How to Know What is True In Very Noisy World

Biases create noise, lots of it. Biases follow us around, they are hidden inside us, often unknowingly, and everything we do and hear is instantly filtered through and interpreted by a whole set of basic values, references, and preconceived opinions, aka biases.

Our brains are geared for survival. Mental energy is preserved as much as possible, meaning we prefer to do familiar things (most of us do the same thing every day, even at the same time) and prefer to hear & read things that ‘fit’ us as this is the least strenuous. The same energy saving mechanism is applied by the brain when it comes to others, we (unconsciously) veer towards people who are like us, be it in age, background, culture, language and/or gender.

Thomas Erikson, in his book ‘Surrounded by Idiots’ says that “communication always happens on the listener’s terms”. Everything you say to your listener will first be filtered by them and only after all this filtering is done, they will get the rest of what you meant to say, but the way your message is received may be not quite what you meant to convey as so much is lost in your listener’s filters. This makes it very difficult to get across a message to someone very different from you. Flipping this around, if the listener is very much like you, much less filtering is needed, and more mental energy is available to receive your message in its more original form without ‘noise’.

So, if ‘noise’ tends to push out the unfamiliar, how does this affect how we read and consume news and listen to others? With news & information (a social media addiction for many of us) we do – consciously or unconsciously - apply a multiple of biases. The most well-known of which is our confirmation bias, meaning we seek the information (and the people with it) confirming what we already believe and what further strengthens that belief. This makes us cherry-pick news and skip over topics that, even if newsworthy, do not fit our own interest or narrative.

Additionally, we are also more and more taking our news from people we ‘trust’. Teens between 14-19 years old are avid news consumers and consume news and information increasingly directly from people they follow on social media (without fact checking) and from search engines (Google really is being the world’s biggest educator….) rather than from established news sources. This could well be because young people think news outlets themselves maybe biased or are driven by what type of news sells best, compromising their trustworthiness. How to really know what is true or not, apart from what we wish to read and see?

With our innate filters and our inclination to cherry-pick news, partially at least from unchecked sources, we keep circulating in our own echo chambers, both on and off-line. The question of course is how we will ever be able to properly hear views that divert from our own. How we can understand people who are not like us; people who live different lives from us? And how to establish what is truth. Can we push our brains beyond the minimum energy level?

There are a few important words that can help with this. The simple words: WHY, WHAT, HOW. If we go beyond the headline and apply critical thinking, instead of wishful thinking, to what we read and hear and if we ask those with different beliefs, what it is they believe, why they believe it and how this belief is supported by facts, we surely will get that much closer to understanding things loud and clear. These words can switch off the noise of the many biases in our brain and that of others. Imagine the quiet and clarity.

References & links:

Thomas Erikson: Surrounded by Idiots. Vermillion 2019.

Darrell Huff: How to Lie with Statistics. 1993