The truth is not out there, it’s inside us

By: Angus Thomson | 0 Comments

On: October 3rd, 2012 in Communication,Dogma’s,Ethos,Norms,Truth | Tags:

Truth is perception. I have already heard this from Marcus Aurelius, Gautama Buddha, and Gustave Flaubert amongst others. But an interesting article(open access) on the science of how we process, keep and correct misinformation by Lewandowsky et al laid out strong scientific evidence for this idea.


This paper looks at the sociologic and psychologic basis of the genesis, spread and stickiness of misinformation. Their analysis of the near-impossiblity of correcting misinformation once it has taken hold warrants a second post, but here I want to look closely at how we assess the truth of something we hear.

Whether you are concentrating or not, you probably evaluate only 4 things as you decide if something you hear is true:

  • Does it fit within my worldview?
  • Is the story coherent?
  • Is the messenger trustworthy?
  • Does it fit with what (I think) others believe?

Get to know your worldview – it is your lens on the world

We are resistant to accepting something that contradicts our beliefs because that throws everything else we have used to construct our worldview into question. This construct, made up of all the things we thought to be ‘true’ has a huge influence on our decisions. A recent paper, used the example of climate change to show that we all select facts to support our beliefs and values. But what was fascinating is that scientists are better at this process – our training in empirical science doesn’t make us more likely to believe the facts, only better at cherry picking them. At least when our cultural worldview is being challenged.


You should read Dan Kahan’s pithy blog post on the paper.


Indeed, when we have to process information that is inconsistent with our internal knowledge collection we experience negative feelings, and process the info less fluently.


Why narrative can change beliefs

We all like stories. More importantly, we are all likely to believe the stories we hear when they relate to our world. A coherent story gives us information that is easier to understand and process, easily remembered, and more likely to influence our dear beliefs and values.



Over two thousand years ago, Socrates noted the importance of ethos in convincing people of something. If a message is to be believable, we have to feel we can trust the messenger. The message also had to be delivered with pathos, because this emotional connection with the audience also increased understanding and trust, but that is for another post. A little disturbingly, ethos can be easily manufactured by simply repeating an unknown name over and over. It is a two-way street: a resonant or engaging message can increase the credibility of the messenger to the listener.


What does everyone else think?

We are strongly influenced by what we think other people think, do, and expect us to do. Social norms are strong drivers of behavior. I was reassured, as an Australian, by one example Lewandowsky et al gave. In Australia, the morons with strong negative views about Aboriginal Australians or asylum seekers overestimated public support for their distasteful beliefs by 70% and 80%, respectively. That bitter slice of the Australian population is probably less than 2%.


So, with apologies to the x-files, it seems the truth is not out there. It is embedded within each of us, within our internal, calcified world-view that seems to be composed of the accretions of our social, cultural and other experiences. I am not sure if that is scary or reassuring.


But it suggests that we must be prepared to make a huge effort if we are to follow Keynes’ wisdom: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?


Credits: H/T Nurses who vaccinate – follow them on Facebook.

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