Another thing I’ve wanted to note for a while was pointed out by Kristin Thomas concerning the Kaycee affair. Although I may not agree with everything Kristin says, her article makes a very interesting and thought-provoking read.
Kristin points out that
becomes true through mere repetition more often than through
We are more likely to believe something because we have heard it many times, than because we have actually had proof of it or learnt it by observation (and here, can you smell a tinge of Quine’s Web of Belief?)
Now, think about it. How many things to you hold true simply because enough people have told you? Well, don’t think about it too hard, it might make you dizzy. It’s making me dizzy, in any case. If it came public tomorrow that no man ever walked on the moon, I’d only be half-surprised (yes, I’m aware that “conspirationists” have gathered plenty of evidence to prove the hoax).
There are some famous examples. Besides the one Quine cites in his book (about the area of Monaco, which turned out to be falsely stated in all the major encyclopedias and atlases), do you remember this thing about spinach containing incredible amounts of iron? Well, it all started off when somebody messed up one decimal in their calculations – and it was copied for years ever after without a double-check.
So these are examples where academics and books get it wrong. But normal people do the same thing, of course. How much of what you know about economics, politics, religion, history and the like is based on repetition? And how much is based on your direct observation? Or on proof which has been demonstrated to you?
I don’t mean to say we should stop believing what we are told. I really hope I don’t mean that. But I find it a little scary - unsettling, for the least.
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- Of Grief and Travel (2011)
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- My Journey Out of Procrastination: Five Principles (2009)