Prioritizing origin over truth is a recipe for ignorance
We're at a weird point in history, where people immediately write off ideas simply because a person (or group) they don't like said them. It's silly and childish...
Over the last few years a concerning trend has become persistent: the tendency to elevate the origin of a statement over its truthfulness. This bias, where pedigree is held over logic, fosters an anti-intellectual, illiberal and ultimately unscientific approach to knowledge, as others have pointed out. By privileging the source over substance and dismissing ideas because they’re from ‘those we don’t like’ we risk constructing echo chambers of confirmation bias, stifling collective and individual intellectual progress, and poisoning the well of discourse. It’s also one the reasons smart people believe stupid things.
This misplaced reverence for origin comes to us in various forms, you see them on display all the time. Political partisans cherry-pick facts that conform to their ideology, dismissing inconvenient truths from sources they don’t like. Religious dogmatists cling to archaic pronouncements, shunning inquiry that challenges their established narratives. Intellectual gatekeepers entrenched in their disciplines and closed off to outsiders dismiss ideas from those external of their tribe at best, and more frequently (at worst) simply troll the other side or engage in ad-hominem attacks. Media use it to fuel a ‘subprime attention bubble’ I’ve spoken about previously.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell previously captured the danger of this, lamenting that "the whole realm of the unmentionable... is governed by the fear of some unknown authority whose disapproval is to be dreaded." This fear, whether rooted in political allegiance, religious piety, or academic orthodoxy, stifles open inquiry and impedes the pursuit of truth.
Even more frightening, prioritizing origin over truth runs counter to the spirit of scientific inquiry. We saw this on display over the COVID pandemic when we were continually told it wasn’t a lab leak, and turned out it likely was. The scientific method hinges on the rigorous evaluation of evidence, regardless of provenance. A groundbreaking discovery by a young, unknown researcher should be no less valid than one made by a Nobel laureate. The only arbiter of truth in science is the weight of evidence and the rigorous scrutiny of peer review.
The consequences of privileging origin over truth are far-reaching. It breeds intellectual stagnation, impeding progress in fields from medicine to politics. It fosters tribalism and division, creating an environment where facts are weaponized to demonize opponents rather than illuminate shared realities. It undermines critical thinking, replacing reasoned discourse with blind adherence to authority figures or ideological narratives. As Carl Sagan (I wish he were still here) argued, "if someone claims a truth, it is not incumbent upon us to leave that truth unchallenged... it is our duty to fight for truth."
So, how do we combat this ill of modernity? The antidote lies in cultivating a healthy skepticism, a willingness to fearlessly question all claims, regardless of source. We must embrace intellectual humility, recognizing that even the most learned among us hold fallible beliefs. We must prioritize open inquiry and critical thinking, judging ideas on their merits rather than the prestige of their originators.
The pedigree of an idea is really just a flimsy cloak and part of the credentialism-industrial complex (appeal to authority). It is the truth, stripped bare and examined in the harsh light of critical scrutiny, that holds the key to unlocking a brighter future. “We can ignore reality but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality,” as Rand (love or hate her) gets right. So truth, not origin, must be the ultimate currency. And, on a long enough timeline, it’s how you connect and build trust.
Bonus: this talk from Jon Haidt is related and important. Highly suggest watching if you haven’t.
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