The Truth is Everywhere... if You Want to See it

Sherlock Holmes’s star has been steadily rising over the past few years and doesn’t look like waning anytime soon. There are many reasons for this but I believe one important reason is because the author of the great detectives stories, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle - was an incredibly insightful man who endowed Sherlock with lessons for life which are as relevant today as they were over one hundred years ago. Two such rules in question, which both happened to appear in the same story A Scandal in Bohemia are two lessons which are hugely valuable for today’s society providing us with vital life skills which unfortunately are not taught often. The two quotes are “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” And “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Let’s us begin with the first aforementioned quote:

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

And let me tell you a story. A few years ago I was telling a group of colleagues about a psychological condition called Change Blindness. Change Blindness is something we are prone to because we often spent our days looking but not really concentrating on what we see. We certainly take the information in visually and audibly but we often don’t consciously process it and really obvious changes will go un-noticed. My colleagues doubted this and exclaimed that anything that obvious would stand like a sore thumb and just couldn’t be missed. So I, being the sort of person who likes to prove a point, travelled the short distance to my home in the lunch hour and made a few personal changes. I changed my purple shirt and black sweater (I know… fashion icon! It was clean so don’t judge me!) for a plain white shirt. I then removed my dark framed glasses for contact lenses. Finally, to put the icing on the cake, I shaved off the thick beard I was sporting and returned to work a new man. Guess what… No one noticed. I had to actually point out to everyone at the end of the day what I had done and even then they doubted what I looked like that morning.

So you can see we often miss the small things around us. The clues, the hints, the snippets of information that can help us and sometimes save our lives. Many of you will have read about Situational Awareness and, if not, I urge you to do so because the distractions we continuously fill our lives with - E-readers, digital music, smart phones… Pokémon Go, to name a few - Are often causing us to overlook the dangers of the world and miss the beauty that surrounds us daily.

The second quote, and the one which I want to concentrate on here, being:

It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

Is equally relevant to today’s society. You often see it in all forms of media every time there is a murder, terrorist incident or some other tragedy. We point the finger and accuse before we know the full story. We judge before we have listened to all sides of the argument. We ignore what we don't like and embrace what makes us feel empowered, stronger, richer. We are all prone it to and it is what conmen have relied on us doing since year dot. 

Here’s the baffling thing though in today’s world. We live in an information age. We have never been so rich in the availability of data and information which we can access in a few easy keystrokes. Everything is now at the touch of your fingertips or even at a spoken command to be read, reviewed, discussed, assessed, taken apart piece-by-piece and analysed to give you a reasoned and well-balanced argument. We can do that and each of us has the power to do that... if we want.  

What is strange then, is with all this power and knowledge at our fingertips we are still uninformed and easily led. We have the world within our grasp but we shun it regularly.  Existing prejudices and beliefs cause us to reject the information in front of us. This is known as cognitive dissonance and is evident all across the world. I’ll give you an example which is often found across America's Bible Belt. There is a common denial of evolution and of the existence of dinosaurs, even though museums across the globe are full of fossils and bones to the contrary, simply because It doesn't correlate with what that particular group want to believe. It’s uncomfortable to alter your view of the world because the consequences may mean changing your entire outlook. Toppling one domino of belief might lead to a total collapse of all beliefs and when your beliefs are what get you through your day it’s somewhat understandable why people would shun the evidence in favour of the faith. However, if we all reacted by shunning the new, exciting and unknown for the safe and assumed we would still be living in caves. 

Another example of ignoring the evidence around us is in the belief in the paranormal. I say this as an ex-believer in paranormal phenomena. I now prefer to think of myself as an open-minded sceptic. My open mindedness is fixed and unwavering because as a scientifically minded person I don’t think you should ever shun anything without concrete proof. It’s the polar opposite of blind faith. However, my scepticism is ever growing due to the weight of rational science over faith based belief. However, plenty of people still believe in the supernatural even though there is no hard evidence to support its existence but plenty of contrary evidence to rationally explain many of the experiences. Psychic mediums will often use ‘confirmation bias’ - the selective thinking that looks for information that supports one's pre-existing beliefs, to their benefit. Known as the Forer Effect, stating that if you make a statement flattering and generic enough you are more likely to believe it, it’s usage in fake mediumship is well known. In these cases, the belief is favoured over the evidence because it is warmer, safer and more comforting.

Derren Brown shows off the Forer effect (Also known as the Barnum effect)

Now you may say they are extreme cases; Relatively rare and unusual. But is it? Look at the willing faith placed in the media everyday, both commercial and social. People will base their daily choices and opinions, not on hard, cold facts but on feelings, attitudes, opinions, unsupported claims and more frighteningly, political objectives. How many times have you seen the Facebook stories shared, invariably trailing hundreds of angry comments, that are based on half-truths and pure fictions?  There's no doubting that newspapers report news differently depending on their bias. They use our trust, faith and prejudices to create an opinion in the minds of their readers and we allow them rather than form them themselves. Here’s an example. How many people read 'The Sun' newspaper's (and being a Liverpool fan it pains me to call them by name) report of "The Truth" after the Hillsborough disaster and believed it because ‘The Sun’ told them so? How many investigated it further? Did they read other news reports? Did they watch back footage of the day and make a critical assessment? Did they listen to the cries of the families involved at the time who said otherwise? No, they took the headline at face value because they had placed their trust in the media to deliver the facts to them.

Some people may doubt that this occurs but If the media didn't report with bias then every headline on every newspaper on a given day would be the exactly the same. We all know they are not. The fact that stories are told with different biases and opinions shows that this is what they do. There is often an agenda behind the story. It panders to what people believe in, what they want to believe in, and more worryingly what the givers of the information want you to believe... but it doesn't make it fact.  

And this is the important part. The belief in something doesn't make it true. An opinion is an opinion. While I and many people would respect your right to hold an opinion, and everyone is free to do so, it doesn't mean we then have to respect the opinion unless you can support that opinion with a well formed and supported argument. 

So I would encourage this at all times. Whether you want or don't want to believe something you hear, irrespective of whether it's positive or negative towards your own views, Just question it. Question everything. Ask yourselves - Where has this information come from? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? What do they benefit from it? Can they provide evidence of it? It is the basis of all good science and should be the basis of how we approach everything. It is what is known as ‘Critical Thinking’. It is the powerful ability to put your prejudices and assumptions aside and to reach objective and reasoned conclusions based on all the evidence even if the outcome is not always to your liking. It might not always be comfortable but at least it will be honest. Let me quote a Rudyard Kipling poem for you. Someone else who had such an enlightened view. 

I Keep Six Honest Serving Men

I KEEP six honest serving-men 
(They taught me all I knew); 
Their names are What and Why and When  
And How and Where and Who
I send them over land and sea, 
I send them east and west; 
But after they have worked for me, 
I give them all a rest. 
 
I let them rest from nine till five, 
For I am busy then, 
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea, 
For they are hungry men. 
But different folk have different views;  
I know a person small— 
She keeps ten million serving-men, 
Who get no rest at all! 
 
She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs, 
From the second she opens her eyes— 
One million How’s, two million Where’s
And seven million Whys

What, where, when, how, who, and why. The six most important questions every critical thinker should have in their arsenal. Once you have them you then need to come to term with the fact that you don’t know everything and you will have to gather your evidence from elsewhere. At that point you will need to deploy those six questions. 

What are they saying? What evidence or information are they providing? Can they back it up with data or is it opinion? 

Where are they saying it? Where is this information coming from? Is it from a reliable source? 

When did they say it? Is it recent, up-to-date information? 

How are they saying it? Is it being delivered with conviction? Is it being quoted in full or taken out of context? 

Who is saying it? Are they a reliable person? Are they an expert in their field? 

Why are they saying it? Most importantly, do they have an agenda or something to gain from influencing your belief? 

With these questions and the vast wealth of information at our disposal there should never be an excuse for ignorance. If you're unknowing... find out. If you're unsure… Question it. If you are undecided… Look at all the evidence and reach a measured decision. If you follow those simple rules, you won’t go far wrong. 

So, next time you read a headline, hear an opinion, view an opinion poll or a Facebook post or just pick up something in the supermarket claiming to be the "nation's favourite" just take a step back and ask the right questions