• Kenneth Jacobs

The Fixation of Belief Today: Googling It, Declaring Fake News, and Going with Your Gut

Updated: May 9, 2020

In his seminal article called The Fixation of Belief, C.S. Peirce (1877) identified four methods of fixing one's own belief:

  1. The method of authority

  2. The method of tenacity

  3. The method of agreeableness (or a priori reasoning)

  4. The method of science

According to Peirce (1877), these were the four methods people used to draw conclusions about nature, its purpose, and everyday circumstances. To fix one's own belief was to dissolve any doubt about it. The dissolution of doubt sounds like this:

  1. "Because I said so!" (authority).

  2. "Out of sight, out of mind" (tenacity).

  3. "Go with your gut" (a priori).

  4. "I'll believe it when I see it" (science).

The method of authority is the simplest to understand because it is what our parents told us to do without reason. More commonly, though, the method of authority is when we cling to the beliefs given to us by prophets, Gods, and Google. "I Googled it!" is an all too common proclamation that dissolves doubt without further reasoning. For example, "what were your search terms?", "on what page did you ultimately land?", and "can we be sure that Google did not curate those results to confirm what you already believe?"

The method of tenacity, or to turn a blind eye, is the epitome of burying one's head in the sand. Tenacity is to hold on to a preexisting belief by systematically avoiding anything that contradicts it. The method of tenacity is a sort of cognitive dissonance that precludes us from seeking out new information and integrating it into our current knowledge-base. The effect of tenacity on our beliefs is that we never check them against what others have learned, seen, or discovered. When people declare "Fake News", for example, they are fixing their preexisting beliefs without consideration of the hard investigative work of journalists.

The method of agreeableness to reason, or a priori reasoning, is your natural inclination toward one belief over another. The dissolution of doubt in this case is easy because it requires no analysis or examination of the current facts. Agreeableness to reason is also known as "a priori reasoning" because a priori signifies that which comes beforehand, a prior like the instincts that make you flinch when scared or seek out water when thirsty. There is no conscious analysis that goes into whether or not one should flinch or get thirsty. In the same way, there is no analysis that goes into a belief based on one's intuition. A priori reasoning––like an instinct––is what people tell you to do when they say to "Go with your gut!" You reason based on feeling, on what you alone believe is good not bad, or right not wrong. It is what happens when people settle on a personal truth such as "Smoking may kill some people, but that won't happen to me because I feel fine." Intuition fixes the belief in "smoking won't get me" while a thoroughgoing analysis of the facts––1 of every 5 deaths in the US is caused by cigarette smoking––is dismissed.

The last method, the method of science, is the "I'll believe it when I see it" method. Science is the method that Doubting Thomas used when he was told that Jesus resurrected from the dead. Unlike the other apostles, who relied on the word of an authority, who were tenacious in their belief that the prophecy would be fulfilled, and who were primed to believe because it was agreeable to them, Thomas was skeptical. Thomas would eventually believe this once dead man was now alive, but only after seeing the man, touching his wounds, and speaking with the man. As it happened, though, Thomas was not praised for the effective use of the senses that God had apparently given him. Instead, Thomas was rebuked when Jesus blessed those who believed without seeing!

"Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed."

If that scripture were written today, then we can be fairly certain that the "believing without seeing" apostles would have been chided while Thomas would have been awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery.

The method of science is the last line of defense against dogma, hocus-pocus, and our faulty inclinations. If we have to fix our beliefs to secure the future procurement of what is good and right, then it is with the method of science that we must do so; not because science is invariably correct, but because it is the best method we have to date. The method of science––seeing, touching, hearing, etc.––is the method by which people discovered the failures of the other three methods already described. Today, we can apply that same method of science to the following:

  • The method of Googling It (authority)

  • The method of Declaring Fake News (tenacity)

  • The method of Going with Your Gut (a priori)

Rather than taking just Google's word for it, you can test alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo, which does not curate your results based on what you want to see and read!

And if fake news is declared, you can present that which others choose not to see. Though they might still avoid it, there are some who might see in it a benefit to their own lives and to the lives of their close ones (e.g., when anti-vaxxers can no longer avoid the risk of not being vaccinated).

Finally, going with your gut will always be easier than doing the hard work of science. But, when in doubt, there are small and low-effort steps we can take to quash doubt without using our faulty intuitions. We can use DuckDuckGo like scientists: vary your search terms, find multiple sources, scroll past the first page, and look for sources that cite peer-reviewed research in scientific journals.

The methods of fixing one's own beliefs have been and will continue to be re-branded. They are the methods of authority, tenacity, and a priori reasoning, just with new names like Google. While our faulty methods remain dull, though, our method of science has only gotten better with the integration of new discoveries, the advancement of technologies, and the standards of reporting data within an open science framework.