Whom to Believe?

Posted on September 30, 2014 by Robert Ringer


It’s amazing how often we automatically assume that someone’s words represent set-in-stone fact. Nothing amazes me more than when someone says, “I know that for a fact,” then, when pressed for his source of information, says that Freddie Fibber told him so.

Of course, just because someone tells you something that turns out to be false, it does not necessarily mean that he intentionally lied. For any one of a number of reasons, he might just be wrong.

For example, he might simply be repeating a falsehood that someone else told him, and that source may have gotten his wrong information from yet another source … and so on. Thus, if the original source is wrong, everyone who passes along the incorrect information is wrong as well. From whence comes the maxim “Consider the source.”

So how do you know whether or not something is true? Unfortunately, you can never be 100 percent certain of anything. But you can stack the odds in your favor by looking to experience first, reason second, and authoritative source third.

In theory, one’s firsthand experience is the perfect source of information. But even when someone tells you something that is based on his own firsthand experience, that doesn’t make it a fact. As everyone who has had any experience with the legal system knows, eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

How could a person be wrong about something he witnessed firsthand? Perhaps the most important reason is that even though he may have personally witnessed an event, he also could have misinterpreted it. If two individuals with completely different belief systems see the exact same thing, there’s an excellent chance that they are likely to process it quite differently.

What makes for endless misunderstandings is that we all view the world through lenses clouded by our individual biases and prejudices. (Think Ferguson, Missouri or the O.J. Simpson trial.) And when someone else’s biases and prejudices are different from ours, we tend to think that the other person is dishonest — or at least ignorant. This goes on in politics day in and day out, with a lot of hatred and name calling as by products.

A close second to firsthand experience is reasoning power. But the quality of one’s reasoning power is dependent upon the quality of one’s thought processes. Faulty thoughts = faulty reasoning power. Faulty reasoning power = faulty interpretations.

Finally, there is the least reliable repository of information — authoritative source. Does anyone in their right mind believe anything that the media or politicians say? Or big business? Or educators? Heck, you can’t even believe what the NFL front office says. Most of what passes for news is either purposely distorted or blatantly contrived, not to mention the endless lies through omission.

Tradition is the worst kind of authoritative source, which is scary, given that most of what we accept as truth is based on tradition. Adhering to tradition makes us feel secure and comfortable because it keeps us within the mainstream. But common sense dictates that just because something has been accepted as fact for centuries does not, of and by itself, assure its accuracy.

Socrates was the world champion when it came to challenging tradition. He was philosophically, morally, and politically at odds with his fellow citizens, and his views did not play well in Athens. If he were running for office today, his handlers would be whispering to him, “Shhh … Soc, cool it or they’ll be bringing out the bucket of hemlock before you know it.”

And that’s precisely what they did. The official charge was “corrupting youth by questioning tradition.” And what I love about Socrates is that he remained defiant to the bitter end.

I wonder what Socrates would think of modern-day America, a land where people are information challenged to the point of being functionally illiterate. And because most people have so little knowledge, they are, in the words of Montaigne, “most apt to believe what they least understand.”

We are not a nation of cowards. We are a nation of supreme dummkopfs. And if there’s one thing a dummkopf sorely needs, it’s humility, because humility serves as a constant reminder to us just how important it is to keep an open mind at all times.

Buddha’s advice serves as a good reminder of this: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

I must have come from another planet than most humanoids, because, with a handful of exceptions, I don’t assume that anything anyone tells me is a fact. On the contrary, I normally assume that most of what I hear is untrue unless it comes from a source I have learned, through firsthand experience, to trust.

‘Twas not always so. When I was a young, inexperienced tortoise, I was far more inclined to believe people who told me whoppers. In my twenties, I probably would have bought a used car from Bill Clinton. I can just hear him saying to me, “I can guarantee you that I did not have sexual relations with that car.” And, just like that, I probably would have driven off the lot with a pregnant Chevy.

Some people may find this philosophy to be a harsh view of the world, and maybe so. All I can tell you is that I sleep so much better at night when I am highly discriminate about whose words I accept as fact. Everything in life has a price, and gullibility is no exception. I have nothing personal against Freddie Fibber, but until I see proof to the contrary, I’m going to ignore his claim that he invented cellular telephone technology.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.