How to Filter Nonsense from Your Newsfeed—and Your Life

Your brain stops at the most comforting thought. The truth is somewhere beyond that. Using scientific skepticism as a guide, astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss outlines the questions that critical thinkers ask themselves.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: One of my favorite quotes, which I've used in my writing, comes from the former publisher of The New York Times who said, "I'd like to keep an open mind, but not so open that my brains fall out." And that's the key point. We have to skeptically assess the information we receive, we can't be gullible because when we get a lot of information it's absolutely certain that some of that information is wrong and so we have to always filter what we get and we have to ask ourselves the following question: how open does my brain have to be to accept that information? Does it have to fall out? And by that I mean, when someone tells you something you have to ask: is this consistent with my experience? Is it consistent with the experience of other people around me? And if it isn't then probably there's a good reason to be skeptical about it—it's probably wrong. If it makes predictions that also appear to be in disagreement with things that you observe around you, you should question it. And so we should never take anything on faith. That's really the mantra of science, if you want, that faith is the enemy of science. We often talk about a loss of faith in the world today; you don't lose anything by losing faith. What you gain is reality.
And so skepticism plays a key role in science simply because we also are hardwired to want to believe, we're hardwired to want to find reasons for things.  In the savanna in Africa, the trees could be rustling and you could choose to say, 'Well there's no reason for that,' or, 'Maybe it's due to a lion.' And those individuals who thought there might be no reason never lived long enough to survive to procreate, and so it's not too surprising we want to find explanations for everything and we create them if we need to, to satisfy ourselves, because we need to make sense of the world around us. And what we have to understand is, what makes sense to the universe is not the same as what makes sense to us and we can't impose our beliefs on the universe. And the way we get around that inherent bias is by constantly questioning both ourselves and all the information we receive from others. That's what we do in science and it works beautifully in the real world as well.
When you're presented with questions or answers about any problem there are a few questions you can ask yourself, that you should ask yourself right away. First of all, you can ask yourself, 'Do I like this answer?' And if you do you should be suspicious because you're much more likely to accept something that appeals to you whether it's right or not. So if you inherently like something in some sense that's a reason to be almost more suspicious of it, if you're a scientist. But then you can ask the question, when you're presented with information, is that information consistent with what I know already based on data I've taken about the world around me? And by data, it's not just scientists. If you're a child—all children do this—you put your hand in a flame, okay, the second time you know not to because you have the data that it hurt the first time. And if someone that tells you, 'That flame isn't going to hurt,' you have the data to assess that that's probably wrong. So you want to ask yourself: is that information consistent with what I know to be true already?
And the other thing to do, especially if you get information from a source you don't know, is to look at many different sources and compare them and see if they all agree. If they all agree it doesn't guarantee it's right but if there's vast disagreement between the different sources then it's highly likely that you can't at least rely on that information to be true. It's the same way science works: science doesn't prove what's absolutely true, what it does is prove what's absolutely false. What doesn't satisfy the test or experiment we throw out. What remains may not be true but we shrink it down, as Sherlock Holmes would say, and what remains after all of that is done is likely to be true. So many sources, question what you see and whether it's consistent with what you already know, and be suspicious of your own likes and dislikes when you accept information. That's probably the reason we shouldn't, when we turn it to the Internet, go to echo chambers and just read the sources that we like.
Now having said that, if you look at many sources you could also quickly decide which ones are not reliable and throw them out. If they're not reliable in one case then you should be highly suspicious of them in the future. So we all turn to different sources that we think are more or less reliable based on our past experience. Try that and I think it's one great way to filter out a lot of the nonsense on the Internet.When I talk about being skeptical it is important to recognize that you could be surprised and something that you don't think is sensible can end up being a sensible. That's the way we learn things in physics. So when someone presents you with an idea that may seem strange it's reasonable to be skeptical of it, but it's worth pursuing long enough to see if it might make sense and to listen to arguments that might be convincing that might cause you to change your mind. In fact there's a great school of pedagogy that says: the only way we actually learn anything is by confronting our own misconceptions. So once again, while it's reasonable to be skeptical of external information, if you're always skeptical of your response to information and what your misconceptions are and what your prejudices are, then you will both guide yourself not to accept nonsense but also you will be willing to realize that sometimes what you think is skepticism is really myopia.

Strange answers aren’t inherently wrong, and satisfying answers aren’t inherently right, says Lawrence Krauss in this critical thinking crash course. The astrophysicist explains how principles of scientific skepticism can be applied beyond the laboratory; it can be a filter for the nonsense and misinformation we encounter each and every day. Here, he establishes a handful of core questions that critical thinkers ask themselves, which can be used to challenge your misconceptions and sense of comfort, question inconsistency, and think past your brain's evolved biases. Piece by piece, you can systematically remove nonsense from your life. Lawrence Krauss' most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?


America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.