Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > January 2021

If you really want to know the truth, seek evidence for the opposite of what you want to believe.

People tend to seek evidence that confirms what they want to believe, and to ignore all else. That is one of several reasoning mistakes that people often make. In this era of fake news, it is especially important to check multiple sources, in order to verify that you haven't been misguided by a hoax. That includes checking evidence of things that are opposite to what you want to believe.

The thought for this month was triggered by the recent situation in USA that has made news all around the world: that the president of the United States, Donald Trump, couldn't face reality about his election loss. As the ballots were counted in the fall 2020 election, the early returns favored Mr. Trump, but as the mail-in ballots arrived things turned around in favor of Mr. Biden of the Democrats. That shouldn't have been a surprise, considering that Mr. Trump made disparaging remarks about mail-in voting, while the Democrats encouraged it as a safe way to vote during the Covid pandemic. So he should have expected a higher percentage of Biden votes in the mail-in results. Instead, he chose to accuse the Democrats of a conspiracy to create fake votes.

Anybody can accuse anybody of anything, but accusations are not necessarily true. That's why an important principle has arisen that is followed in all advanced societies: Innocent until proven guilty! In an attempt to validate his belief, Mr. Trump had his lawyers initiate a wide variety of lawsuits to challenge election results in various states. That was a fair step to take, but to his dismay the courts found the evidence of fraud to be inadequate, and recounts of votes yielded essentially the same results as before: Mr. Biden wins. Nevertheless, Mr. Trump continued to assert that he had won by a landslide, and many of his supporters believed him.

This was not harmless. Inspired by his demands to "take back the election that was stolen," on January 6, 2021, a mob of angry Trump supporters broke into Congress as they were about to certify the election results. "Innocent until proven guilty" was not a principle the rioters subscribed to. Congressmen had to flee into a safe area, and 5 people died from injuries sustained in the riot. The national guard was called in to restore order, and in the early hours of the next morning, Congress certified Mr. Biden's win. But it left a great division within the citizens, most rejecting Trump's conspiracy theory, but many still believing it.

What this demonstrates is the great importance of being able to differentiate between false assertions and true ones. In the modern world, it is very easy to create web sites that look like valid news, showcasing experts who present half-truths or even totally fake evidence. There is a tendency for people to accept what they are first exposed to, or what they want to believe. We think it's a modern phenomenon, but a quick check of Fake news on Wikipedia shows it is not new. Before there was Internet, there was fake news distributed in newspapers and other ways, often with equally harmful results.

The desire for knowledge, founded on curiosity, is a significant difference between human beings and simpler animals, but nevertheless humans were evolved from simpler animals and still retain some of their traits. We did not begin with minds designed for information gathering and validation, but rather for satisfaction of motives related more directly to survival. To get correct information takes an effort, and it doesn't necessarily come naturally. Intuitions are sometimes correct but not always. They need to be validated.

Toward that end, here are some web sites offering guidance on how to differentiate between fake news and reliable information. My recommendation above, to check multiple sources (and to include those that might disagree with your current opinion) is perhaps the most important step to take, but there are others tips too. Check out:

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