Skip to content

Scientists or Sophists

Mark Milke: How to avoid fake news and reach truth? Think like a scientist, not a lawyer.
Perhaps the greatest orator. Not a scientist.

There are many lessons from the now-ended Donald Trump era, but one critical one worth pondering is how to distinguish between truth-telling and fairy-tale fake news.

On his way out of the White House, Trump falsely claimed that the election he lost was rigged. Back in 2015, while running for the Republican nomination for president, he vastly overstated the percentage of homicides committed by Black Americans.

Those are just two examples, but Trump’s various claims over the years are easy to spot and pick on. But plenty of disinformation also emanates from others that were/are his polar political opposite.

Read most comments from New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As with Trump, she often simply makes stuff up.

For instance, in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez famously tweeted that “$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions ‘could not be traced.” With reference to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ proposed $32 trillion universal health care plan, she added that “66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon.”

As the Washington Post later chronicled, the Pentagon’s lousy documentation over the decades applied to both sides of the ledger, included “both inflows and outflows.” The trillions on both sides thus potentially cancelled each other out. As even the left-wing Nation noted about the economics professor, Mark Skidmore, who came up with the $21 trillion figure, he and others were not arguing there was secret or misused funding.

As the Post put it, there was no “big pot” of money that could have been re-allocated to healthcare. That’s why the Post analysis was entitled ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s $21 trillion mistake.’

North of the border, there is also no shortage of inaccurate claims and fake news. That includes traditional media outlets in addition to the usual suspects in other fields, but that’s another column for another day.

Tips on finding “truth nuggets?”

Instead, the relevant question is: What can you do about it? In a world awash with a torrent of information and data bits, is it really possible to sort through it all and find what might best be described as “truth nuggets”?

Straight up: Given, the sheer volume of information, you can’t parse through all conflicting claims and data. Also, no one is omniscient. While we all have some expertise in some area and can better spot fakes there, on much else, we’re all at the mercy of how much we don’t know.

Instead, what we can do is reason a bit better.

One: Start with falsification

To start, approach matters—whatever matters to you—with a scientific, empirical bent.

By that, I mean try and falsify a claim. In many cases, this is easier than it sounds. For example, if your neighbour tells you it’s scorching sunny out, a walk outside into the rain just falsified that claim.

You can’t prove every possible assertion but a little bit of intellectual elbow grease can disprove a lot of fakery.

Two: Cut stuff with Ockham’s Razor

Ockham’s Razor refers to the theory that the simplest, most direct explanation between cause and effect is most likely the correct one. It’s possible that an alien from Mars poured water on my head this morning. It’s more likely my roof had a leak.

This approach helps weed plausible conspiracy theories (an allegation that two men have conspired to murder a third) from what I label as “grand” conspiracy theories, such as the nutty notion George W. Bush and his colleagues were responsible for 9/11.

That latter theory is daft for many reasons. Thousands of people would need to be in on it, and keep quiet for their entire lives.

Or is it more likely that 19 men, most of whom were not informed by ringleader Mohammed Atta of details of the plan until the last moment and were unknowns before September 11, 2001, actually were the ones to fly the planes into the Twin Tower and the Pentagon?

The Ockham’s Razor approach makes it clear which “theory” is most plausible: the one with fewest moving “parts” and fewest people to take a plan from conception to activation. That’s why the 9/11 Commission and everyone else who grasped the obvious, horrific simplicity of the plot by 19 hijackers quite properly blamed the 9/11 hijackers. The most direct cause of an event is often the correct answer to the questions “What happened?” or “Whodunnit?”

Three: Avoid lawyerly temptations

Lastly, don’t think or act like a defence lawyer in your search for truth and accuracy.

No disrespect to defence lawyers, but their job is to defend their client from prosecutorial arrows. They play down evidence against their client and play up questions about the charges.

In this setting, that’s an entirely legitimate approach; not every charge brought by a prosecutor is accurate. A defence lawyer is trying to keep the legal system open to possibilities of error. It’s one way to stumble into truth but it’s not a laser-like, focused search for accuracy.

The defence lawyer is not attempting to reach the objective truth of a matter. A Not Guilty verdict will do just fine over proving pure innocence. The ancient Greeks knew this; that’s why they divided their philosophers into truth-seekers (Aristotle, Plato, others) and sophists.

Sophists taught students how to win an argument—that was what mattered most to some people, then and now. But winning an argument in the moment is not the same as an honest search for accuracy, truth, or attempts to falsify claims and spot fake news.

In other words, if you want to better cut through the clutter of misinformation and fakery, start with yourself: Think and analyze like a NASA scientist who must ensure her calculations and conclusions are perfectly accurate if the spacecraft is to safely land on Mars. Use reason, Ockham’s Razor, and a commitment to following the data to where it leads, regardless of whether it fits one’s initial hunch, belief, or conspiracy theory.

To make progress sorting fact from fiction and other intellectual junk, one has to think and act like a scientist, not a sophist.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.