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
a story more often than through
becomes true through mere repetition
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
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.