Lately I have been reading a lot of Hoax Slayer and using the associated information for responding to highly incorrect information that people have been re-posting on Facebook. It seems many people do not even bother with a quick two second Google search to check the veracity of most claims. This takes very little effort and intelligence to do for run of the mill posts (so there’s little excuse for not checking), especially compared to proper academic discourse which will require many years of formal education, knowledge of the published literature and relevant experience in the area being discussed.
The most recent examples from the past week have been one friend posting angrily and ignorantly about a (hoax) article saying that Christmas lights were banned in North Queensland because Muslims were offended (again, nonsense), and the one about a snake eating someone (unsubstantiated claims). Previously, many others and I have responded to absolutely false claims about people’s perceived dangers of water fluoridation, vaccination and genetically modified food. So why do fallacious stories and crank articles come to exist and why do people fall for them? Well two of the leading figures of the enlightenment may provide some answers.
David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher who wrote many highly influential works regarding morality, skepticism and atheism. Contrary to the highly biased Thomas Reid, who believed people are naturally good and want to speak the truth, Hume gave a rebuttal discussing the point that people often do have motives to lie as when “they have an interest in what they affirm” and that there are most definitely advantages to “starting an imposture among an ignorant people”. Think here of politicians and peddlers of quackery.
Hate groups such as the bigoted English Defence League have a vested interested in spreading misinformation to instill irrational and unfounded fear in others in the hopes of stocking their ranks with new members to help carry out their misguided ideology. These are the same tactics used by other extremist groups like the Taliban. Additionally, peddlers of modern day snake oil such as homeopathic preparations which amount essentially to expensive water in a bottle have their interests vested in convincing you that homeopathy is not woo woo, despite the overwhelming proof against it. Then you have the Internet scammers who set up fake stories and competitions in order to gather “likes” on Facebook so that they can sell the page onto others (like farming, such as all the sick baby posts on Facebook) or to further other scams often to illegitimately obtain your sweet sweet cash. So I don’t think it takes a philosophical genius to see that people are very capable of lying and spinning stories for their own benefit (cash or the feeling of entertaining others with a tall tale).
However, as with many tall tales, especially those that seem to confirm to your own bias (such as racist ramblings, if that’s your unfortunate inclination), there are plenty of people to fall for them, especially with ‘alternative medicine’ promising miracle cures; an especially predatory practice in my opinion. Hume states that we are prone to believe “the tales of travellers” because we can find the feelings of “surprise and wonder” agreeable. We want to believe that all hope is not lost for a child with a currently incurable disease, for example, and hope can be a good thing, but unfortunately there are plenty of parasitic vultures out there to prey on you (such as Stanislaw Burzynski, faith healers and Homeopaths Without Borders). On the less serious side, we are also very prone to believe stories such as the aforementioned snake eating a sleeping/drunk person and the Russian sleep experiment story due in part to a combination of the Bizarreness effect and the Von Restorff effect, as I have written about before here. In Hume’s day there were many amazing stories going around Europe from all over the world, but many turned out to be false. One great example (because I am a chess aficionado) is the story of the Turk automaton chess machine, which wasn’t exposed as a farce until well into the 19th century.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was another giant of philosophy during the enlightenment. He spoke about the concept of intellectual autonomy; not being guided by others in terms of what to think. Now this had nothing to do with having absolutely no trust in others with respect to certain areas, for example trusting the scientific consensus of a group such as the Royal Society or the Australian Academy of Science can be well justified, particularly if you are a layman wanting to be informed of something scientific. No, intellectual autonomy for Kant was being free to make up your own mind about an issue when you were presented with sufficient evidence. In fact one famous quote from Kant was “Sapere aude”, which translates to “dare to be wise” or “dare to know”. When Kant says this he means that you should dare to base your beliefs on something other than someone else’s testimony. Here Hume and Kant provide a similar message (much to the chagrin of the Church at the time)- Do not take someone’s word as truth, ask for evidence.
I believe we all need to be far more steadfast in asking for evidence, with the greater the claim requiring a greater amount of evidence. Additionally, the quality of the evidence must be of sufficiently high value for you to make a truly valid intellectually autonomous decision on something. This is the crux of skepticism, and something we can all do to lead a more informed, examined and beneficial life.