How Can We Be Confident in Facts, Opinions, and Beliefs?



The following post is an excerpt from Become Your Own Fact-Checker.


This book will help you, and the ill-informed, the confused, the conspiracy theorist, or the college student in your life, navigate the complex media environment of 2020. Visit my homepage, www.ericsentell.com, to learn more about what the book offers and to try a free excerpt.

It’s good to have some skepticism toward ideas, information, and arguments, but we can’t be overly skeptical without finding ourselves adrift.


For example, if I say that John is an American citizen, then you might use some healthy skepticism to ask, “Why? How do we know that to be true?” I would then say that John was born in America, and the laws of America say that anyone born here is automatically a citizen.


For 99.9% of people, that’s the end of the discussion. But let’s illustrate how we can take skepticism way too far.


One might ask, “How do we know the laws of America say that anyone born in America becomes a citizen?” I could reply, well, there are records of the citizenship laws, and the courts generally interpret those laws as saying that anyone born in America is a citizen, and therefore John, having been born in America, is an American citizen.


“But what gives the laws their authority?” I suppose the government does.


“But what gives the government authority to make laws?” I suppose the people do, since the American government is elected by its citizens.


“But what about exceptions, like Native American lands? And do government bureaucrats, who aren’t elected, have authority? If so, why?”


As you can see, skepticism can become maddening. At some point, we have to choose to have faith in the evidence, its validity, or its source.

Let’s take another silly example. If I say the sky is blue, it’s because I can look up and see that it’s blue. But I’m trusting that my eyes are accurately perceiving the color of the sky. I’m trusting my perception.



As the internet controversies over “the dress” (pictured above) and “Yanny vs. Laurel” demonstrate, our human perceptions are not always consistent or accurate.


Some people perceive “the dress” as white-and-gold while others perceive it as blue-and-black. Our brains make sense of the stimuli that enter our senses, and the dress illustrates how different brains may reach different interpretations of the same stimuli, albeit stimuli that are ambiguous or created to be a sort of optical illusion.


In the “Yanny vs. Laurel” audio clip, some people hear the voice clearly saying “yanny” while others hear the voice saying “laurel” just as clearly. Personally, I originally heard “yanny” and then later heard “laurel.” This audio clip was designed to be a type of auditory illusion. An actor said a word just perfectly so that some people’s brains would interpret the sounds as “yanny” while other brains interpreted those same noises as “laurel.”


Do these examples mean that we can never be certain of anything? Yes and no.


On the one hand, sure, we can’t ever be 100% certain of anything since new information or evidence could come to our attention and change our understanding or belief.


On the opposite hand, we can be pretty reasonably certain about things when we have enough evidence.


It’s possible the sun won’t rise tomorrow morning, but based on prior experience and our scientific understanding of the sun’s life-cycle and health, we can make a pretty good bet that the sun will rise once again.


So here’s my point: the examples of the dress and the yanny vs. laurel audio clip show that we must place trust and faith even in our own senses if we want to believe what they tell us.

Even scientific measurements and observations require some faith. If I’m taking some kind of measurement with sophisticated scientific equipment, I’m ultimately trusting that the equipment is accurate.


False results occur in medical tests all the time. Patients hear that they have cancer when they actually don’t.


A study finds that eggs are bad for you, but a later study finds that they’re good. Scientific methods, equipment, and theories improve over time, leading to new and better information.


Again, we must put faith into our methods of observing, measuring, and knowing.


Every argument, every piece of supporting evidence, ultimately comes down to a matter of faith. If we don’t place some faith in the evidence at some point, then we can question things all the way down and never be sure what, if anything, to believe.


We must ask ourselves, then, how much evidence do I need to be satisfied with taking the leap of faith necessary to get the rest of the way to belief?

How many times do I need to look at the sky and see that it’s blue before I place faith in my eyes?


How reliable does a scientific instrument need to be before I trust its measurements?


How much authority does the US government have to get from its citizens, or demonstrate through enforcing its laws, before I put faith in its laws?


It may seem strange that I’m talking about evidence and faith together. We often think of faith as a belief that doesn’t depend on, doesn’t need, any evidence. And you can see how this attitude might lead someone to believe anything and cite a faith decision as the only necessary support for that belief. Anyone can believe anything anyone wants. However, I argue that this view misunderstands faith.


I’m most familiar with the Christian tradition, so I’ll stick with it as an example. Jesus didn’t leave his followers to take his word alone that he would come back from the dead. The bible says that he appeared to them. He gave them evidence to believe, in other words. Now you may not believe what the bible says, and that’s fine. But I hope you’ll take the point that even in religion, there is a threshold of evidence that backs up beliefs.


So what is an appropriate threshold? For starters, there has to be some evidence offered.

If a claim is made without any evidence, then you shouldn’t take the leap of faith necessary to believe it.


The evidence has to be relevant to the claim, and it has to have some additional evidence backing it up. If I say John is an American citizen, then I can cite American citizenship law but those laws also have the recognized authority of the US government behind them.


If the evidence doesn’t have any support itself, then it’s not very good evidence. If a color-blind person says a stop sign is green, then you can’t trust the evidence because it lacks legitimate support.


For any person, there’s a threshold of evidence necessary for that person to take the leap of faith and believe something. The threshold may vary wildly depending on the specific thing that the person is evaluating.


And that brings me to the other side of belief that affects our understanding of claims and other information.


Imagine a series of concentric circles like these:


In the smallest circle, place your dearest, most sacred beliefs that you would rather die than give up. This is the “core” of your beliefs.


In the next-biggest circle, place important beliefs that you wouldn’t give up easily but which you would consider changing slightly if given sufficient reason to do so. These beliefs are negotiable.


And in the biggest circle, place all the preferences, opinions, and insignificant beliefs that you don’t care that much about. The periphery really isn’t that important and can change rather easily.


In my smallest circle, I would place my Christian faith, my marriage, and other beliefs central to my identity.


In the next circle, I would place my ideas about how to be a good husband, a good father, and so on. I’d also include some of my political philosophies and my pedagogy.


In the biggest circle, I’d place everything from my preference for vanilla ice cream to my belief that Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written.


The beliefs in the smallest circle should be held onto tightly. When you encounter new information or arguments that contradict them, you shouldn’t change your mind, your core beliefs, your identity, without a massive struggle, deconstruction, and reconstruction.


The beliefs in the next circle ought to be held onto, but if you get a compelling argument for changing or updating them, then you can change your mind without worrying about losing your core values and identity.


And the beliefs in the last circle don’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things, so they can and should change the most easily. Or at the very least, you shouldn’t argue too much with people about them. You may be wrong to say James Joyce’s Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written, but it’s not the end of the world.


When you encounter new information or arguments that contradict one of your beliefs, take a moment to consider where that belief falls in relation to your core values and identity. The farther out from the core, the lower the stakes for changing or modifying those beliefs and the more open and receptive you can be to new ideas.


I think we would have a much more civil, happy society if everyone recognized that it’s okay to change or update beliefs, that changing one belief doesn’t mean changing one’s entire belief system.

Let’s say that I’m pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and abortion is murder. Therefore, I also believe abortion should be illegal except in cases where the mother’s health might be at risk. For most pro-lifers, this would be a core belief that they wouldn’t give up under almost any circumstances.


Like most pro-lifers, I would believe that outlawing abortion will most effectively decrease the number of abortions. If abortion is allowed only during medical emergencies, then, logically, there won’t be nearly as many of them. That belief is negotiable.


Someone could convince me, or most other pro-lifers, that different or additional actions could also greatly reduce the number of abortions in the meantime while abortion remains legal.


Compared to convincing pro-lifers that life doesn’t begin at conception, it wouldn’t take nearly as much evidence and argument to persuade them that, for instance, funding women’s centers and providing financial, childcare, or adoption support could empower mothers to carry unwanted pregnancies rather than choose an abortion.


In the example above, both sides could get what they want if the argument focused on negotiable beliefs as opposed to core values. Pro-lifers could contribute to lowering the abortion rate, and pro-choicers could gain more support for women and mothers.


When you want to persuade an audience with different core beliefs, then you would be well-advised to avoid directly contradicting or attacking those core beliefs. Instead, focus your argument on the negotiable and periphery beliefs, where you may actually make progress.

You can also engage your audience in considering whether something is a core, negotiable, or peripheral belief. You might ask them straight out, “Is this a core belief that you hold? Or is it more negotiable?” That may get your audience to be more open-minded as you begin to make a case for changing a negotiable belief, or what you hope is a negotiable belief.


You may acknowledge the audience’s core values and positively affirm them. Then you could explain that you are talking about a negotiable idea or subject, that you’re not trying to change their beliefs but simply trying to find common ground. The more you demonstrate your concern for coming together and your own willingness to compromise, the more effective this strategy can be.


In short, focus on the negotiable beliefs and try to help your audience join you in that focus.


Summary


In order to balance a healthy skepticism with an anchor in well thought-out values, we need to understand:

  • the foundation of faith under each argument or piece of evidence;

  • the threshold of evidence for taking the leap of faith necessary to believe something;

  • and how to determine how closed or open to new ideas we ought to be.

Understanding the circles of belief can help us to have healthier attitudes toward new ideas and information. We can assess whether a core belief is being challenged or a negotiable or a periphery. Then we can determine how easily we should allow our minds to be changed.


We can also try to make arguments to others that don’t challenge their core beliefs and instead address the negotiables and periphery that might be much more amenable to change.


Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
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