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Sources of Inaccurate Knowledge

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Much of the time, people's culturally informed understandings of their problems are reasonably based on their experience, and can lead to actions that stand a reasonable chance of helping to work out the problem. Unfortunately, there are also numerous occasions when people end up with wrong or inaccurate understandings, which lead them to make wrong decisions about how to solve their problems.

People get their ideas about what is true and what is false from many sources, including parents, teachers, friends, religious leaders, political figures and the media (which includes television, radio, internet, books and magazines). While it is tempting to think that all of these sources are trustworthy, it is important to keep in mind that not all of them are. It's not that anyone in particular is trying to mislead you. More often, it is simply the case that some people don't know what they are talking about, and don't have the insight to know that they don't know. Such people will speak and teach as though they know something, when really they don't. An important part of your effective self-help planning, then, is to figure out which information you've learned is trustworthy and can be used as a good basis for planning, and which needs to be regarded suspiciously or thrown out entirely.

For example, friends and family who love you dearly and have no intention of harming you often have no problem offering you their strong opinions about what is true and what isn't true. "The best way to quit smoking is to go cold-turkey", they might say, or "It's Christmas. Why aren't you happy? Smile!". These sorts of suggestions (in this example, that cold-turkey approaches are the best way to quit smoking, that there is something wrong with you if you aren't smiling during Christmas) may be completely wrong and completely out of line but that doesn't stop your family members and friends from promoting them to you. Because you cannot tell what to take seriously and what to shrug off just on the face of it, it is best to cultivate a generally skeptical point of view towards the many claims you hear. Assume that all claims may be inaccurate until you are presented with some evidence that suggests otherwise. Real truths should have a basis in something more solid than simple opinion, no matter how strongly felt a given claim or opinion may be. If it were to be otherwise, there could be no such thing as real objective truth, because everyone has a slightly different opinion, each of which would be in conflict with the others.

Similarly, newscasters and announcers on television work hard to report the news accurately, but most of the time they are reporting second-hand stories and they sometimes get their facts wrong. Reporters are also sometimes biased to present a news story so that someone they like looks good and someone they don't like looks bad. They don't usually acknowledge bias when they do this, but it may be there nevertheless. In general, people involved in the media, with politics, or with social institutions who share ideas do so because they are interested in influencing people to see things their particular way. They speak to persuade, and they are not always terribly concerned with accuracy or with presenting a truthful perspective. It is necessary to take what such people say with a "grain of salt" (e.g., with some doubt).

There is another group to be aware of who also wants to persuade you - some self-help teachers are willing to sell you solutions to problems you face. Products hawked by such teachers may include workshops, workbooks and publications, tapes, videos and podcasts. Some of these teachers may have good and useful products to offer, but some of them don't. The solutions they have to offer may not be based on truly helpful principles, or may be poorly constructed so that they are difficult to use, or may be over-hyped so that it seems that they will produce tremendous results when only modest results might actually be realized. Self-help teachers should be treated with some suspicion if only because they have a clear profit motive and stand to benefit from your purchase of their tools and services even if you don't. As a buyer of self-help services, you need to remain aware and use good judgment When something sounds too good to be true, it generally is. When something is lauded as a miracle breakthrough, it probably isn't, even if a celebrity spokesperson says it works.