When Did We First Learn To Stop Fooling Ourselves?


Monday. 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I was wise enough to never grow up while fooling most people into believing I had. – Margaret Mead

One of the key issues we face in today’s world is deciding what to believe. What constitutes knowledge and how do you get any of it?

It’s safe to assume that most people don’t know anything about almost everything. If you look around you almost nothing makes sense – how is it possible to make and provide you with all the stuff that you own without using magic. And if you take away the human-made materials what’s left is no less amazing. It’s hardly surprising that people decided early on that the whole thing needed some kind of supernatural explanation.

It was only in the seventeenth century that Francis Bacon set out the principles of what would later become the scientific method. The world we live in today is a result of the application of this method. We also live in a world where the way people think is still dominated by the way people thought a millennium ago. 400 years is clearly not long enough to make a dent in the old ways.

But what are the new ways and why is it so hard to make them part of daily life?

Bacon believed that knowledge comes from sensory experience and what you have to do is collect “particulars”, details of the thing you want to study. These can include observations and measurements and these days we tend to think of quantitative information as being “proper” scientific data but qualitative data such as testimony and opinion can also be collected. This insistence on collecting data was in opposition to idea of “systems” – of coming up with premature grand theories that are unsupported by the data.

The problem in those days was that many people had ideas and saw a few things and then came up with a METHOD – something that would solve all your problems for a small fee. Half a century later most ads on YouTube are based on the same principle – premature generalisations from a small or non-existent data set that’s designed to part you from your money.

To protect yourself you have always start by collecting data. I was intrigued by one of these videos a while back but rather than pressing the buy button I searched for views on the Internet on the programme. It turned out that the material was essentially a pyramid scheme but they wouldn’t keep running the ads if they weren’t making something out of the programme.

When you collect “particulars” you will end up with a mass of details and you need some way to organise them – to make sense of them with heads and topics and themes. This is part of the working of the data, trying to make sense of what you have. But you have to do this slowly and carefully, sceptically, because it’s easy to explain some points while ignoring the inconvenient ones but you have to explain all the data. The explanation has to be “inductive” built on the observations you make and the most probable explanation for what you’re seeing.

For completeness you also need to point out the limitations and weaknesses of your work. You need to make it clear to yourself and others where the holes are in your thinking.

In addition to all that you have to be prepared for the possibility that you won’t explain it, that a lifetime can go by without discovering something new or making any money.

The truth, then may be out there. It’s going to be hard work collecting all the data and trying to make sense of it. You will constantly doubt yourself and look for flaws in your reasoning. You may never find an answer and it’s possible that all your work won’t make you any financial returns. So really, why would you bother? Is it also not unsurprising that the early “scientists” were almost invariably aristocrats who had no need for money? When you don’t need the money you have the time to look for the truth.


Karthik Suresh

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