recent centuries humanity has made great strides in overcoming
the obstacles of nature. We can house and feed and clothe ourselves
better than ever. We can communicate almost instantly and travel
halfway around the world in a day. We have made progress against
many diseases and maladies that do much to increase our lifespan
and comfort. Nevertheless, we still have war, oppression, hatred,
bigotry, crime, overpopulation, poverty, and unnecessary destruction
of the environment. These are not problems that can be solved
by technology alone, since they require improving human behavior.
Many of us have felt the frustration that humanity, despite all
its enormous advances, cannot do better at solving social problems.
We are held back by our inability to cooperate. Far too much of
our effort and resources are wasted in conflict, and the conflict
hurts even those who are not part of the fight.
other approaches fail
people see a problem in the world, they often propose a solution,
but usually it is a solution that involves somebody else behaving
differently. "If only the government would stop catering
to special interests, things would be a lot better," we might
hear, or "The newspapers have a responsibility to the public
- they should report more substantial issues and not so much sensationalism,"
or "Businesses shouldn't be so greedy." So, we should
ask, why don't they change? The reasons are not hard to figure
out: Elected officials cater to special interests because that
helps them get reelected. Newspapers use sensationalism because
it sells papers. Businesses are greedy because that's why they
exist - as a way to make money for their owners.
things happen because people work in their own self-interest.
But the problems wouldn't go away even if we could persuade some
of the people in control to work more for the common good. Some
good politicians may ignore the special interests and not worry
about their campaign donations. But after the next election, many
of them are likely to have been voted out of office as a result.
A newspaper may decide to always take the high road. A couple
of years later, we may find it out of business because of poor
circulation. Businesses that aren't greedy may go bankrupt because
they can't keep up with their competitors.
we want the world to improve, we can't wait for other people to
sacrifice their own interests to do it. We cannot count on the
rich and powerful to "do the right thing". That's not
how they got rich and powerful.
key to change is to look at where these leaders get their power.
For the most part they are very dependent on the rest of us in
order to do what they do. The politicians need our votes. The
media need us as an audience, and they need us to purchase the
products of their advertisers. Businesses need us to buy their
products and services. Despite this, the powerful often act in
ways that are detrimental to the overall good. How can they do
this? Because we are misled by their advertising and their propaganda
and their sensationalism. We, the consumers and voters, elect
people who aren't really working for us, buy products and use
media that are not in our best interests, and support other leaders
with questionable agendas because they get us to believe things
that aren't true.
Solution: Responsible Thinking
is a factor that is crucial to turning humanity around. It is
caring about truth. To the extent that the people of the world
have a greater respect for, love for, and understanding of truth,
we can make progress toward solving the world's problems. If we
love truth, we will constantly strive to avoid beliefs that are
false. We will learn why people believe things that are false
so we can avoid making these mistakes ourselves. We will point
out these principles to our friends and neighbors and coworkers
and offspring, and teach these principles in our schools. As people
get better at avoiding false beliefs, conflicts between well-meaning
people will be reduced and leaders will have to work for the public
good if they wish to stay in power.
must educate ourselves and others on how to avoid believing things
that aren't true. The politicians can raise all the money they
want for advertising, but if we are properly educated we will
ignore their ads and phony images, realizing that they are irrelevant.
The media can sensationalize or otherwise distort the news but
they will lose our business if we learn to use only those sources
that are most accurate and impartial. Businesses can try to sell
us things we don't need, but we won't buy them if we recognize
their marketing ploys. Cult leaders, phony psychics, and con artists
will be unable to enrich themselves at our expense. Eventually
the successful businesses and media and politicians and spiritual
leaders will be the ones that are serving the people's needs -
not because they have become self-sacrificing and public spirited,
but because they will fail if they don't.
virtue of an effort to reduce false beliefs is that it does not
require anybody to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the
rest of us. People who improve their ability to recognize falsehoods
should find themselves better off than they were before. We are
only asking people to do what is in their own best interest. The
only people who would oppose such an effort are those who profit
by deception. Such people will no doubt exert their influence,
but they are in the sorry position of trying to support the idea
that people should believe false things.
there are many sources of power in our society, the only one that
can be expected to consistently act in the public interest is
the public itself. If we, the people, do not understand what is
in our own best interests because we delude ourselves or are deluded
by others, there is little hope that our problems will be solved.
We must engage in a serious effort to promote responsible thinking
in ourselves and others if we really want the world to be a better
Korn has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from
Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the
University of Wisconsin, where he specialized in Artificial
Intelligence. He recently retired after working 25 years as
a software engineer doing systems programming and computer aided
design. This work kept him financially afloat while in his spare
time he would think about truth, how the brain works, and solving
the world's problems. He is married to a middle school math
teacher, and has one son who has recently completed his Ph.D.
in mathematics at M.I.T.
original version of this essay appears in Dr. Korn's Website
Thinking. The material there is a hypertext book (in progress)
that addresses the question: "What can be done to improve
society's concern about truth and responsible thinking?"