George Carlin had a fun bit about unidentifiable leftovers, which I won’t spoil apart from mentioning that his wife would have him smell that which he couldn’t identify in order to determine its provenance and viability. We all get the gag, of course, and that’s because our sense of smell is wired to an old and vital part of our brain, wherein lie certain proclivities meant to keep us alive and healthy. Rotting food smells bad to us, because we’ll get sick if we eat it.

Our sense of smell isn’t limited in usefulness, of course, to simply protecting ourselves from digestive harm. Who among us has not done a sniff test, especially in our younger days, on an article of clothing? That term, “sniff test,” or alternately “smell test,” has grown into a general idiom for passing an informal, gut-level judgment on a story or bit of information we encounter. A lifetime of accumulated experience is often a good starting point for believing or being skeptical of something.

And, indeed, in the age of the Internet and near-infinite information obtainable with near-zero effort, exercising a sniff test is vital to keep from being drowned in false or contradictory assertions.

Unfortunately, humans also have a hard-wired propensity to confirmation bias, and when one’s initial encounter with an idea or datum leads to acceptance and adoption, because the idea felt good or because it got written on a “blank slate” (i.e. there was no prior knowledge on the topic), one is going to resist challenges to that idea or datum. Sometimes, we end up liking a smell that we shouldn’t.

Some wise folks of yore have offered us some tools by which we can amplify and hone our sniffing abilities. I offer four such, which I apply regularly to stuff I read on the internet.

1 – Occam’s Razor, which tells us that the simplest answer is usually the correct answer.

2 – Hanlon’s Razor, which suggests that we should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Or ignorance.

3 – Poor Richard’s Admonition, which avers that “three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

4 – The Sagan Standard, which asserts that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

If we apply these four simple rules to that which we read or hear, on the Internet or elsewhere, we’ll find the vast majority of outlandish assertions, conspiracy theories, nefarious cabals, wild “alternative” medicines and health treatments, and secret plots fall apart.

Does this mean that there are none such that are true? Hardly, but that’s why we have the fourth tool, and it’s why I won’t believe that Donald Rumsfeld is a lizard unless I personally witness him pull a mask off his face. Yes, there are conspiracies, but they overwhelmingly get unmasked. Yes, there are bad people in the world doing bad things under cover of darkness, but merely claiming such does not make it true. Nor does the existence of dozens or even hundreds of websites that supposedly offer “proof” that homeopathic medicine is anything other than quackery. Anyone, with only a modicum of effort, can gin up a website that says whatever he wants, and given that so many people like the excitement of having “secret knowledge” about conspiracies and such over the boring reality that the vast majority of them are pure bunk, there’s a money making opportunity that is satisfied by market forces.

But, apart from the excitement of being an “insider” and speaking supposed truth-to-power, believing in garbage assertions is exhausting, and the sort of thing that degrades one’s life. Trust your nose, and apply the four rules I shared here, and I promise you’ll live a calmer, saner, less stressful life. And, quite possibly, save yourself a lot of money and do your health a lot more good.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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