Growing Up with Bad Knowledge

The article, 51 Favorite Facts You’ve Always Believed That Are Actually False, reminds me of how much our daily routine revolves around information we may have been taught at an earlier point in our lives. Something as simple as what to avoid or what precautions to take may depend entirely on what we were taught. You may read a news article or other document and you receive the information through the filter encoded in you based on what you years ago. Your school, your upbringing, your interactions with written information can all inform you in ways that influence how you make decisions later in life.

The reality is, there is quite a bit of false information that look very truthful. Things that you’ve learned from reputable sources, books, and individuals. News reports in which false information was repeated because the information came from a reputable source. How many physics facts from decades ago learned in a formal settings was debunked, refuted, or otherwise no longer embraced? We’ve all learned false facts. We’ve all learned rules of thumb that are appropriate for some situations, but less useful in other situations but maybe expressed to us in such a way that the rule applies in all cases.

A couple of reasons exist why, despite an environment steeped in high education, literature, research, and values of scholarship, that we are often set on the wrong course.

  1. We give authority to consensus. The age old rule that if everybody says it is true, then it must be. That takes the form of verifiable sources in academic writing. Research that can be verified. We place authority in written documents that conform to the rules of objectivity. If a statement of fact appears objective enough, we will assign default credibility to the statement. When years or decades later, the fact is refuted, disproven, or otherwise found in error, rarely does anyone point back to the moment when that previously true fact was taken as true. We rarely ask how it was we could accept something that was false in hindsight. Again, if a statement appears objective or authoritative enough, it will be taken as true. What we accept as true (even if really false), can have an impact on the rest of our lives.
  2. Error Avoidance. Although it appears that our modern world has grown to accept mistakes, the reality is that we are still inclined towards a desire to appear competent. Accept the right facts, be capable of reciting them in conversation or other discourse, and govern your life by the right rules and you can avoid error. This error avoidance is linked to the survival instinct and it drives us to accumulate knowledge and information that leads to less mistakes and problems in our lives. Plus, it is easier and faster than having to do the research yourself. Who has the time for such research? Where do you start? A good shortcut is the research and study others have done but if key parts of their chronicle is wrong, then under the right circumstances, you haven’t taken a shortcut, you’ve regressed or stalled.
  3. Need for Certainty. Facts, even when they are false, if most people adhere to them, then that creates a more certain environment. That allows you to operate, move about, engage with others and situations with greater proficiency. The model of the world a person carries in their head defines how they function in the world. A model that aligns with the world and people a person interacts with creates less friction and more productive outcomes. However, if several key facts or assumed correct ideas that make up that model are false, then the person may be productive, functional, but they are not leading a life that could be more correct and better aligned to the truth of objective reality. Unfortunately, the means to define objective reality is elusive. Thus, in practice, we tend to be stuck with some false assumptions to make it through life. The certainty produced by the flawed models of thought nonetheless create a level of certainty by which people are able to function.

More than this I could say on the problem of facts that eventually turn out not to be facts. The article, 51 Favorite Facts You’ve Always Believed That Are Actually False, covered many things I was introduced in my life that was eventually shown to be false. I received these false facts from many directions. Books, schools, other people, TV, and newspapers. Although I read through the list of false facts, I will probably forget what I read because my knowledge of these facts are so ingrained. That brings us to another fact. Depending on who you are, even when you learn the truth, you may yet instinctively recoil to previously established falsehoods when your model of the world has become entrenched.

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