31 December 2020

TABLE OF CONTENTS

(The public has paid for most of the basic research conducted at universities and research centres. Consequently, the public should have free access to our peer-reviewed publications. Books are different. Authors should be able to make a modest profit from writing them.) 

THE ELEMENTS OF TRUTH PROJECT
FOREWORD

A. ON TRUTH
I. ELEMENTS OF INVESTIGATION
II. ELEMENTS OF ARGUMENT
III. ELEMENTS OF DECEPTION

B. ON SCIENCE
I. SCIENCE FACTS
II. THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
III. SCIENTIFIC INSTITUTIONS

C. ON THE LIMITATIONS OF THE HUMAN MIND
I. EVOLUTIONARY EPISTEMOLOGY
II. BIASES, ERRORS, AND FALLACIES

D. ON ACTION
I. DECISION MAKING
II. PREDICTION
III. MODELLING THE WORLD AROUND US

GLOSSARY
NOTES AND REFERENCES
INDEX

30 December 2020

THE ELEMENTS OF TRUTH PROJECT

The idea for Elements of Truth sprang from two conclusions I have made 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 many people alive and dead. For the necessary causes: Kimberley Wakil (my wife and the love of my life); Viktor Weiskopf, Gerhard Hanebeck, Johnny Rotten, Charles Darwin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Strunk Jr., Carl Walters, and Dale Kolody (a solid friend). For the sufficient causes: Irmgard Rüdel (my mother) and Margarete Müllbacher (my grandmother); Enid Blyton, Heinrich Harrer, Bob Geldof, Ernest Hemingway, and Daniel Kahneman. 

A strange group indeed.

Michael Baumann, December 2020

29 December 2020

FOREWORD

"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 this conclusion: Common sense is not common, and intellectual rigour is rare.

I have reached this conclusion 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.

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 the 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. And 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

28 December 2020

A. ON TRUTH

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