Noel A. Ihebuzor
The incidence of celebrities, authority figures and eminent persons making commentaries on social affairs, the state of the economy and governance etc. is on the rise. We are now assailed from every corner by judgments of, and commentaries on people, places, periods and events by such celebrities and eminent persons. Not all of these judgments and commentaries are however backed by evidence. What should be our reactions before such claims, commentaries and judgements? Is there not a difference between an opinion and a fact? Are the opinions of a celebrity always right? Should we always believe them? Must we suspend criticality when processing the views of such persons?
The reflections below on credibility and credulity were prompted precisely by these questions. My hope is that by the time you have gone through these reflections, you would have come up with your own personal strategy and processes for sieving statements, claims and commentaries for facticity and accuracy, and are thus more able to separate facts from opinions, no matter their sources. Enjoy the reading. Let me also have the benefit of your comments on these reflections.
- The chances of a claim being believed as true are largely a function of two things – How credible the source is or judged to be & how credulous the receiver is!
- It is so easy for a credible source or a source that is judged credible to deceive a credulous audience.
- That deception will continue to happen until the “ahaa” moment.
- Wisdom is discovering that even your long trusted, infallible and credible source can sometimes be economical with the truth!
- Credulousness/credulity exposes us to massive manipulation and exploitation.
- Credulity comes with huge social, emotional & economic costs.
- Not all that that your credible source puts forward is true!
- Do not mistake capacity for linguistic elegance with capacity for telling the truth. Lies are often packaged in beautiful prose.
- Raise your credulity threshold. Be more critical! “Shine your eyes”!
- The more critical you are, the more you are likely to discover flaws in the “perfect” logic of that credible source.
- Once you begin to discover flaws, inaccuracies, distortions and lies in your credible source, his/her credibility starts to wane.
- Healthy skepticism is one useful remedy to problems of credulity.
- In our attitudes/receptivity to statements from others, we are constantly exposed to two types of errors called Type I and Type II errors.
- Remember your research methods course from tertiary education? Type I versus Type II errors? A bit similar but not the same!
- Type I error in belief is known as erroneous incredulity- refusing to believe something that is true because of quarrels with the source!
- Type II – erroneous credulity – believing something that is false to be true because of your infatuation with the source!
- The challenge in life is how to avoid type 1 belief errors – erroneous incredulity whilst still being critical & “sieving” all statements.
- For type II belief errors, we simply have to shine our eyes. There are powerful people who would not brook any challenge to their views. All they desire is to hold people captive to their views and go to every length to ensure that such mental captivity perdures.
- One of the most difficult things to do is to maintain the right level of critical distance enough to evaluate and to challenge, where necessary, the views of someone who has distinguished herself/himself.
- Healthy skepticism towards the views and opinions of such a person is usually considered as indicative of either jealousy or outright incivility or impetuosity.
- And yet such persons have been known to exploit their credibility and to stretch it beyond limits.
- They have been known to exploit their credibility to call people names, to smear people, to ridicule others and to march boldly on spaces where even angels tremble to tiptoe over.
- All this they can do because they have been successful in one field of human endeavour or the other.
- Someone who has distinguished herself/himself in any given field invariably builds up some credibility as a result of success in that specific field of pursuit.
- It is not unusual for such a person to make commentaries in other fields of pursuit.
- Danger starts to loom when such a person begins to feel that credibility built up in one area immediately confers omniscience on her/him and elevates her/him to a pansophist.
- Unless checked, such a person may begin to use credibility gained in one field to become the supreme arbiter on every social issue under the universe.
- I call this tendency to use credibility in one field to seek credibility in another the transfer of credibility. Humans engage frequently in such transfer of credibility.
- Let me try to illustrate. We may have a case where we find a geophysicist making comments in the area of rock music.
- Where such comments are made on the basis of solid evidence, our respect for the person making the comments should grow.
- Where, however, the person making the comments is simply appealing, either explicitly or implicitly, to his/her established credibility in one field and building his/her right to be believed on that alone, then we should be on our guards.
- For example, that V.S. Naipaul said something on “Azonto” dance steps does make it true or false. Check his sources. Check his logic. Distinguish opinions from facts. Become more critical. If Naipul is simply transferring his credibility as winner of a Nobel prize for literature and using this to get you to an uncritical acceptance of his opinion, then sack that opinion. The opinions of a Nobel prize are not beyond falsification.
- Also that Niels Bohr said something, say on race and intercultural dialogue, does not make it true or false. Check his sources. Check his facts. Check his logic. Recognize his contributions to atomic physics but also recognize that expertise in atomic physics does not immediately confer competence in race and culture. Raise your credulity threshold.
- Equally, that Einstein said something on politics does not make it true or false. Check the facts. Question his sources. Raise your own criticality
- These three examples are chosen to invite us all to be more critical.
- They are also intended to show that human beings can and do try to transfer their credibility from areas where they are authorities to others where they are not or may not be!
- In these areas where they are not authorities, such persons would still want to impose their views on others and present their opinions as if they were revealed truths.
- We are often victims of such people and suffer mind control by them for a number of reasons.
- One reason for our credulity before such people emerges from the interaction of herd feeling, laziness and inertia. Everybody believes them, so why should I not? And If I have believed them up till now, why should I start doubting them now?
- Another reason is that most of us have been socialized into uncritical acceptance of views by any authority figure. Such persons thus exercise a strong stranglehold on public opinion.
- The stranglehold these persons exercise on public opinion and thinking is aided by our culture of idolization of the successful.
- Such idolization soon morphs into “person idolatory” such that any attempt to examine this person’s views critically soon amounts to heresy!
- Anything this type/class of people says soon amounts to “cast in diamonds truths”.
- But such idolized persons soon over-reach themselves. Their formerly enraptured audiences soon begin to discover that they have feet of clay. People soon discover that not only are such people fallible, but they do tell lies and can be very petty and partisan.
- So, let me sum up –
- Credibility is a plus for the source; credulity is a negative for any audience.
- Credibility is a bit like virginity. Lose it and you have lost it!
- Credibility is an asset. Draw down recklessly on it without any replenishing and soon it runs out.
- Credibility is optimized in environments of high credulity.
- A celebrity uses her/his credibility to exploit the credulity of an uncritical public.
- Erroneous credulity is bad for any society.
- Losing one’s credulity is one key milestone in cognitive and emotional development.
- Celebrities are entitled to their personal opinions, but not all opinions are true!
- Name calling has a certain appeal but it still does not amount to a proof. Ask any lawyer!
- Concluding comment – let your speaker earn your confidence. Do not let him/her take advantage of or abuse your credulity.
9 thoughts on “Reflections on credulity and credibility”
9,53 and 55….
Comment by Shehuspen
* Noel Ihebuzor [20141206 22:42:00]:
> Please read and let me have the benefit of your comments
Thank you. I think that there’s a defect in your point number one which
has a consequential bearing on some of the rest of your presentation.
In the first place in contexts like this one, “believe” is not a good
word to employ. It is clearer to say “think it true.” Whether a claim is
thought true or false depends on the evidence provided to support it.
One piece of evidence may be considered more credible than another
because of its provenance. This is where the credibility of the person
making the claim matters. But the credibility of its proponent is not in
of itself sufficient basis to accept a claim as true. A person seen as
credible on account of a record of true assertions can still make a
false claim. A person seen as lacking credibility on account of a record
of false assertions can still nevertheless make a claim that is true.
The evidence must always be evaluated.
Celebrity or authority is thus no substitute for evidence and argument
to back up a claim. In fact an authority should have no problem
confirming his status by the quality of his evidence and argument in
support of his asserion. There ought to be no problem in challenging him
to show that he knows what he is talking about. Alas, far too many cower
before title and laurels to accept just about anything without proper
Upon making an observation, one should not be afraid to go where his
deep thoughts lead him, ask questions, try to examine and understand
answers and draw appropriate conclusions and/or lessons.
That may seem obvious but commitment to such a path is not easy because one can sometimes find himself alone with a viewpoint so the temptation to abandon it and fall in line with accepted others becomes hard to resist. I try to resist.
Very best regards,
You are a very critical reader and I thank you for the attention you gave to my reflections.
I can see and appreciate the point you are trying to get across regarding my phrasing of my point #1.
I used “believe” in the interest of word economy. Incidentally, “believe” captures and conveys the same essence in your preferred “think it true”. The link line on the meaning and usage of “believe” brings this out http://www.thefreedictionary.com/believe
Your further comments enrich and extend my thinking and I am very grateful to you for these.
Comments from Prof Biko Agozino
Good analysis Shehu. I can only add the postmodern dictum by Foucault that what makes one position more acceptable as truer than another is not always because one position is true and the other false but often because the acceptable position is frequently backed by more power resources. Howard Becker tried to challenge sociologists to take sides with the underdogs precisely because the views that are usually accorded greater credibility in the hierarchy of credibility are supported with power rather than with evidence whereas the underdog is so cautious about the danger of losing credibility in the struggle for social justice that they tend to be meticulous in diligence before making any factual claims. You can read the paper here: http://www.sfu.ca/~palys/Becker1967-WhoseSideAreWeOn.pdf
Interestingly, although Becker’s Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association was written in support of the critique of the myth of value-free sociology by Alvin Gouldner, the paper was thoroughly critiqued by Gouldner who rejected the implication by Becker that sociologists should be without sentiment. Gouldner would agree with Shehu that sociologists should also be ready to take the sides of the overdogs especially when the underdog is not always pictured lying on its back but also fighting back even with the weapons of falsehood. You can read a review of the debates here: http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/7389/1/0-Brien_7389_The%20Deviance%20of%20the%20Zookeepers.pdf
In science, credibility is not highly valued as much as skepticism because of the need to maintain the methodological principle of the falsifiability of scientific claims as the window to new discoveries and inventions. Once a claim is not falsifiable, it leaves the realm of science and enters the mythical world of dogmas, according to Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.
Azikiwe offered a similar philosophy of science in Renascent Africa in the chapter on ‘Superstition or Super Science’ where he critiqued the belief even among educated Africans that someone in handcuffs could utter some magical words and escape from prison as reported in some Nigerian newspapers in the 1930s. Zik said that such a magical feat needs to be repeated empirically to be validated. However, Awolowo disagreed with Zik and published a paper two years later in the Liverpool Journal arguing that Juju can be used as science to kill someone remotely by uttering the name three times at a cross-road. Highly educated Nigerians still side with Awo in this debate but I am with Zik given that the liberation of Nigeria from colonialism was not the work of magic or juju but the disciplined mobilization of Nigerians from different backgrounds to restore our independence. As Biodun Jeyifo narrates in his columns for The Nation online, the survival from Ebola by a Nigerian doctor is widely attributed to supernatural intervention whereas the doctor also credits her knowledge of medical science for her survival.
Biko Nwannem, Prof,
Thanks for this very scholarly addition. By bringing in insights from Becker, Popper and Kuhn to bear on the examination of these rather pedestrian reflections of mine on the truth value of utterances, you already elevate the tone of the discourse and I am grateful. Philosophy of knowledge, sociology of knowledge, power and status are at at play and intermeshed even in the most innocent and not too innocent of pursuits. Yes, Popper’s methodological scepticism and his insistence on the primacy of falsification/falsifiabilityshould guide us as we relate to and process claims by celebrities and our big authority figures. Thus, though some may think it true (Shehu – see that I have corrected following your suggestion) that there is power in the word (Awo is said to have suggested so and ATR claims so too), new Neros and Nebuchadnezzars are not made just because some top gun said so!
I need your permission and Shehu’s to put both your contributions directly on the blog!
Prof Biko Agozino’s permission
Carry go, bros. Thanks for sharing. Your enumeration style is similar to that of Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals.
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter. It takes me back to graduate work in the 80s when Prof Ogban Iyam insisted that we read the CUP’s 1970, English, Conference Proceedings edition of “Criticism and the growth of knowledge” edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave. This collection was based on the “International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science (1965 : Bedford College)” with contributions from Thomas Kuhn et al.
My simple and unsophisticated takeaway from these readings and your recent explicative refinements is as follows:
1. Distinguish between faith and knowledge, and recognize where the needle is resting in between these polar extremes.
2. During recruitment interviews I have learnt to interview the candidate first and then read the CV after my assessment to protect myself from the “halo effect”. We pretend we are immune from this affliction, but in reality we are NOT!
3. Power and truth are two sides of the same coin, except for those, the outliers, who take the risk of critical thinking. Critical thinking always confronts power, tradition, and the status quo. It challenges the accepted orthodoxy, and exposes the practitioner to ridicule and ostracism. For instance, by simply taking a view on human sexuality I can be marginalized, vilified, and even killed even by the LEARNED in our midst.
4. Assuming a certain memory listlessness of the masses, and their more or less assured credulity, pitching a political campaign has little to do with “thinking it true” and more with raw PR. Primordial symbols, money, technology (social media) etc are the contested spaces where contenders challenge each other, not with facts, but with spin and counter-spin.
5. You will be surprised that the corporate world of business is not much different!
Thanks once again for your generosity to share.
Thanks Dr. Ihebuzor for serving the appetizers that caused this buffet of knowledge, power, truth, credibility, and believability from connoisseurs.
I am tempted to suggest that most of those who seize public spaces have become too sold on their views for anything else to matter.
If they had concerns about their “tomorrows” there would have been more circumspection about their utterances.
The speed with which they switch their views says something about their knowledge that they can exploit the audience’s low credulity thresholds.
Ikeddy, It is sad when social influencers, who we expect to be persons imbued with a spirit of critical discernment, err so badly for reasons of expedience and deliberately lead their followers to even deeper error! Society suffers as the consequences of social influencer errors produce huge negative multiplier effects.