Five Rules to Avoid Being Fooled

Determine the Reliability of the Source:

Some sources are very reliable and some are very unreliable and there’s everything in between. A big part of avoiding believing false things is to figure which is which.

Some people claim to figure stuff out all on their own. This is not a good strategy and it’s also a delusion. It’s a delusion because people who claim this are rarely doing science experiments in their home laboratory. They are reading or listening to what someone else wrote–usually someone outside the mainstream–then parroting it as though they came up with it.

It’s a poor strategy because no one can know everything about everything. There’s just too much to know and it takes years of study to have the technical expertise and background knowledge to even evaluate claims in a particular area. We must rely on experts when we are not experts ourselves. This is the intelligent strategy. It’s much more likely that an expert or group of experts will understand something in that field than a non-expert will.

The problem is to figure out who the experts and reliable sources are. This problem is compounded for a couple of reasons. First, there are powerful groups and individuals who are very motivated to muddy the waters. They are able to fund scientists and think tanks to manufacture results or, more common, generate criticisms of legitimate work–usually by distorting it. The second problem–and this is the biggest–is that on ideologically relevant issues we have a tendency to pick the “experts” who confirm our pre-existing view. In other words, if we’re deeply invested in something being true, we choose our source based on how well it conforms with our ideological commitments rather than the credentials of the source.

Here are a few tactics to help yourself avoid this pitfall.

  1. Whenever there is a consensus of relevant experts, believe whatever they believe. It’s much more likely to be true than false.
  2. If there’s a difference between what industry scientists proclaim and what independent/university scientists proclaim, go with the independent/university scientists.
  3. Avoid strongly ideological news sources as your sole base of information. Consume media from a broad spectrum of ideological sources. No political ideology has a monopoly on truth.
  4. Think of reliability as a relative property. No source has a 0% error rate. No source always gets it wrong. What matters is whether
    1. that source gets it right significantly more than it gets it wrong.
    2. that source gets it right significantly more than alternative sources gets it right.
  5. For a more comprehensive list of how to vet sources and a list of reliable sources, go here.

Determine Standards of Evidence BEFORE Evaluation

Apply Falsificationism

Think in Terms of Trade-Offs and Probabilities, Not Absolutes

Identify the Correct Comparison Class

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