Distrust and Verify

Distrust and Verify

Some things are too important to take on faith. To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan’s famous translation of the Russian proverb, “Distrust and Verify”.

Reagan quoted the poetic “Trust but Verify” during nuclear disarmament negotiations with the former Soviet Union. The words themselves seem oxymoronic, but they speak to the natural wariness we all should have whenever anyone quotes something as a fact.

The best bosses I ever worked for had faith in my leadership abilities and trusted my judgement. But they, like I, had a fiduciary duty to verify that the information on which I was basing my decisions was accurate and that my thought processes were sound. I knew that they would do it. So I had to be prepared to defend it with evidence that could be checked.

We are living in a time where it’s all too easy to cheer any statement that affirms our strongly held beliefs.

Two studies undertaken by Stanford University in the 1970s tricked student subjects into believing a set of facts were true and then revealed that they were false.

Even after the evidence ‘for their beliefs had been totally refuted, people failed to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.’

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book, The Enigma of Reason, coined the term, “myside bias.” We’re very good at spotting weaknesses in somebody else’s argument. But we are equally blind to weaknesses in our own.

Ours is a deeply and nearly equally divided nation. It is the nature of politics that the people who seek to lead us will try to instill fear in our hearts and minds.

Fear is a weapon designed to keep us tightly connected to our paradigms, no matter how wrong they may be.

Now, it is more important than ever to keep that fear inside of a box, to distrust everything we see, hear and read… and to take the time to verify its accuracy.

It won’t be easy. We love our comfort zones, even if new realities make them dangerous, perhaps deadly. And we are quick to accept provocative sound bytes that over-simplify complex issues.

How can we make sure we’re getting the facts?

Seek out second opinions. When you see unusual sources referenced, dig more deeply to understand who is behind them. I have Snopes.com as the first bookmark on my toolbar. I plug almost everything and anything into its search engine to see what their research says. It takes a bit more time, and you may have to go deeper into the Google results to get answers, but you will begin to develop a sixth sense for statements that require more evidence before they are accepted as facts.

Should you correct misinformation your friends post on social media?

In most cases that’s a zero-sum game. I’ll sometimes share a Snopes link if I see something I know to be false. But as noted earlier, I probably won’t be changing any minds. If it bothers me deeply enough, I’ll talk directly with the person to try to understand why they think as they do. But it’s rarely worth the argument. The more we try to change minds, the more deeply entrenched points of view tend to become.

When we peel back today’s most pressing problems, most of us want the same outcomes. Preserving life, liberty and our right to pursue happiness is still at the core of the American Dream. It’s how we get there that causes the friction.

Often, the intensity of our belief that we have the answer is proportional to our need to “distrust and verify”.

Like the male stereotype who is reluctant to ask for directions on the road, if we don’t understand how to get where we want to be, we are likely to end up in the wrong place.