How can we tell if an idea is a good one, or if a claim is true or false? When should we take a theory seriously or discard it? In an information age it is not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. One can find conformation on-line for just about any idea. When we are growing up, we tend to believe just about anything. For the most part, we accept what adults and authorities are telling us. We are also less likely to question what we read, what’s on television or the internet. However, at some point we have to grow up, and part of growing up is evaluating the validity of ideas.
How Can We Know What’s True?
Unfortunately there is no fail safe method that will always give us the right answer. That being said, there are modes of thinking that are more likely to get at the truth, or something close to it. A scientist would almost certainly evoke the scientific method as the best course of action. The empirical approach has proven effective at getting to the bottom of things. However, for the general public the scientific method is not always applicable. In everyday experience we are often faced with making assessments on the fly, or even if we have plenty of time to contemplate an idea, we are still left to our own devices. We don’t necessarily have access to the tools of science. It needs to be said nonetheless, that in some cases we can use established scientific knowledge as part of the evaluating process.
Idea Evaluation Checklist
Life situations often demands that we buy in or reject certain ideas or claims. In everyday experience we need a way of moving forward, even though in most cases we can’t apply the scientific method. For what it’s worth, I present to you my idea evaluation check list. This list can be applied to a variety of ideas, claims or theories. It consists of 10 questions one might consider:
- Where does the preponderance of the evidence point to? This is a pros and cons way of looking at a situation. In other words, the evidence for vs. the evidence against.
- Is there a plausible explanation for how a proposed idea works? Here I am not suggesting that we need prof, but a sound explanation that makes sense on the surface. Such an explanation gives us some degree of confidence in an idea.
- Can this in principle be a shared experience? Can the idea proposed be tested or experienced by others?
- How reliable is the source? It is impossible for an individual to test or challenge everything. By necessity we must accept information from outside sources. Therefore, reliability of the source becomes important.
- Do I want this to be true? If you want something to be true; a red flag should immediately be raised. In these cases one must be extra vigilant, not to let wishful thinking get in the way of sound judgement.
- Is the strength of the idea threatened by new information? If an idea can’t absorb new information, then it is substantially weaken. The knowledge base is constantly evolving. For that reason, some ideas need to be re-evaluated or even discarded as we learn more about the world.
- Can the idea be defended if challenged? Plain and simple, if you can’t defend your idea, why hold on to it?
- Is this how the world normally works? Does the idea comply with your understanding of the world? Or does your thinking need to be compartmentalized in order to make room for the idea?
- Are you confusing coincidence with causation? Just because two events happen in sequence, it does not automatically mean that one caused the other. A clear link between cause and effect needs to be established (beyond just A happened before B). Many false claims gain momentum because of this confusion.
- Does it ring true? On its own this is not enough, but if you need to tip the scale one way or the other, resort to what your gut is telling you.
So there you have it, my check list. Of course it is arbitrary; one could alter it and still come up with something as good or better. Nonetheless, I think that an exercise such as this one encourages critical thinking. Our world view is largely arrived at by what kind of ideas we accept or reject. What follows is: what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we live our lives.
References: Michael Shermer: Baloney Detection Kit, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, Published on June 5, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNSHZG9blQQ