31 December 2020








30 December 2020


The idea for Elements of Truth sprang from two conclusions I have reached about humankind: First, that common sense is not common. And second, that intellectual rigour is rare. Consequently, in 2008 I started writing down my thoughts on thinking. My goal was to write a book that is to thinking what Strunk and White is to writing. Confident, concise, and clear.

But writing that way is hard work. Clarity arises from simplification, and simplification arises from omission. How much omission could I justify? Omission was one side. Adornment was the other. Often when I wanted to describe a piece of the cathedral upon which truth is built, I discovered that the piece was just a rickety old scaffold. I then had to rebuild something stronger. 

And because I am slow, all of this took time.

In any case, this book would not exist without the lives and works of the following people: Kimberley Wakil (my wife and the love of my life); Irmgard Rüdel (my mother) and Margarete Müllbacher (my grandmother); Dale Kolody (a solid friend); Enid Blyton, Heinrich Harrer, Viktor Weisskopf, Gerhard Hanebeck, Johnny Rotten, and Bob Geldof; Heinz Splechtna (anatomist extraordinaire), Charles Darwin, and Carl Walters (ecologist extraordinaire); Ludwig Wittgenstein and Daniel Kahneman; Ernest Hemingway and William Strunk Jr..

A strange group indeed.

Michael Baumann, December 2021

29 December 2020


"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist the facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
-- Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle (1892), A Scandal in Bohemia

I have studied people for half a century.

I have observed myself, my family, my friends. I have observed children and parents, high school students and university students, teachers and professors. I have observed researchers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspeople, and other professionals. I have observed public servants, politicians, and the general public.

I have observed the things we do, the things we say, and the things we say we believe. I have reached two conclusions: First, common sense is not common. And second, intellectual rigour is rare.

I have reached these conclusions neither quickly nor lightly.

As a child I was told that cold and wet feet will give me pneumonia and that wet hair and a draft will give me meningitis. I was told that swimming after lunch will kill me by drowning and that falling into a patch of stinging nettles will kill me by suffocation.

I was told that if I misbehave, the Krampus will take me to hell in a basket, that if I break a mirror, I will suffer from seven years of bad luck, and that if the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, it is a bad omen.

I was told that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and I wondered about all the "strong" people in war zones, and famine zones, and hospitals. I was told that people use only 10% of their brain, and that this is not a metaphor. I was told that seeing a spider in morning brings sorrow, that seeing the same spider in the evening is invigorating, and I wondered what changed in the course of the day.

I was told that old elephants migrate to a secret elephant graveyard to die, that lemmings commit mass suicide by diving from a cliff, and that ostriches stick their heads into the sand to avoid detection.

When I was eight years old, I saw a U.F.O. land in an Austrian forest. When I was twelve, I believed that paranormal things happen in the Bermuda Triangle. When I was thirteen, I believed that if 1,000 people willed a door to open, it would open. When I was fourteen, I believed that human beings could spontaneously combust. When I was sixteen, I believed that my star sign mattered. When I was seventeen, I believed that I could compensate for my cigarette smoking by drinking milk. When I was eighteen, I went to church and prayed to pass my driving exam.

I watched my grandmother boil tap water after the Chernobyl nuclear accident because boiling water does purify it. I watched parents pray to god to save their sick child from a disease that god must have given the child in the first place. I watched university students wear good-luck charms, and I watched their professors do the same. When I was twenty-two, I left the Catholic Church and was afraid for three months that god would strike me down.

As an adult, I was told that Omega-3 fatty acids are a universal cure, that people are rational, and selfish, and that their tastes do not change, and that every morning at breakfast Baron Rothschild sets the interest rates for the global banking system. And I said nothing.

What a despicable collection. I am sure you have your own list.

But is it not true that many false beliefs do not cause much harm? Is it not better, as Blaise Pascal speculated, to believe in a god than to find yourself being punished for not believing? Is it not better to believe that all snakes are poisonous, than to be bitten by one that actually is?

Maybe, possibly, and yes.

Besides, should people not have the right to ruin their own lives?

Unfortunately, in a democracy the beliefs that people hold have the potential to ruin not only their own lives but other people's lives as well. And there is no reason to believe that people will inform themselves more thoroughly, make better decisions, or act more wisely when the wellbeing of others is involved.

I agree with Plato's assessment of democracy:

"It's an agreeable anarchic form of society, with plenty of variety, which treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not."
-- Plato (ca. 375 B.C.E.)

But I also agree with Winston Churchill's:

"Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters."
-- Winston Churchill (11 November 1947)

One way out of this dilemma is to give the citizens the tools to render themselves better informed, less manipulated, smarter citizens. Education is the method of providing those tools, and this little book is my contribution to the education of the citizen.

In our journey towards truth, I introduce each important idea by a simple rule and a brief description. Understanding is developed through examples. That said, these examples are not comprehensive analyses of particular situations, rather my intention is to stimulate you, the reader, to think of personal experiences.

Just as understanding the rules of chess will not make you an expert player, understanding the rules of thinking will not make you an expert thinker. But the goal is not to become an expert thinker, the goal is to become a better, more rigorous thinker. Anyone can become a better, more rigorous thinker. 

Yes, rigorous thinking is hard work and takes plenty of practice. Just as in chess, the first thing you must learn to appreciate is your own mistakes. Exploring your own mistakes is true learning. That said, this little book is a weapon against corruption, hypocrisy, and stupidity. Use it wisely.

Michael Baumann, December 2020

30 November 2020





29 November 2020

0.1. Truth matters.

This is a book about truth, so let us start with a definition of truth.

Truth is an observable phenomenon that can be independently verified. Not more, not less. In science, truth is always provisional, based on the weight of the available evidence. Truth and fact are synonyms. An observation that is accepted as a scientific truth or a scientific fact today may be modified or discarded tomorrow (National Center for Science Education 2016).

(Given the importance of truth in your life, you will encounter this definition at least three times in this book. I am following the Bellman's principle: "What I tell you three times is true." (Carroll 1876), not to be confused with Bellman's principle of optimality.)

The opposite of truth is a falsehood. If a falsehood is spread with the knowledge that it is a falsehood, it becomes a lie.

Why does truth matter? 

In your life, you must make decisions all the time, decisions big and small. 

You must decide what foods to eat, where to live, when to go to the doctor, which medicines to take. You must decide, which profession to pursue, which university to attend and which program to choose, which job to take. 

You must decide who to marry or not to marry, to have children or not to have children, to buy a home or to rent. You must decide which ideologies to support and why, how much money to save for retirement and when. You must decide if you can trust your doctor, your auto mechanic, you favoured politician. You must decide which book to read, which film to watch, what you will have for dinner. ...

All this involves learning and planning. 

Decision making is the process of arriving at your choice. It is not a trivial process. Here are the steps: 

1: You find yourself in a situation where you must make a decision.
2: You identify your goals.
3: You identify alternative options.
4: For each option, you try to predict the consequences of pursuing it.
5: You assess the consequences of each option in relationship to your goals.
6: You choose the option that comes closest to achieving your goals.  

Understanding your situation, identifying your goals, identifying your alternative options, and trying to predict the consequences of an option all require information. This information may be true, incomplete, inconsistent, or false. The best decisions will be based on true and complete information. And the decisions you make, the options you choose to pursue, will determine your well-being. Consequently, truth matters.

We humans are not the only species that faces decisions. All organisms have been selected for survival and reproduction. From the unicellular paramecium, to the shy octopus, to the industrious honeybee, to the mountain gorilla. Both survival and reproduction require decisions. 

Options may present themselves on evolutionary timescales (physiological options, morphological options) or on an ecological timescale (behavioural options). Physiological options and morphological options are possible solutions to big and slow problems: Aerobic or anaerobic respiration? Tracheae, gills, or lungs? Behavioural options are possible solutions to small and fast problems: Where and when to look for food? Which competitors to fight? Where and when to hide and sleep? Where and when to mate, and with whom?

Life depends on knowing the truth. Literally. 

28 November 2020

0.2. How to think about reality.

Reality is comprised of many things -- from light, to sound, to molecules, from the stars in the universe, to the sand on the beach, to the trees in a forest, from the people in the city, to the objects in your living room, to the organs in your body. How to think about reality? Think about it. 

A red apple is an object that is made of atoms which consist mostly of empty space and that reflects light with a wavelength of 700 nanometres. 

We have an external reality that is translated into an observation which is then translated into a statement about the observation (Figure 0.2.1).

Figure 0.2.1: From external reality to observation to a statement about the observation. 

The first translation, between external reality and observation, falls into a branch of psychology called sensation and perception. For an observation to happen three transitions must occur: First, in a process called transduction, your sense organs convert the external input from your physical environment (electromagnetic waves, pressure waves, molecules) into neural activity. Second, in a process called sensation, your brain extracts relevant information from the neural activity resulting in vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. And third, in a process called perception, your mind interprets these sensations in a meaningful way, e.g. the colour red of an apple-shaped apple-tasting object. The details of sensation and perception are complicated and not fully understood.

The second translation, between observation and a statement about the observation, involves an abstraction. This abstraction may be spoken language (somebody saying /hɔː(r)s/), written language (the word "horse"), pictorial (a drawing of a horse), numerical (Number of horses in my living room = 0), mathematical (an equation describing the number of horses in my living room as a function of time), or graphic (a graph showing the number of horses in my living room as a function of time). 

Often, we can measure external reality using scientific instruments that translate measurements of things we cannot observe (wavelengths, radioactivity, bacteria on a surface) into something we can observe (colours, sound, numbers).

All of this would be difficult enough if external reality were static. But external reality is not static, it is dynamic, things change, light turns into heat, atoms form chemical bonds, molecules disintegrate, calves are born, cities grow, mountains erode. 

The whole of external reality at a particular point in time may be thought of as the system state S at time t (the number of trees in a forest, the number of fish in the ocean, the number of infected animals in an epidemic). The system state S at time t changes through natural processes, i.e. flows of matter and energy that follow "natural laws" (Figure 0.2.2). 

Human actions are a consequence of human choice that is based on the information state. The information state changes through cognitive processes, i.e. removal of information and perception of new observations of a previous system state. The quantity and the quality of new observations is influenced by the previous information state. 

Figure 0.2.2: The physical sphere (black) and the cognitive sphere (grey): Black rectangles represent system states S at times t-1, t, and t+1. respectively. Solid lines represent flows of energy or matter. The system state is the vector of all state variables. Grey rectangles represent information states I at times t-1, t, and t+1. respectively. Dashed lines represent information flows. The information state is the vector of all information, knowledge, and understanding, as held by an individual, a government, a society, or all of humanity. Note that I includes human values, objectives, and utility functions. 

Looking at the processes depicted in Figure 0.2.2, one could conclude: Mother Nature hates us.

1: She limits our access to information, resulting in incomplete and/or inconsistent new observations of any given phenomenon, resulting in incomplete and/or inconsistent information states.

2: She bars us from observing causes directly. Rather we must infer causes by comparing consecutive information states. These information states may suggest non-unique causes (i.e. different system states at time t result in the same system state at time t+1) or non-unique effects (i.e. the same system state at time t results in the different system states at time t+1).

3: She never varies only one variable at a time, which makes it difficult to assign a cause for an effect. 

Observing the world, extracting information from it, and acting on this information is not a trivial matter.

27 November 2020

0.3. The basic premises of truth.

 A few words on philosophy are in order. Philosophy can roughly be classified into six branches.

1: Metaphysics: Examines the nature of reality.
2: Epistemology: Examines the nature of knowledge.
3: Ethics: Examines the nature of human behaviour.
4: Politics: Examines the nature of governance.
5: Economics: Examines the nature of goods and services.
6: Aesthetics: Examines the nature of beauty.

The study of truth falls into all six branches of philosophy and has repercussions in each.

Before we can examine truth, we must agree on a few metaphysical premises. Without these premises, truth cannot be established. And if truth cannot be established in principle, there is no point in trying to establish it, much less to fight over it. The premises are:

1: There exists an external reality. This external reality exists independent of an observer. (This is sometimes called the noumenal world.)

2: In this external reality, somewhere in space and sometime in time, there exists an observer who has access to this external reality. The extent of this access is unknown and may be very limited.

3: Through the sensory-perceptive-cognitive apparatus the observer may observe. (This represents the phenomenal world.) 

4: An observation can only manifest itself through an abstraction (spoken language, written language, pictorial, numerical, mathematical, graphic) with which the observer constructs a statement about the observation (Figure The sum of abstractions that is stored in our memory or in our records is knowledge. 

5: The relationships (match, mismatch) between external reality, observation, and a statement about the observation are as follows.

Note that human language is less specific about matches between external reality, observation, and a statement about the observation, than it is about mismatches. All matches are called a truth, a fact, or a matter of fact.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about partial truths and partial falsehoods, but the point of these premises is to establish a set of basic rules to guarantee that truth can be established in principle.


External reality: The murderer is a man.

Observation by ...
Alice: The murderer is a man.
Bob: The murderer is a man.
Carol: The murderer is a woman.
David: The murderer is a woman.

Statement about the observation by ...
Alice: "The murderer is a man."
Bob: "The murderer is a woman."
Carol: "The murderer is a woman."
David: "The murderer is a man."

Alice and Bob perceive the truth, but only Alice speaks the truth; Bob is lying. Carol and David perceive an illusion. Carol speaks the truth, which is really a falsehood. David is lying and produces an accidental truth.


15 November 2020


"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."
-- Attributed to the Buddha (5th century B.C.E.)

"Nullius in verba."
"On no man's word."
-- Motto of the Royal Society since 1663

Investigation is about finding things out. But why would you want to find things out in the first place? What are the reasons behind your efforts? 

The reasons vary. Academics often explore a particular topic with the goal to increase knowledge about that particular topic, knowledge for knowledge's sake. Government researchers study issues in support of legislative action and public policy. Police officers conduct investigations as part of their law enforcement duties. A hobbyist may delve into a topic out of curiosity.

Often the purpose of investigation is to provide information for a decision that must be made. 

14 November 2020

1.1. Pursue the truth.

Scientists learn early to abide by the words of Thomas Jefferson (1820), that "we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

This rule is easy to follow in the sciences because in general the scientist has no stake where the destination lies. (Although this may be true for the natural sciences more often than for the social sciences.) In fact, the very purpose of scientists is to have a group of people paid for not holding preconceived notions.

The non-scientific world is burdened by more complicated goals.

Philosophers and theologians have an endless capacity to argue about the nature of truth. For most of us the definition is simple: 

Truth is an observable phenomenon that can be independently verified. Not more, not less. In science, truth is always provisional, based on the weight of the available evidence. Truth and fact are synonyms. An observation that is accepted as a scientific truth or a scientific fact today may be modified or discarded tomorrow (National Center for Science Education 2016).

The opposite of truth is a falsehood. If a falsehood is spread with the knowledge that it is a falsehood, it becomes a lie.

Between truth and falsehood lies the indeterminant, a phenomenon that has not been or cannot be declared a truth or a falsehood.

"Joe Biden won the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections." (a fact)
"Earth revolves around the sun." (a fact)

("Earth rotates around its own axis." is a fact. Note however that when you examine your experience with day and night, you find that you observe the sun moving and not the earth rotating. In fact, we express this observation in everyday language: "The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.")

"Unicorns exist." (an indeterminant)
"There is a heaven." (an indeterminant)

"The earth is 4,004 years old." (a falsehood)
"The song "Edelweiss" is the national anthem of Austria." (a falsehood)

"Alfred Dreyfus sold military secrets to Germany." (a lie)
"President Barack Obama was born outside the United States." (a lie)

Someone may believe false information to be true. If she spreads this information, she is misinforming others. Someone may know false information to be false. If he spreads this information, he is disinforming others.

And always remember the proverb: "He who speaks the truth will need a fast horse."

13 November 2020

1.2. Distinguish between facts, beliefs, preferences, and opinions.

1: Fact/Matter of fact/Truth: Truth is an observable phenomenon that can be independently verified. Not more, not less. In science, truth is always provisional, based on the weight of the available evidence. Truth and fact are synonyms. An observation that is accepted as a scientific truth or a scientific fact today may be modified or discarded tomorrow (National Center for Science Education 2016).

Facts are independent of your knowledge of them, your beliefs, your preferences, and your opinions. 

"The moon revolves around earth."
"You may die of a CoViD infection."
"The 2021 flooding in Europe was caused by heavy rainfall/a poorly designed flood warning system/poor preparation by town planners/climate change."

In the last example, note the diversity in causes, reflecting the progression from proximate to ultimate causes. 

2: Belief: A belief is a feeling that something exists or is true. The origin of a belief may stem from a combination of facts, misinformation, disinformation, and/or preferences.

"I believe God created man."
"I believe climate change is caused by unicorns."
"I believe CoViD is a hoax."

3: Preference: A preference is a favoured choice. The origin of a preference may be known or not -- operant conditioning (reward and/or punishment), observation, indoctrination, delusion. Values are preferences.

"I like chocolate cake. I don't like Black Forest cake." 
"I prefer a fixed-rate mortgage over a variable rate, because it gives me greater peace of mind."
"Honesty is important to me. I don't know why."

4: Opinion: An opinion is a judgement based on beliefs and preferences.

"In my opinion A Moveable Feast is the best book ever written."
"Socialism is superior to both Communism and Capitalism."
"In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the government should tax gasoline."

(In my life I have learned three things: First, people do not like to stick to facts, they like to stick to whatever it is they believe. Second, people judge and choose even if they know nothing or only parts of the story. And last, people have two standards, one which they apply to themselves, family, and friends, and another that they apply to everybody else.)

12 November 2020

1.3. Define your question.

There are two types of questions: Questions of occurrence and questions of cause. 

Both types of questions can be settled by observation and/or experiment. Answers to both types of questions are either true, indeterminant, or false. Both types of questions can be sources for disagreement and for manipulation. 

1: Questions of occurrence: A question of occurrence investigates the details of an event or a circumstance.  

The focus of questions of occurrence may be a person (who?), a thing (what?, which?), a point in space (where?), a point in time (when?), or a number (how many?). Questions of occurrence can often be answered by a single datum or record.

"Who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911?"
"What is the discipline for which Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize in 1911?"
"When did Marie Curie receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?"
"How many Nobel Prizes did Marie Curie receive?"

"Which countries share a border with Austria?"
"At what temperature does water boil?"
"When did the United Kingdom leave the European Union?"
"How many people were murdered in the Rwandan genocide?"

Questions of occurrence allow comparisons to investigate similarities and differences between repeated occurrences. 

"What is the fraction of female Nobel laureates?"
"Which city has a more annual rainfall, Salzburg or Vancouver?"
"What is the spatial distribution of red kangaroos in Australia?"
"Which inauguration of a United States president had the highest attendance?"

Comparison of occurrences may reveal organizational patterns (e.g. male/female, low income/high income, juveniles/adults), spatial patterns (e.g. uniformity, randomness, clustering) and/or temporal patterns (e.g. constancy, growth, cyclicity).  

Keep in mind that the absence of something (unicorns, god, aliens, the deep state) cannot be proven in principle. Consequently, conspiracy theories can never be fully proven false. 

2: Questions of cause: Occurrences are the outcomes of processes. A question of cause investigates the causes of an event or circumstance (why?) and the mechanisms involved in the causal chain of events (how?). 

"What is the cause for childbed fever?"
"What is the cause for climate change?"
"How does the internal combustion engine work?"
"How do vaccines work?"

Answers to questions of occurrence and questions of cause may depend on conventions or may require further definitions.

"The capital of Germany is Berlin." -- True until 1949 and after 1990.
"The capital of Germany is Bonn." -- True between 1949 and 1990.

"Is climate change a fact?" -- What do you mean by climate change?
"Can poverty cause cancer?" -- What do you mean by cause?

Depending on scope and detail of the question and your prior knowledge, the process of answering may vary in duration from the few seconds it takes to google the question to several lifetimes of scholarship. Whatever your commitment, an explicitly stated question at the beginning of your investigation clarifies what information you must collect in order to answer the question. This will save you grief and time later.

Awareness of the type of question you ask also clarifies descriptions and explanations. In his book The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1859) failed to properly distinguish between establishing the change of species over time and the cause for the change (Simpson 1963), the former a question of occurrence, the latter a question of cause. This may have contributed to a judgement by Hardin (1960) that: "Darwin was not one to impose premature clarity on his writing."

Keep in mind that not everything you want to know is known or knowable. We only have limited access to the world around us.


Shortly after actress Betty White's death on 31 Dec 2021, people opposed to CoViD vaccinations started suggesting that she had died of the CoViD vaccine booster shot (Lee 2022).

Question: Did the CoViD vaccine booster shot cause Ms. White to die? 

First, we must establish answers regarding questions of occurrence:

Question: Did Ms. White die?
Answer: Yes.

Question: Did Ms. White receive a CoViD vaccine booster shot?
Answer: No. 

With that there is no need to investigate the question of cause. We can label the rumours around Ms. White's death as misinforming or even disinforming. 


1.4. Do your research.

Finding things out is called research. Crudely speaking there are two types of it:

1: Records research: Reading written documents, listening to sound recordings (e.g. interviews), and viewing still photography or film footage. The communication in records research is one-way only, from the source to the sink.

2: Original/live research: Finding things out for yourself, first-hand. Making observations, conducting experiments, developing theory. Live research is interactive. 

Sloppy research is based on personal observations, personal experience, perceived wisdoms, and anecdotes. It produces traditional knowledge.

Rigorous research follows a systematic process, the scientific process. It requires a critical mind and doubt, and it produces scientific knowledge.

11 November 2020

1.5. Be patient.

While we have accepted time investment as a basic requirement for skill development -- e.g. learning to write, to perform simple calculations, to play a musical instrument -- the time investment necessary to understand a complex problem is frequently underestimated. Gaining understanding takes time.

Moving from data, to information, to knowledge, to understanding, to wisdom does come neither easy nor fast. It requires a substantial time investment into voluntary thought, deliberate thinking. 

Figure 1.5.1: Hypothetical effect of time spent thinking about a problem and understanding it.  

Understanding can be gained faster if feedback about your current understanding is available. In complex situations this is often not the case but must rather be bought from nature. "Good judgement comes from experience. And experience invariably comes from bad judgement." (Djerassi 1998)

Gaining understanding also requires taking breaks from the problem at hand and occupying your mind with something else. It seems that during these periods of distraction, your mind keeps working on the original problem without you being in control, suddenly resulting in an understanding of a previously impenetrable problem or concept. This phenomenon is called "the eureka phenomenon" (Asimov 1972). It is not well understood.

10 November 2020

1.6. Evaluate the reliability of information.

Almost nothing you know or believe about the world is based on your own experience. Almost everything you know or believe about the world you know on trust (Baumann 2021).

Consequently, it is up to you to assess the reliability of information presented to you. Here is a list of eight questions you should ask: four regarding the information source and four regarding the information itself.

1: What is the quality of the information channel?

Did the information reach you through a peer-reviewed publication, a monograph by a professor, a textbook, an edited secondary publication, an encyclopaedia, a lecture, a presentation, a face-to-face conversation, a newspaper article, a TV broadcast, a blog, a YouTube video, or a social media post? You must gauge the quality of the information according to the quality of the information channel.

2: Who is the primary source of the information?

Is the primary source a specialist scientist, a generalist expert, a civil servant, a professional in the relevant field (an accountant, physician, banker, or lawyer), a journalist, a teacher (at a university, high school, or elementary school), a friend, a co-worker, a person "in-the-know", a politician, a salesperson? Is the author of the information competent? What are her credentials? What is his record?

3: Is the primary source of the information independent?

Who is paying the primary source’s bills? Taxpayers, a newspaper, a television station, a business, a political party, or an interest group (e.g. the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, the petroleum industry)? Follow the money.

4: What is the intent of the communication?

To encourage, to enlighten, to inform, to educate, to test, to self-aggrandize, to calm, to convince, to confuse, to mislead, to deceive, to enrage, to panic? Cui bono? Who benefits from the communication?

5: How was the knowledge obtained?

Through original research (e.g. from theory, laboratory experiments, field studies), through records research (a meta-analysis, a literature review, an exploratory review), from anecdotes, from hear-say, by guessing, as folk wisdom?

6: Does the information appear to be accurate and complete?

Is the information current? Has someone pre-selected the information for you? Has contradictory information been considered? Have inconsistencies been addressed? Have alternative interpretations been explored?

(The New York Times boasts: "All the News That's Fit to Print". It is the editors who decide on the fitness of a story. And fitness is defined by information content, entertainment value, and possibly an agenda. Editors not only determine what you read, they also determine what you do not read.)

7: Can the information be independently validated?

Was the communication peer reviewed? Are references cited and available? Are research hypothesis, experimental design, data collection, and data analysis described in enough detail that you could replicate the results, at least in principle?

8: Does the information appear to be unbiased?

Are the results statistically significant? Is the effect size statistically relevant? Are the logic of the argument and the conclusions valid?

Thinking in general makes most people uncomfortable. Judging the reliability of information requires you to think. It is your duty as a citizen to think and be well-informed.

Eight questions, four regarding the information source and four regarding the information itself. It's an easy-enough checklist to keep in mind.

09 November 2020

1.7. Aim for the primary source of information.

Consider the children's game Chinese Whispers. Players line up such that they can whisper into the ear of their immediate neighbours. The player at the beginning of the line thinks up a phrase and whispers it to the next player. This player in turn passes on the received message to the next player, and so on. The last player in the line calls out the message she received.

Each information transfer between two children may carry changes to the phrase, i.e. a loss, a change, or an addition to the incoming message. Only a fraction of the incoming information content survives each information transfer. The information content of a message after n transfers I(n) is a function of the fraction information content that survives each transfer s(i), where I(0) is the initial information.

I(n) = s(1) * s(2) * s(3) * ... * s(n) * I(0)

The final, called-out phrase may bear little resemblance to the initial phrase. Reasons for the changes to the phrase include difficulty in uttering and understanding whispers, anxiousness, impatience, erroneous corrections, or deliberate alterations.

It is these losses, changes, and additions that you want to avoid in your investigation. That is why you should aim for the primary source of information.

Most information you assimilate has a long information trail:

1: A police officer arrests a citizen. 
2: The citizen files a complaint on police misconduct.
3: The Internal Affairs Department starts an investigation.
4: The investigation report is sent to the Public Relations Department.
5: A police spokeswoman holds a press conference.
6: A journalist writes up an article on police misconduct.
7: A co-worker reads the article.
8: You listen to the co-worker talking about police brutality.

Eight steps, seven information transfers.

Even if you cannot get to the primary source of the information, you should aim to come as close as possible.

08 November 2020

1.8. Use doubt wisely.

We live in times where a lie is halfway around the world before the truth gets halfway out of bed.

From half-educated half-wits declaring themselves as experts in anything, to the sharpening and levelling of political information, to the smearing of opponents, to the latest rumours in a crisis, to the creation of alternative facts, to targeted disinformation campaigns, how do you know that what you are being told is true?

You don't.

Almost nothing you know or believe about the world is based on your own experience. Almost everything you know or believe about the world you know on trust. There is good reason for the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba. On no man's word.

When I started writing this rule, my first worry was that people are too gullible and are thus easy prey for manipulators of information. A strong call for doubt seemed appropriate, and my first choice reflected this: Make "I don't believe it." your maxim.

But then Dr. Dale Kolody pointed out that if we look at the full spectrum of doubt, both extremes, "doubting nothing" and "doubting everything", avoid the need for critical thinking. And this brought about my second worry: That people believe too little, believe their opinion on something they know nothing about is as valid as expert opinion, and are thus easy prey for manipulators of information.

Hence my choice: Use doubt wisely.

Belief and doubt both need to be moderated by reason in order to find truth (Figure 1.8.1).

Figure 1.8.1: Hypothetical effect of level of doubt on survival or success in live. 

Somewhere out there is level of doubt that will maximize your survival or your success in life. Too little doubt will leave you in the gullibility trough, too much doubt will leave you in the uncertainty trough. The exact shape of this curve is of course unknown.

Or as Bertrand Russell (1933) expressed it so well: "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

Doubt is often viewed with suspicion. But doubt is not synonymous with cynicism nor is it synonymous with distrust. I would not call a person a friend who believes everything I say. Not because I am telling lies, but because there is always the possibility that I am wrong.

1.9. Mind the four razors.

1: Ockham's razor (1287 – 1347): If you have two different, equally good explanations for an observation, investigate the simpler explanation first. 

2: Einstein's razor (1879 - 1955): Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

3: Sagan standard (1980): "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." It is not up to you to prove an extraordinary claim false. It is up to the person making an extraordinary claim to provide evidence.

4: Hitchen's razor (2007): "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."