The more I learn about the world, the less certain I become about it. There are so many conflicting views and information taken out of context that it’s hard to discern fact from truth. Below are some notes I keep to help navigate the sea of information that is modern society.

TL;DR: Don’t get fooled by facts if they have no context, don’t discount an opinion because it’s biased, and hear out crazy ideas.

Be skeptical: Fact != Truth

There are facts available for virtually anything you need. No matter what argument you try to make, you’ll be able to find a statistic that can back up your claims thanks to the glory of Google.

“Did you know that planking can ruin your health and result in months of pain?”

“Not true, planking works out multiple muscles in your body and can greatly improve your health if done daily”

Not exactly scientific sources, but I think this demonstrates my point. Furthermore, the level of mixed information increases exponentially as the topic gets more political.

Facts should never be enough to prove a point, and I tend to suspect people who rely too heavily on them. Facts should instead be used to tell a narrative; facts are not the truth, but they can light the way towards it.

“The top 0.1% … own about the same wealth as the bottom 90% of America.”

While deemed “Mostly True” by Politifact.com, this statement in isolation is less than useless: it’s misleading. On it’s own, this fact paints a picture of a grim society, where the bottom 90% are left to struggle for survival, with all resources being held for a greedy few. If you are in the bottom 90%, this prompts you to believe that life is unfair, and that this should be changed. That’s why this statistic is so popular, it seems outrageous and gives Americans a sense of justified anger at the rich, an anger which many ex-presidential candidates used to garner support.

Let’s break this idea down a bit. The greedy elite factoid on its own implies nothing about quality of life, standard of living, financial responsibility, or determination to work. Society could be a paradise where everyone has access to more than they could ever need, and the top 0.1% just has an absurd amount of money. Or society could be a system of addiction, where the bottom 90% are constantly spending money on things they don’t need and the top 0.1% simply aren’t addicted and save/invest wisely. The truth is, these numbers don’t reveal anything about the truth, and aren’t being used to do so.

Consider a narrative discussing the implications of this statistic from Wikipedia:

A 2014 study by researchers at Princeton and Northwestern concludes that government policies reflect the desires of the wealthy, and that the vast majority of American citizens have “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy … when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” When Fed chair Janet Yellen was questioned by Bernie Sanders about the study at a congressional hearing in May 2014, she responded “There’s no question that we’ve had a trend toward growing inequality” and that this trend “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.”

Most people know about inequality, but not what it means for them. The wealth statistic means nothing in a vaccuum, only in context does it hold any value. If facts are used to invoke emotion instead of prove a point, be skeptical.

Worth Listening to those who are biased?

A girl in a class of mine had a laptop sticker that read “Why be racist, sexist, or transphobic when you can just be quiet?”

I can’t stand this type of thinking. It’s elitist, tells people with controversial views to not let their voice be heard, and contributes to the echo chamber of modern society. Furthermore, it accomplishes nothing except a pat on the back for people with her mindset. No racist is actually going to read that and go “Oh, guess I just won’t speak my mind then.” In fact, they might be driven further into racism in spite. Nobody likes being talked down to.

There’s a lot of insight to be gained on both sides from listening to people with views you don’t like. It’s easy to think white supremacists are evil and don’t deserve to speak; its harder to realize they have a reason for their beliefs. If you want to make the world a better place, it doesn’t come from silence, but from understanding. When fighting racism, wouldn’t it make sense to understand where racists are coming from?

If you want to discuss tax law, you should hear out the rich guy that wants lower taxes just as much as the working class American who wants the same. If you want to discuss diversity, don’t limit the white participants to those with an “anti-white” mindset. These perspectives are essential to promoting an open dialogue, and leaving out those with biased opinions leads to toxic echo chambers and a mentality of “us versus them”.

Hear out the crazy

When I experimented with fasting, a few people I knew were opposed. The concept of not eating for days on end? Ridiculous! Your body needs food, your metabolism will slow to a halt if you don’t eat!

These arguments didn’t come from any sort of reading on the subject, but human intuition. The concept of not eating for a few days went against everything they knew; to them it was crazy.

Fasting isn’t actually bad for you if done right, and can have numerous health benefits. A simple Google search into the subject could have cleared up these misconceptions. But that would imply that this ridiculous idea could have some merit worth looking for. It’s like looking up “Did the Holocaust happen?”

When it comes to most domains however, there is usually some fascinating logic behind crazy ideas. Bitcoin comes to mind; a currency without a government to back it seems completely absurd on the surface. The gut reaction is to call Bitcoin a fraud, but when the best in the business take some time to think about it, they might have second thoughts. The Bitcoin community is full of brilliant people that built the foundation of blockchain technology. It’s worth hearing them out, even if their ideas seem a bit crazy at first glance. They must have their reasons.

Final Thoughts

As the news cycle continues to speed up, it’s hard to determine fact from fiction, who’s crazy and who’s biased, what’s conspiracy and what’s revolutionary. It’s impossible to listen to everyone, but you shouldn’t only listen to those with a similar mindset. It’s impossible to get the full story for every topic of discussion, but don’t fall for out-of-context information. Question everything, but keep an open mind.