“Everything You Know Is Wrong”

Move around enough, meet enough strangers, come face-to-face with enough gray-haired 30-year-olds, and you will inevitably be confronted with this confounding “truth”:

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Gravity is a lie. We never landed on the moon. Obama is from Pluto. Jesus wasn’t white (nor was he Jewish). Your broccoli isn’t organic.

There is a certain portion of the population whose entire raison d’être is convincing anyone who will listen that the reality they know is a lie. For them, the Matrix isn’t just an excuse for Keanu Reeves to have a career, it’s a philosophical treatise on par with anything Johns Locke or Calvin ever produced.

You can recognize these people with a simple test: If someone posits the idea that we all live in an alien’s virtual reality simulation, and they not only nod along but attempt to extrapolate moral philosophy based on this idea, they might be a dipshit.*

I’m sounding bitterly dismissive, so I should explain. I have no problem with questioning or doubting. The scientific process is built on challenging established understanding and launching ourselves into new realms. The greatest scientific accomplishments of human existence would never have occurred without people willing to take the ‘known’ and test it. A mind that says we know everything we can possibly know and there is no new information is, essentially, religious. I cannot support such thinking.

But, just because I respect the inquisitive mind, doesn’t mean I give credence to the cynical dismissal of all knowledge.

My problem with people who make the statement, “Everything you know is wrong,” is that they are inherently dishonest. They tell you to question everything, then check their iPhones for the latest updates on ConspiracyBullshit.com. We live in a society where scientific advancements completely shape every aspect of our lives. Someone can pretend like they ‘question everything,’ but test that resolve and they’ll prove to be empty-headed charlatans.

Medically, everything from flu shots and vaccines to heart transplants and brain surgery rely on a firm understanding of biology and human physiology, all brought to us by hundreds of years of research and study. A very select minority truly rejects all medical science, and they’re called Christian Scientists. And we don’t have to pay much attention to them because natural selection is pretty much killing them off.

How about technology? Unless you’re Amish, you’re probably reading this on your laptop, smartphone or virtual reality glasses. None of that technology would be available to you without decades of established and verified scientific research. Scientific knowledge is partially about challenging preconceived notions, but even more importantly it’s about building on the work of those who have come before.

The mantra of “Question Everything” is meant to suggest humility, by insisting that we humans are incapable of understanding the mysteries of the universe. But, in fact, the philosophy that claims “everything we know is wrong” is the most arrogant worldview available. It suggests that we, as individuals, can simply dismantle the work of millions of thinkers, scientists, doctors, researchers and philosophers who have come before us. And all because we took the blue pill. Or the red pill. I don’t actually remember which is which.

These Universal Cynics are liars and fakes. Like relativists and religious fundamentalists, if you actually put their philosophy to the test, one of two results will occur: Their hypocrisy will cause them to buckle, or they’ll die.

Everything you know is most emphatically not wrong. A lot of what you know is, in fact, completely, unquestionably true. Gravity is real. So is evolution, and the germ theory and Obama’s birth certificate. If you’re going to question someone, start with the people who use a website to tell you to doubt everything, a website powered by decades of established scientific research.

Yes, we must challenge, question and never grow complacent with our search for greater understanding.

But, no, we must not begin from the solipsistic view that if we don’t understand an answer, or don’t find it personally satisfying, it cannot be true.

Instead, we must begin with the realization that all human thought and inspiration stands on the shoulders of giants, and to dismiss those generations of advancements is like willfully climbing Mt. Everest from the base when we have a helicopter to carry us above the death zone.


*My issue isn’t with the idea that we might be a virtual simulation. While I don’t buy it, even if it were true, it’s meaningless to discuss. Our reality is still our reality. If there are rules that can be learned in our universe, we should be trying to learn them, not wasting our time looking for the theoretical exits.

For Science So Loved The World…

Hey class, let’s dissect a “Science” article:

Will March 19 ‘Supermoon’ Trigger Natural Disasters?

Starting from the beginning:

According to the article, the moon’s natural orbit will bring it as close to the earth as it has been in 18 years.  18 years!  By golly, who can remember that far back?  Dinosaurs could have been roaming the earth.  Or, you know, it could have been 1993.  As we all remember, that year was notable for horrible earthquakes and tidal waves.  You remember that, right?  Right?

Okay, well, maybe not, but that was different.  You see, this time, the moon will be full.  And we all know what that means:
Full moon is a lunar phase that occurs when the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun.” (Wiki)

Which has nothing to do with anything.  Full, half, new, these are just phases based on the position of the moon, earth and sun.  There is no cosmic (or seismic) significance.

Let’s move on to the next part of the article.

“Richard Nolle, a noted astrologer…”  Woah nelly!  Where to begin?  Noted?  Noted for what?  For being a crank?  How can you be a ‘noted astrologer?’  That’s  like being an esteemed idiot.  Since astrology is a meaningless ‘field of study’ representing nothing based on no evidence, how does one become ‘noted’ in it?

Feel free to click on his link, astropro.com.  I’ve seen more professional looking websites in the 90s.  Geocities called, they want their aesthetic back.

Of course, the writer of this article obviously expects people to be skeptical (being ostensibly about science, there are going to be people who want more than just one random guy’s opinion), so they go to some real scientists for their input.

Not their opinions on the specific topic of the article, mind you, just on the general topic of the moon and the tide.  You see, the writer of this article didn’t interview anyone for this piece.  She merely took quotes from different sources (affiliates) and combined them into a loosely connected story.  Someone likely asked the quoted scientists their opinions (maybe even about so-called ‘supermoons’) but I doubt any of them thought they’d be quoted in an article giving voice to some wackjob astrologer.

In fact, by the end of the article, the various scientists questioned have all pretty well dismissed the entire premise of the article.

“The moon’s gravitational pull at lunarperigee [supermoon], the scientists say, is not different enough from its pull at other times to significantly change the height of the tides and thus the likelihood of natural disasters.”

In other words, the answer to the question in the title of this article:  No.

But the order of the article is important.  The takeaway from any article (whether in the New York Times, the Washington Post or on Yahoo ‘News’) is the first two or three paragraphs.  Every article is going to have a counterpoint, but the writers (or editors) know the part you’ll focus on is the original assertion, not the dissenting point of view, no matter how intelligent or credentialed the opposition is.  Hell, most people will only read the first two paragraphs of any given article.

Read up.

My Point

A recent ‘discovery’ of alien life has gotten me interested in how our culture processes scientific stories.  The truth is, most scientific discoveries are boring.  Like, 99.9999999% of peer-reviewed scientific journals would put you to sleep.  But, despite this nation’s war on real science, there is still an appeal among the common man for scientific wonders.  The United States has a long history of discovery and exploration, and there is no greater realm for such endeavors than science.

So, sometimes (frankly, usually), when I see a ‘science’ article being passed around on Facebook or on popular sites, my alarm bells go off.  If the world at large is taking interest in a scientific discovery, either it’s a load of bollocks or it’s an article asking if Star Trek could be real.  Real science demands a lot, of the researchers and of the consumers.

Questions to ask yourself when reading such an article:

Who is being quoted?  What are their credentials?  Is the source reputable (does the scientific community as a whole acknowledge it)?

Has their discovery/research been peer reviewed?  What were the research methods?

A good scientist should be skeptical.  A good reader should be, too.

I get accused of being a cynic fairly often, but I really don’t think that could be further from the truth.  A skeptic questions, a skeptic wonders, a skeptic finds answers.  A cynic just says ‘no’ to everything.  Frankly, I think a cynic has more in common with credulous people than with skeptics.  Both cynics and the credulous have kneejerk reactions, they just tend to be in opposite directions.

Skeptics discovered that the earth wasn’t flat.  Skeptics discovered that the earth goes around the sun.  Skeptics discovered evolution and germ theory and all the great wonders of the past 200 years.  Skepticism is based on reason and a desire for truth, that’s what distinguishes it from cynicism (or credulity).

There has been no single greater tool for the betterment of mankind than science.  Yes, scientific advances have led to things like nuclear bombs, but humanity has been finding ways of killing each other since the very beginning.

Whereas healing the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, helping the lame walk:  Those aren’t miracles of Jesus, those are the achievements of science.

Let’s not take Science’s name in vain.

Now that I’ve offended you, come vote on my next city.

The words we say aren’t meant for anyone.

Recently, while sitting in the back room of my job on a break, I was somewhat captive audience to a conversation between two coworkers that required a little personal research after the fact.  The conversation spring-boarded off of the topic of the Texas School Board’s destruction of legitimate education, turning to the tyranny of history.

You see, don’t you know, Obama is not the first black President of these here United States.  Furthermore, America’s very first president was black.  Believe it.  You know how I know?  The internet says so.

It should be said that the coworker making this assertion about America’s supposed first Black President was, herself, black, and her conversational partner was white.  Her point was that the American history we are often taught in schools is biased and white-washed (in more ways than one).  And she is, of course, right.  Howard Zinn, anyone.  You can’t get a liberal arts education and not learn about how important women, blacks, gays and other minorities have been unjustly ignored by mainstream history.

If history is written by the victors, no one has been more victorious than White Males.

But I’m not here to decry the ills of pasty penis ownership.  It is what it is.

I’m interested in this historical “fact” that went unchallenged in the break room.  Including by me.  The tidbit sounded faintly familiar and like the sort of sufficiently preposterous hooey that always proves to be, at best, an urban legend (usually, just plain bullshit).  But I couldn’t recall specifically where I had heard it before and whether or not I knew it to be debunked, so I remained silent while the history of America was rewritten (ironically, for the goal of greater truth).

My younger self would have scoffed and asserted my incredulity, and probably would have started a fight (I mean, debate) over it.  In my older, wiser years, I’ve learned to bite my tongue a bit more (not in writing, though), especially when I don’t have the appropriate research to support my skepticism.

I should have spoken up.

John Hanson was not our first president.  Hell, he wasn’t even black.

Here’s where my natural skepticism serves me well, and why I should trust my instincts.

“Common knowledge” is often wrong, but believe it or not, uncommon knowledge is even more frequently wrong.  As a naturally skeptical person myself, I appreciate a healthy dose of questioning the Status Quo and Damning the Man.  It’s a hell of a way to pass a rainy Tuesday afternoon.  But there is a limit.

You’ve heard the phrase, “Too good to be true.”  Let me offer a corollary:  “Too amazing to be true.”  In other words, if something is so absolutely mindblowing, so preposterously history-changing, or basically the most unbelievable thing you’ve ever heard, do yourself a favor, don’t believe it.

Now, this is not me saying that you should always believe the official story.  Republicans, Democrats, they all lie from time to time.  Priests and atheists, all capable of bending the truth.  Lovers and friends, family and coworkers, they’ll all deceive you at some point.  Everybody lies.  (Where have I heard that before?)

But the more insidious untruth is that which is spread by a person who believes what they are saying.  My coworker who was passing off erroneous information as history was not trying to deceive anyone (I don’t think).  She genuinely believed that a man named John Hanson was both black and the first President of the United States.  On the latter point, she was only technically wrong.  On the former, not even close.

I have no idea where she got her info originally, and more importantly, I have no idea if the person who first made this error thought it true themselves, or if this misinformation is the product of an intentional effort to abuse the open doors of the internet.  Either way, it took me little time to find well-documented pages discounting the myth, as well as little effort to see how a nifty, unsourced article could have spread it.

I’ve touched on the topic of not taking information at face value before.  It was one of my law’s: Nothing upon another’s word.

This recent work experience is a good example of why I live by that law.  Hours after the break room conversation, I heard the guy comment to the girl that he had looked it up online and he was amazed.  In other words, this little bit of misinformation had just spread to another mind and will likely go uncorrected (I could go up to him and explain the truth, but A- that’d be creepy and B- it would likely do no good).  This speaks to the importance of knowing for sure before you claim to be an expert on any topic.  Do your research.

I am not telling anyone to trust Snopes.com completely, but it’s a good first stop in the pursuit of fact checking, specifically because they provide sources.  Easy tip: if someone makes a claim but offers no sources to support that claim, pull out the Red Flags.  Just as I’m telling you to be skeptical of people’s claims, you should be skeptical of debunkers, too.  Anyone can be misinformed, and anyone can lie.

Some tips for not being duped:

– Be wary of sources with obvious biases (political, religious, personal, etc.).
– Compare contradicting sources.  Does one do a better job of supporting their claims with indisputable facts (a good liar knows how to dazzle with presentation).
– Remember, a source can be wrong once and that doesn’t mean they should be forever discounted.  But demanding a higher standard of proof in the future is not out of the question.
– If a source is found to be intentionally misleading, even just once, then that source loses all credibility.  Obviously, it’s hard to prove intent, but it’s not impossible, and anyone found intentionally deceiving their audience deserves to be blackballed.

Finally, remember, if something sounds too amazing to be true (or even just faintly amazing), go ahead, indulge that little skeptical voice in your head and do the research.  You’ll look like less of a credulous simpleton at your next party.