprehension with inaccurate assumptions. The computer seems to operate as if by magic, making it hard to grasp the complex physical and mathematical realities enabling its capabilities.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Isaac Asimov

This issue extends beyond just computers. Many of today’s technologies rely on abstraction that hides their factual functioning. When systems like artificial intelligence and social media platforms are “black boxes”, their decision-making algorithms and objectives feel questionable. The lack of transparency breeds doubt and theories about biased truths. Effective standards of literacy and transparency around technical subjects are needed to close the gap between perception and reality. When abstraction widens the divide between surface observations and underlying facts, people tend to rely more on intuition, speculation, and unreliable sources to shape their notion of the truth. Demystifying complexity helps establish a shared understanding of factual reality.

I believe that this abstraction from the core functioning of our everyday tools is part of the reason why we, as a society, are finding it difficult to know what is true anymore.

This makes me think of when the pyramids were brand new, and they were completely covered in white marble, gleaming in the Egyptian sun. What a sight that must have been, and someone seeing them even just thirty or fifty years after they were build could only come the conclusion that the pyramids were simply placed there by the gods. It would have been inconceivable that this was the effort of tens of thousands of humans beings, working over the timespan of decades.

When I visited the ancient quarries in Aswan in southern Egypt, it was still difficult to fully comprehend the truth about the tremendous feat of engineering and manpower required to construct the pyramids. The Great Pyramid of Giza alone, built around 2560 BC for the pharaoh Khufu, contains an estimated 2.5 million blocks of stone weighing an average of 2,500 kg each. That’s over 6.2 billion kilograms of stone! Picture hundreds of workers quarrying and precisely placing massive blocks – some transported from Aswan 500 km up the Nile – every couple of minutes. How on earth did they achieve this scale of construction using ancient technology? Even knowing the facts today, it’s hard to fully grasp. Herodotus recorded that the Great Pyramid took 10 years to plan and 20 years to build. When we understand the scope of labor, resources and ingenuity required, it becomes clearer why these impressive monuments were revered as wonders in the ancient world. Their achievement was so unprecedented that the “truth” about their construction seemed unbelievable at the time. The pyramids exemplify why discerning truth about the past can be challenging even with evidence.

So how do we know what is true?

Facts & Evidence.

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.


Socrates highlights the importance of recognising the limits of one’s knowledge in pursuing greater wisdom. While abstraction can hide underlying truths, focusing on facts and objective evidence remains key to discerning reality.

But looking at reality is a humbling process. We must always stay open to the possibility that we are wrong. The pursuit of truth through evidence hinges on following where the facts lead, even if they contradict our preexisting beliefs and assumptions. An evidence-based mindset demands the humility to admit when new information discredits what we previously accepted as true – challenging as that may be. Updating our understanding based on the weight of the evidence, rather than clinging to old notions, is the only way we can get closer to factual reality. An openness to evolving perspectives is essential, as new discoveries can uncover truths while disproving past misconceptions. Rigidity leaves no room for growth in knowledge.

While crucial for truth-seeking, developing an evidence-based mindset is tremendously difficult.Beliefs we’ve held as unequivocal truths for decades may suddenly be overturned by new facts. This creates immense cognitive dissonance, or mental stress from conflicting ideas. Letting go of fundamental assumptions that shape our worldviews can feel devastating. Yet the discomfort of radically changing our minds is part of the necessary growth process. When new evidence discredits old certainties, the path forward requires resilience and mental flexibility. With time, the evidence almost always wins out. But the initial confrontation of having long-standing perspectives proven wrong can be a psychologically harrowing experience. Maintaining openness throughout this turbulent process is key. Truth-seeking through evidence is a marathon, not a sprint.

I believe that the Earth is a globe, but if I was presented with enough compelling evidence, I would be genuinely open to changing my mind. However, this is a careful balance. We do not want to be so open minded that our brains fall out.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

John Maynard Keynes

Objective facts and empirical evidence serve as the foundation for establishing truth in many critical fields. The scientific method relies on systematic observation and experimentation to uncover factual data about the natural world. Legal truths hinge on collecting and presenting credible evidence like forensic data and witness testimony to prove guilt or innocence. Investigative journalism requires corroborating information from multiple verified sources and documented proof to substantiate stories. Historical accounts are considered truthful when grounded in primary source documents and tangible relics that provide direct evidence. Medical truths emerge from rigorous clinical trials and aggregated data showing causal effects. In each field, professionals work diligently to gather sound empirical evidence and ascertain factual realities. While subjective factors inevitably influence interpretation, the anchoring of truth in provable, reliable facts and data is essential across domains.

Facts enlighten, even when uncomfortable. Perhaps I should change this to: especially when uncomfortable. Think about this: there is no correlation between what makes you comfortable as an opinion and what is true. There are probably truths out there that are very uncomfortable, and yet they are true.

While facts and evidence are key across all domains, the specific standards of evidence differ based on the circumstances and consequences.

In civil law suits, the standard is a “preponderance of evidence” meaning the truth is based on what is more likely than not to have occurred. This contrasts criminal law which relies on the more rigorous standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” due to the severe implications of guilt.

Science requires replicable findings with incredibly high statistical certainty before accepting a hypothesis as true. Medicine often uses randomized controlled trials to establish causal truths.

Generally, the more impactful the situation, the higher the evidentiary bar for ascertaining truth. Beliefs with minor personal consequences can rely on scant evidence, but matters affecting lives and society warrant robust standards to accurately determine truths.

Understanding these distinctions allows for proportional evaluation of evidence in each case.

What constitutes reliable, credible evidence for discerning truth? A key criteria is transparency – the ability to closely examine the methodology and process behind the evidence. Data or studies with obscured or secretive methods are a red flag. True findings should be reproducible under rigorous peer scrutiny. Controls and safeguards against bias in data collection are also vital. Evidence derived from a single observational instance or occurrence is generally less reliable than extensively replicated results under controlled conditions.

Another key factor is the degree of consensus among experts qualified to assess the evidence. Widespread alignment adds credibility versus claims disputed by the majority of specialists. But consensus alone does not guarantee truth – unanimous expert views have been overturned by new evidence. Critical examination and proven repeatability carry great weight.

For example, virtually all scientists 150 years ago held beliefs about the nature of the universe that we now know to be fundamentally mistaken. This does not make them stupid, but rather reflects the cumulative progression of knowledge over time. Critical examination and proven repeatability carry great weight, even if they go against the consensus tide. A lone voice disputing the majority should not be dismissed if they have robust reproducible evidence. Consensus provides a heuristics for likely truth, but maintaining skepticism and openness to paradigm shifts is essential. The path to greater understanding often involves building upon and correcting the mistakes of our intellectual forebears.

The source of evidence also matters greatly. Eyewitness accounts and anecdotal experiences do not have the same evidentiary standing as empirical data or testimony given under legal oaths. Potential conflicts of interest or agendas must be considered in evaluating evidence sources. Statistical significance, control groups, and causation vs. correlation determine strength of conclusions.

Opacity, bias, self-interest, lack of rigor, and failure of replication undermine the credibility of evidence. Transparency, independent verification, controls, and expert alignment establish reliability. Weighing such factors allows proportional evaluation of evidence.

Confirmation Bias: Turning the Scientific Method Upside Down.

One of the key impediments to truthful, evidence-based thinking is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for individuals to seek out and readily accept information that confirms their preexisting beliefs, while instinctively dismissing, ignoring or arguing against evidence that contradicts those beliefs. This inversion of the evidence-based process of truth-seeking leads to faulty reasoning.

It is an unconscious “filtering” process that supports our own worldviews and assumptions while critically judging dissenting perspectives. Through this biased approach to data gathering, people can reinforce misconceptions or opinions that are not grounded in objective facts.

In direct contradiction to the rational, scientific method of inquiry, confirmation bias turns the pursuit of truth on its head by placing existing convictions ahead of impartial evidence. It illustrates the power of subjective lenses through which individuals view reality. Overcoming this ingrained bias requires actively challenging our own perspectives with contradicting truths.

So instead of looking at the facts and then building your worldview, you start with a worldview and then look for facts that support it.

This is how we end up with the flat earth movement in the 21st century.

The rise of the modern flat earth movement, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is a stark manifestation of extreme confirmation bias. Adherents actively reject or rationalize away evidence, such as photographic proof and gravitational equations, that confirm the earth’s sphericity. Instead, they interpret ambiguous information as supporting their views, dismissing concrete evidence that contradicts them. This persistence in the face of contrary evidence reveals the dangerous potential of confirmation bias, highlighting the need for actively confronting our biases with contradictory data.

Often, flat Earth belief is intertwined with other conspiracy theories and antiscientific views. For instance, an Argentinian speaker at a flat Earth convention referenced the antisemitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, promoted the false idea that dinosaurs were a fabrication, and even advocated urine as a medicinal cure 1Flat Earthers: What They Believe and Why. Such fringe theories often cluster together, with the flat Earth theory serving as a linchpin that seems to validate other conspiracies.

Alarmingly, these views often accompany health misinformation, such as vaccine denial. When one embraces an all-encompassing conspiracy worldview, this skewed logic extends across multiple domains. Flat Earth beliefs are symptomatic of a broader pattern of unreasonable thinking. Understanding the factors that lead to one conspiracy theory can elucidate the reasons others gain traction.

The persistence of such beliefs underscores the challenges in changing entrenched views. Cognitive biases can distort our reasoning, making even the most absurd beliefs resilient, especially when bolstered by a community of like-minded thinkers. Online, flat Earthers find mutual validation, and any attempt to challenge their beliefs is often perceived as persecution, making them less receptive to logical counterarguments.

These beliefs rarely exist in isolation. For example, flat Earthers frequently also deny climate change, despite substantial evidence. This pattern underscores the pervasive nature of biased thinking in today’s world.

Addressing such denialism necessitates a thoughtful approach. Merely dismissing believers risks alienating them further. Instead, a non-judgmental strategy that promotes critical thinking and self-reflection is more fruitful. While not all unfounded beliefs warrant direct engagement, understanding the underlying psychology behind theories like the flat Earth can offer valuable insights into human irrationality.


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