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Chances are you have a friend or relative who is constantly posting dubious “facts” on social media: that you can charge your electronic devices by plugging them into an onion, that entering your PIN in reverse at an ATM summons the police, or that this year Halloween falls on a Friday the 13th for the first time in 666 years. (Think about that one for a moment.)
We can laugh all day at our paranoid friends and computer-illiterate aunts for falling for Facebook hoaxes, but the basic offense here — passing along information without any attempt to verify it — is something most of us probably do all the time.
Bad information isn’t always obvious, and it probably wouldn’t occur to you to investigate a claim unless it sounded untrue to you from the beginning. There’s pretty good evidence that we’re much more gullible than we think: we tend to believe what we hear, unless it initially strikes us as unlikely.
After a belief passes the front door, it usually doesn’t get much scrutiny. It becomes part of your “body of knowledge,” which is just another name for your impression of the way the world is, and it remains there until some new belief utterly clashes with it and you’re forced to reconsider. We easily forget our reasons (if we ever had any) for believing what we believe, and we’re seldom asked for them.
Don’t take my word for it, but you can be almost certain that a lot of the things you “know” aren’t really true. I would bet money that some of the facts of life you currently feel certain about can be found on this list of common misconceptions. It may surprise you to hear for example, that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity in children, and that fortune cookies are actually Danish in origin, not Chinese or Japanese or American.
We do learn quite a bit about the world from direct experience. But clearly, most of our learning amounts to believing the beliefs of other people, whether they’re expressed in a Facebook post or in a textbook. You hear or read something, and if it seems true you’ll probably believe it. In all likelihood you’ll never try to verify that belief unless someone else challenges it, and it may never occur to you that it might be wrong. Once a belief has established itself, we freely tell others what we know, or think we know, and the process repeats. Read More