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How Do You Know? | Questions

We all believe in a lot of things. Big things, like is there a God, and little things, like the pie shop, is closed on Monday. Much of the time we just “know” these things. But today I’m going to encourage you to ask yourself, “How do you know?”

I started a series in October on Questions, because knowing the right question is halfway to finding an answer. Questions we’ve already talked about are:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • How will you know you are done?

We are going to continue the series today with the question “How do you know?”

How Do You Know?

When we ask this question we are trying to determine why we believe something is true. You see all of our actions are based on what we perceive to be true.

The problem we run into in life is we often believe things that are holding us back. Or we are acting based on flimsy or expired information.

So let’s dig into the question: “How do you know?”

What is your source?

The first way to answer this question is where you learned something from. In today’s world of way, way, way too many information sources, we generally choose where and what we learn.

This may seem like a good idea. There are people you trust and so you listen to them exclusively. The problem is if they are wrong, then you are wrong. It also leads you to amplifying your biases. If you listen only to people who already agree with you, you won’t find counter information.

There is a lot of talk about ‘authoritative’ sources these days. Which is great for scientific, completely fact-based, information. If you want to know what the scientific community thinks you should be doing about COVID, then you should look for what the CDC says, and not some distant aunt on Facebook.

Of course the problem is many problems are not fact based. Who you should vote for, or if you are good at something, are questions you can’t ask the CDC about.

In these cases you still need to examine your sources, but not just for accuracy of information, but relevance. Who you should vote for is not scientific even if your favorite news site claims it is. It is based on a complex mix of your values, social constraints, and many other factors.

Whether you are good at something is an even more nuanced question. If you think you are a bad writer for example, How do you know that? What is your source?

Are you the source? Do you read what you write and think it sucks? If so you might want to get some more feedback.

Did some high school English teacher tell you you were brilliant, but no one likes you stuff? Maybe your teach was correct. Then. You were great compared to your classmates, but now you are in the world of way, way, way, too much content, and the competition is a lot higher.

Once you’ve examined your source, you need to ask…

What are your assumptions?

Even when we are trying to be rational – especially when we are trying to be rational – we have underlying assumptions that may be wrong. Let me explain.

When you build an argument or case for something you take some facts and you put them together in a logical order. If X then Y. If Y then Z. etc. This is a simplified version, but I assume you get what I mean.

The problem is we often based whole arguments on a false assumptions. Or we just react based on an argument backwards without examining the false connections.

Let me try a simple example.

Say you meet someone who is very hard to understand because they often pronounce words wrong and have bad grammar. A fast assessment might be that they aren’t very smart.

I’m mean it’s obvious right? They can’t even make a good sentence. If they can’t do that, then there is something wrong with their brain, or they are uneducated.

These are false assumptions. Another possibility is they don’t speak your language. Or you might be correct that they are uneducated, but a lack of schooling does not mean someone ain’t smart.

I’m not sure that is the best example, but understand you need to question your assumptions if you want to know how you know something.

This is also why it is good to read other people’s opinions on things. They lack you assumptions, or have different ones. This can make it clear where you are assuming.

But when it comes down to a fact you and someone else disagree on, you need to be asking about evidence.

What is the evidence?

Oh that all our questions could be answered with verifiable, quantifiable facts. But alas many of them can’t. It is hard to quantify something. “Are you a good writer?”

If your teacher reads something and likes or dislikes it, does that prove something? If millions of people read it and liked it, does that make it good? Now we are back into the realm of defining good. I have a series of words that might be helpful.

But occasionally something is truly confirmable by the evidence. For instance you can find evidence if the pie shop is open on Monday by looking at their website.

For more complex issues, even if there is evidence doesn’t mean it if good evidence. The most dangerous words in modern society are, “I read a study.”

It says the conclusion has been blessed by the priest of science and should never be questioned. But anyone who has read scientific studies knows there is a lot of examination that needs to be done of the evidence. And the conclusions reached from it.

Question of the Day: How Do You Know?

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