‘Post-truth society’ is a phrase that’s been cropping a lot lately in American and British politics. Some things never change. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a British man of reason who sought the truth and felt strongly about dispelling established untruths.
He wrote a wonderfully named book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a catalogue of ‘vulgar errors’ and directly addressed an epidemic of ideas incorrectly believed to be fact. He works his way through many vegetable, animal, man, history and mineral ‘commonly presumed truths’, giving even the craziest ideas careful thought and offering a reasoned argument why they might not be factual. He even undertook his own experiments to seek scientific proof.
Here is a list of some ‘received tenents’ he disputed:
- That a Diamond is made soft, or broke by the blood of a Goate.
- That Corall is soft under water, but hardeneth in the Ayr.
- That Porcellane or China dishes lye under the earth an hundred yeares in preparation.
- That an Elephant hath no joints.
- That a Badger hath the Legs of one side shorter than of the other.
- That a Woolf first seeing a man, begets a dumbness in him.
- That a King-fisher hanged by the bill sheweth where the wind is.
- That a Salamander lives in the fire.
- That the Chamæleon lives onely by Aire.
Are people today any better at distinguishing truth from pseudodoxia? It seems some people only believe what they want to believe. Confirmation bias (where you selectively choose to believe only those opinions which confirm what you already think) is surely a worrying part of our latter day post-truth epidemic.