Finding the Truth in Controversies

One of the problems that interests me is how best to learn the truth in controversial matters. There seem to be several approaches that different people use, but which I see as problematic.

One is to simply go along with what your peers believe. This provides obvious social benefits but for people here who are interested in "overcoming bias" it requires some justification. One can in fact make a case that the majority view is often right based on the Wisdom of Crowds. However there are also many situations in which the majority view is clearly incorrect. And given that we are talking about controversial issues, the populace is often split somewhat evenly on the matter, so the force of the follow-the-crowd argument is reduced.

Another is to try to study the issue and become familiar with the arguments pro and con in some depth, and then to use your own judgment to determine the truth – basically, thinking for yourself. I know many very smart people who do this. However there is often considerable variance in the results of this process, and I have observed that the outcome is often predictable just from the known biases of the individual, such as his ideological orientation.

Oversimplifying, I’d say that ordinary people use the first method, and smart people use the second method, but neither strikes me as very reliable on topics of controversy.

A third possibility is to simply ignore the issue. Realistically, most controversies don’t have much practical impact on individuals. Much of our interest in them is socially motivated, because of the excitement they generate in the community, and the extensive efforts that are devoted to debating and discussing them. Adopting a position of "intentional ignorance" will often be the most rational course on matters of controversy.

Another method which I have found reasonably successful for certain matters is to try to learn the scientific consensus. This applies to controversies on scientific matters where the academic community is not truly split on the issue. Often it turns out that partisans exaggerate the degree of academic disagreement on controversial issues. Attempts by the press to provide balanced coverage also tend to obscure an underlying consensus. In many cases there really is a substantial degree of academic agreement once you get past the rhetoric.

Applying this approach requires some effort to try to discover what the scientific consensus is. It’s not an easy task for the layman, especially if partisans on both sides are claiming that they own the consensus. I don’t have any magic techniques for this, but one trick is to use to gather information since it searches only academic papers. Just reading their titles and sometimes abstracts can give a feeling for the assumptions and the context in which they are working.

It can reasonably be questioned whether this method is justified, whether scientific understanding can properly be viewed as an approximation to the truth. My answer is that science has made clear and explicit progress in its understanding of reality over the past few centuries, so they must be doing something right. Science certainly has its own biases, but more than most institutions it offers incentives to overcome those biases and rewards those who find better truths. Ultimately its track record speaks for itself.

Over my lifetime I have known some very smart people who have held some very unusual beliefs, which they reached by applying the second method above, thinking for themselves. This experience, along with further study of the pervasive nature of human biases, has made me skeptical of the value of this practice. I am still looking for improved ways to get at the truth without having to resort to thinking for myself. That approach amounts to an admission of failure, as far as I am concerned.

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