Here at the public library, I just overheard a remarkable conversation.
A middle-aged woman with a couple of kids and a slightly older gentleman were sitting at adjacent computers. The woman was earnestly explaining that the Church does not consist of a building, but of people. She also said something I didn’t catch about the Rapture (the belief that when Jesus returns all true believers will be taken up to meet him in the clouds).
The man disagreed and said, “What I’ve been told is…”
Maybe he was trying to soften his disagreement with the woman by ascribing his opinions to someone else, but based on other clues it sure sounded like he just believed as he was told.
Is this ultimately true of all of us? Most of what we believe is based on what we learned in school, in professional journals, or (heaven forbid) on the Internet. So is it really just one argument from authority against another? Does chance alone determine whether we happen to fall under the sway of authorities who tell the truth rather than ones who are BS artists?
I like to think not. Although few of us do primary research in the important fields of life, we can all become experts in sorting truth from falsehood. Over time, we can optimize our antennae to detect statements that are without justification.
An example arose just a couple of hours ago when I read a definition of humanism in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens (a book that I generally like):
Humanism is the belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.
There was a time when I would have given three cheers for that paragraph because “secular humanists” were my ideological opponents. Now, I like to think that my antennae are a little more sensitive: the paragraph drips with the blood of the ax Harari has not only ground but is wildly swinging. To be fair, he does go on to distinguish between three types of humanism, but still insists, “All humanists worship humanity,” which is simply not true. (Worship??)
It’s too bad that Harari blew it so thoroughly in that definition, because his book is so generally insightful.
And that’s the critical step in getting beyond “What I’ve been told…” We have to realize that even the people we most like to listen to might make careless errors, lie to us or, even worse, cease to care about the honest pursuit of truth and throw whatever they can at the wall and see what sticks.
And who do we like to listen to the most? Donald Trump put it best: “I have the best words.” Also, “I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” Yes, we like to listen to ourselves. That’s trouble because we’re just as prone to confirmation bias, congruence bias, ingroup bias, and other biases as everyone else.
When our own noses are so impaired, it can be difficult to smell the baloney, but surely we can do better than passively absorbing the smells of whatever we’re told until our mind smells like a never-cleaned refrigerator.
Next time: a very simple way to detect baloney.