Be Not Deceived

I think that everyone can agree that some people are deceived, right?

Can everyone agree that some things that have been written and published reflect unconscious biases and even deliberate distortion?

Can everyone agree that some people have been exposed primarily to propaganda, and have mistaken the contents of that propaganda for truth?

If we can all agree on the above, then there is only one question left to ask, and I will ask it as a genuine question rather than try to answer it in this post.

How do you make certain that the person described above isn't you? What specific steps do you take to make sure that you aren't the one who is reading propaganda and spin and mistaking it for truth?


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  • Stephen Snead

    Be aware of the agenda of the writer. Never, look to Pat Robertson for information on the wisdom of the Buddha. Never read Richard Dawkins for the truth and hope of spirituality. Also, follow the money. Who is the publisher? What kind of books do they sell? Which political wing is the person from?

    Read, but don’t stop thinking. Don’t stop exploring.

    • Damien

      The problem with this approach is that you can often end up reading only people that you already agree with, which will just reinforce your biases and increase the likelihood that you are being deceived. The Christian can say “never read what atheists say about Jesus, they have an agenda and can’t be trusted”, and the atheist “never trust books written by Christians, they have an agenda”.

      My take: read both sides of the argument and avoid second- and third-hand knowledge. Go to the source to get the strongest arguments against your views instead of relying on people you agree with to tell you what these arguments are. Try to be able to pass the Ideological Turing Test 😉

  • Ian

    Every reasonable person understands that some of their beliefs are wrong. But nobody knows which they are, because if they did, they would no longer be held as beliefs. It is only through the clash of beliefs in discourse and argument that the strength and quality of our beliefs can be determined.

    … to paraphrase J.S.Mill.

    It is not that some people are deceived. We all are. Probably in many different ways. Rather than trying to figure out if you are that person, I think it is better to admit you are and set to discovering where.

  • Brian Dyk

    There are many steps in the process. Here are just a few:

    1. The most important of all: Try to hold every idea as provisional and be willing to change it if new evidence and/or better arguments are presented.

    2. Read, read, and read some more. Consume as much material as possible from a wide range of subjects from as many perspectives as possible.

    3. Try to get a grasp on what the scholarly consensus is on a subject as this tends to point one in the right direction. Be skeptical of arguments that cut against the consensus. It very well may be right, but it also may have a lot of precedent to overcome to demonstrate that it is right.

    4. Check and cross check sources and material. If something you are reading is poorly sourced, that might be a red flag to consider.

  • Bradley Robert Compton

    Great question!

    I try to read as much as possible from all sides of an issue if it is one I have a strong opinion about.

    I accept what the consensus of experts have to say about something, unless I myself am an expert in the subject at hand.

    Learning about probability and statistics has been incredibly helpful in preventing me from being swayed by impressive sounding numbers. Lately I have been prone to saying “Numbers without context are worse than useless.”

    I have spent a lot of time learning how to do good research on the internet, how to track down sources, find studies, etc. Trying to employ these skills across the board helps a lot at eliminating bias.

  • smijer

    It’s a good question. The first step of the answer is this: cast a suspicious eye on “the first answers that come to mind. They are probably too comfortable and too amenable to a quickly and easily checking the box marked “I already do that.” Examples:

    “I subject what I read to the tests of reason.”

    “I avoid biased sources.”

    “I ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit.”

    “I test the spirits against scripture.”

    “I always ask if it makes sense.”

    If something like this is your answer to the question of “how do I know I’m not the one deceived/in error”, and you haven’t made sure that this answer really works for reasons that do not depend on you having started out correct in your belief(s), then you might as well not ask the question. You will persist in your error(s), whatever they may be, regardless.

    If, however, you are serious about avoiding deception or error, then your path is long, complicated, and a lot of hard but rewarding work. There is no simple, pat answer that insulates the human mind from error. There’s no box you can check, and then continue on with confidence.

    I think a great place to start is here: and this one starts with these critical words:

    “To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction.”

    I add this: any great skill is the result of ceaseless work to refine it. The great basketball player is the one who spent his afternoon hours on the court, every day, practicing, looking for mistakes, listening to coaches, and correcting every mistake he could find, for years, relentlessly. If you wish to avoid deception, you must be ready to put this level of work into the skill of telling the truth from error.

    Learn the math, even though it takes years. Discover the cognitive processes, and how they naturally help or hinder you. Seek the evidence that matters, not just that which is presented to you in a pretty package by the best lawyers or salespeople. Dig into the scholarship so deeply that your natural reaction to any proposition is to recall what the various scholars think of it, and to suspect that more scholarship exists than you are already aware of and that this scholarship will shed more light on the question. Care that you arrive at the right answer more than you care about enjoying the comforts of the most attractive seeming position. Come to know the multiplicity of error compared to the singularity of truth. Come to know the multitudinous sources of error so that they cannot distract you away from your goal of truth.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    The great evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written a ground-breaking article entitled “The emotional dog and its rational tail” whereby he pointed out that in the realm of morality, we first have gut feelings which we try in HINDSIGHT to justify, that is to rationalize.

    If he’s right (and there are good grounds for thinking he is) the whole undertaking of letting go of our biases might very well prove to be impossible.

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn

  • Anthony Lawson

    What Brian Dyk wrote is essentially my approach as well, hold views as provisional, read, read, read (from various perspectives that is), and look at what the consensus is among experts, and be willing to admit “I don’t know.” The need to understand that the world is a very complicated place leads one to realize that answers are usually not easy nor are they black and white.

  • VinnyJH

    Look for the expert who gives you an honest picture of the other side’s position. If you read a conservative (liberal) take on an issue after reading the liberal (conservative) take and you are surprised by the arguments and evidence that the conservative (liberal) is offering, you were probably getting propaganda from the first expert.