Sunday, December 11, 2005

Who To Trust

In life, it is often hard to know who to trust.

Sometimes the people who are the most convincing are lying through their teeth. Sometimes the truth is harder to understand than fantasy, and so we get swept up in the fantasy and leave the truth behind.

The thing is: reality is much more useful than fantasy. Really exploring lets you learn about the world. Pretend exploring is fun, as any child will tell you, but doesn't say much about the world. Real exploring is an adventure. Like any good adventure, it takes courage, humility, and perseverance. Pretending to explore the world does not require these things. It just requires an imagination.

If you want to know about far-flung places in the world, you are better off asking real explorers than pretend explorers. Pretend explorers may have more fantastical stories, so it may be more fun or compelling to listen to them. But real explorers can actually tell you about the places they've seen.

In the same way, if you want to know about something closer to home, like food safety, you are better off asking someone who has explored the subject, rather than someone who is simply imagining up their answers. You want to ask someone who has studied biology AND who has read good and up-to-date research on food safety issues. You don't want to ask the clerk at the health food store, unless they happen to be well studied on the subject (and can refer you to good sources to back up what they say).

Conjuring up imaginary answers to real world questions can be exciting, fun, frightening, confusing, frustrating, dangerous... lots of things. One thing it is not is reliable. People who make up answers to things, rather than actually investigate it, are not reliable when it comes to good information.

This is true of the exalted philosophers of history, as well as your next door neighbour. It's true of your doctor (if your doctor doesn't do his or her homework) just as it's true of your cab driver (with his far-fletched conspiracy theories). It is true of your naturopath (who believes that all the ailments of your body can be diagnosed by looking in your eyes) just as it is true of your yoga instructor (who thinks all diseases can be cured by breathing properly).

The trouble with this realization is that you can't just rely on people for their title. A good doctor and a good naturopath should be trained in how to do good research. But you can't necessarily tell whether your doctor or naturopath actually does this. For that, you have to ask questions, and get really good explanations. If they can't explain it well, then they probably don't know what they're talking about (even if they do, you need to find someone who can explain it well enough to you). If they dont' have, or can't retrieve good references (of reliable studies) that back up their claims, then they probably haven't done their homework. That doesn't mean they're bad people, but it does mean that their explanations (at least about whatever topic you are asking about) are not very reliable.

There are lots and lots and lots and lots of people who don't know what they are talking about.
Most people.

Finding good answers means avoiding those people and asking people who actually know - who are well studied in - what they are talking about.

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