Wednesday 17 April 2019

Why do we believe things that aren't true?

How do we know what we know? We talk about "common knowledge" — beliefs held by most people — but can we prove anything?

If I'm sitting with someone in a coffee shop, I can take two packets of sugar and put them on the left side of the table. I can take another two packets and put them on the right side. I can then move to two groups of two packets into the center of the table and say, "Voilà! Two plus two equals four!"

For those philosophically inclined, we could also arrive through discussion at "Cogito, ergo sum", I think, therefore I am. That is, I can prove the point I'm making right at the table, while sharing a Triple Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato.

But other assertions may be difficult, if not impossible to conclusively demonstrate.
  • The Earth is not flat.
  • Vaccinations do not cause autism.
  • For every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.
And thus starts the argument. — What is common knowledge for one, may not be true for someone else. — But is there such a thing as a fact?

Independent scientists doing independent research independently arrive at the same results.

But I'm not a scientist. I can't prove diddly-squat. As a consequence, I must rely on other people to prove stuff. Then I have to make a decision: Who do I choose to believe?

Published on Sep 13, 2017 by TEDx Talks
YouTube: Why do we believe things that aren't true? | Philip Fernbach | TEDxMileHigh (15:50)
It seems like we're living in an epidemic of false belief. Clearly the other side just doesn’t have all the facts, right? Or are they really that stupid? In this fascinating and hilarious talk, cognitive scientist Philip Fernbach peels back the layers of what we really know and reveals some surprising truths about the human mind. Philip Fernbach is a cognitive scientist and professor in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Co-author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Philip's research focuses on why we think we know more than we actually do and the implications this has on individuals and society.

Final Word
In the era of Trump, The Right versus The Left, I see more than ever we are all debating our beliefs. We believe something is true, but do we know something is true? We rely on other people, but do those other people believe something or know something?

My Boiling Spaghetti Story
When I was growing up, Mom taught me to put a little salt in the water before boiling pasta. However, later in life, when I was out on my own, and being lazy about cooking, I dropped this step from the recipe and always boiled pasta without salt. Personally, I found no difference in taste, and nobody ever complained about my spaghetti.

I ran into somebody who was taken aback by my lack of cooking skills, adamantly demanding I use salt. I got curious: What did the experts say?

my blog: Boiling spaghetti: to salt or not to salt - Nov 11/2010
[Two students] set up a controlled experiment where they cooked pasta in 3 pots, one with no salt, one with 5g of salt and one with 10g of salt. They cooked the pasta then tested the water for salt content.

The results of their 3 tests were that there was more salt in the water after cooking the pasta than before. Their conjecture is that pasta releases salt into the water and that salt must come from the flour.

Let me repeat that as it certainly baffled me when I read their paper. There were 3 pots, one without salt, one with 5g added and one with 10g of salt added. They cooked the pasta then tested the water afterwards. In all 3 cases there was more salt in the water than before the pasta was cooked. In other words, the pasta did not absorb salt; it released salt into the water.

My mother's mother taught her to put salt in the water. My mother taught me to put salt in the water. I run into somebody else who was taught to put salt in the water. But here's an experiment showing that pasta does not absorb salt from the boiling process, but releases it into the water. We rely on other people. We rely on the knowledge of other people, and we believe them. We choose to believe them. But are they correct? Who among us is going to take the time and effort necessary to experiment and prove objectively whether or not salt should be added to the water?

Common knowledge. Is it common knowledge or is it common belief? You don't think the Earth is flat? Okay, prove it!


official web site: Philip Fernbach
Bio: I am a professor of marketing in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I am a cognitive scientist who studies how people think, and I apply insights from my research to improve public discourse and help consumers and managers make better decisions. I am co-director of the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making, an affiliate of the Institute of Cognitive Science, and the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, and an external advisory board member for McKinsey & Company. I teach data analytics to undergraduate and Masters students.

Wikipedia: Cognitive science
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes. It examines the nature, the tasks, and the functions of cognition (in a broad sense). Cognitive scientists study intelligence and behavior, with a focus on how nervous systems represent, process, and transform information. Mental faculties of concern to cognitive scientists include language, perception, memory, attention, reasoning, and emotion; to understand these faculties, cognitive scientists borrow from fields such as linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology. The typical analysis of cognitive science spans many levels of organization, from learning and decision to logic and planning; from neural circuitry to modular brain organization. The fundamental concept of cognitive science is that "thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures."

Wikipedia: B.o.B.
Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. (born November 15, 1988),[5] known professionally as B.o.B, is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer and conspiracy theorist from Decatur, Georgia.

The Flat Earth Society (
The Flat Earth Society mans the guns against oppression of thought and the Globularist lies of a new age. Standing with reason we offer a home to those wayward thinkers that march bravely on with REASON and TRUTH in recognizing the TRUE shape of the Earth - Flat.

According to my research, there was a schism in flat Earth movement. As one put it, the following is the Protestant church versus the above Catholic.

The Flat Earth Society (
The Flat Earth Society mans the guns against oppression of thought and the Globularist lies of a new age. Standing with reason we offer a home to those wayward thinkers that march bravely on with REASON and TRUTH in recognizing the TRUE shape of the Earth - Flat.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth
This complementary talk further explores our knowledge: What do we know and how do we know it.

Published on Nov 14, 2013 by TEDx Talks
YouTube: The Illusion of Understanding: Phil Fernbach at TEDxGoldenGatePark (13:03)
Professor Phil Fernbach discusses the "illusion of understanding" in this riveting TEDxGoldenGatePark talk that sheds light on how our understanding of things may not coincide with the depth of our opinions.

my blog: What are the epistemological implications of indeterminacy? - Mar 27/2013
Ever since I attended university (for the first time), I have used this grand question to mock those who pontificate about esoteric erudition. Exploring the meaning of life comes crashing back to Earth when you discover you've run out of toilet paper.


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