I do podcasts on a wide range of topics – from history and investing, to geopolitics and AI. I’m usually – nay, always – talking about topics I’m not an expert in. I’m not an expert in anything, so I have had to develop a strategy to allow me to quickly get my head around the core issues of many complicated topics. And I think most people could benefit from a similar approach. Nobody can be an expert on everything and life often forces us to make decisions about complicated topics. Decisions that could have serious consequences, for us personally, for our families, and for the world (eg the COVID vaccines).

Epistemology and Heuristics

So, I use a system. It’s not complicated, but it works for me. It’s based on two things: epistemology and heuristics. Sounds fancy, but it’s not.

Epistemology, Or How I Figure Out What’s Bullshit

Epistemology is just a highbrow word for figuring out how you know what you think you know. In any area, whether it’s geopolitics, history, or science, there are ways to figure out what’s most likely to be true. Of course, the “truth” in most subjects is a moving target. As we get more information, better tools, better interpretation of data, we can make more accurate analysis. But at any given point in time, there is a theory that is most likely to be true, based on what we know right now.

Each domain has its own methods, its ways to sift the wheat from the chaff. Science has its experiments and peer review. Journalism has source verification and corroboration. History has primary and secondary evidence. So we need to first work out how truth is determined in the particular domain or subject we are thinking about.

I ask myself simple questions: How do we know this is true? Who says so? What’s their evidence?

Heuristics, Or How I Keep From Being Overwhelmed

Then there’s heuristics, which is a fancy word for “a rule of thumb”. This is about taking shortcuts to understanding through trusted sources and established knowledge. It’s about not reinventing the wheel every time you need to know something new. I find a few experts I trust, see where the consensus lies, and start there. Sure, experts can be wrong, but let’s face it, it’s the best place to start.

Ideally I’d like to find a group of experts in some kind of body or association, that has long standing credibility. Not some organisation that was invented yesterday to promote a particular agenda – and there are always hundreds of those. I want a body that’s been around for a decade or more, and that existed before the current subject of interest was even a thing. The body should be credible and a little boring (meaning they tend to stick to the consensus of experts). A consensus of experts is important because that’s usually how “truth” is determined in most fields. This person or that person will have their own interpretation of the evidence, and you’ll usually find an opinion of every possible flavour, and they all contradict each other. So we need to find out which interpretations have the most support – by experts, and by experts I mean people who are active professionals in the field. Not professionals from another field. Not former professionals who are retired from the field. Not someone on YouTube or a podcaster. Professionals. Experts. Active in the field.

If I can’t find a suitable credible body of long standing, my next source is going to be an individual expert. But, again, they should have long standing credibility in the field, ideally decades. For example, Noam Chomsky is, I believe, a credible source for topics involving America’s geopolitical agenda or American domestic politics.

So I don’t need to “do my own research” or watch hundreds of hours of YouTube videos. I just need to find out the consensus opinion of credible experts.

Ah, I hear you say “but expert bodies can be corrupted!”

Sure, that’s true. They can be. They are. But if you’re going to dismiss an expert body with that claim, you should really be able to first provide credible evidence for your claim. Otherwise, it sounds like you just don’t like what the experts are saying.

“But science can be wrong!” Yes, as I said earlier, better tools lead to better data and better interpretation of the data, which gets us closer to the truth. But the consensus opinion today is the consensus opinion based on the best data we have. Science makes progress by new theories and experiments and tools providing new data, which leads to new interpretations and conclusions, which are then peer reviewed and become the new consensus opinion. Rogue opinions sometimes lead, over time, to the new consensus, but until they do, they are just that – rogue opinions. If you prefer the rogue opinion to the consensus, you have to ask yourself why.

Why All This Matters

Using these tools, I can quickly form a decently informed opinion on a wide range of topics. This method isn’t perfect – no method is. You have to be ready to update your views when better information comes along. That’s key. Stay flexible, stay skeptical, and keep digging when it matters. Above all, care about getting as close to the truth as you can, wherever it may lead. Don’t let your personal ideology or identity get in the way of searching for the truth.

This approach has kept me sane in a world drowning in information. Maybe it’s a bit rough and ready, but it’s better than getting swept away by every new headline or latest theory. And in this era of misinformation, having a solid method to filter what you consume is more crucial than ever.