Decision Making and Truth


Data. Information. Knowledge. Wisdom.

This is a familiar continuum. The question for those of us who value wise decisions both in our personal lives and amongst those with whom we share society and climate is “How do we promote the movement towards wisdom?”

In this post, I will provide an answer. Yes, it is my answer. It is grounded in my lived experience. It is grounded in my perspective, but it is one that has served me well, and I think it has served our society well.

To become wise, one must make decisions. Pragmatic decisions about how to best solve the problems one faces. Critical decisions in which one must evaluate their knowledge considering the situation and decide if they know enough to solve it and what to do if they don’t. Creative decisions about what to do if a solution does not appear to exist. It isn’t enough to make decisions, however, one must honestly and accurately reflect on the quality of their decisions, seek to avoid mistakes again, and identify strategies for improving.

I interrupt the post to suggest those who feel they are always right—a group including narcissists, zealots, cult members, and others—will not perceive this as applying to their decisions. More accurately, they will perceive theirs to be the only decisions aligned with this or any other framework of quality decision making.

If you believe your decisions cannot be improved, then you are making bad decisions and everyone else (except those in your echo chamber) is judging them as bad as well.

I assume those who are still reading are willing to admit their decisions can be improved, and will indulge me in my description of the characteristics of sound decision makers:

  1. They recognize their assumptions. Of course, they first admit they have real assumptions and biases that affect the questions they ask, the data they recognize as relevant, their interpretations, and their decisions. It is perhaps not coincidental that I compose this post while I am also relistening Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man on my daily walks; specifically, I am hearing about deeply ingrained and unquestioned things that “everyone knew” to be true affected past science—the lesson being we are still guilty. Some assumptions are so deeply ingrained, they are never questioned; those are the ones that the best decision makers question.
  2. They do not claim objectivity. One sure way to identify one who is making bad decisions is to hear their claims of objectivity. Your biases are there, if you don’t see them, then I must assume you don’t see other important trends or patterns evidence.
  3. They reject dubious claims. Perpetual motion machines. Astrology. Extrasensory perception. These are just a few examples of claims or theories that have been thoroughly debunked. Folks who reject the debunking are displaying bad decision making. Many smart and insightful people have come before us, to ignore their work is not something a good decision-maker does.
  4. They change their minds. While they quickly reject dubious claims, good decision makers do know what it will take for them to change their minds. I reject astrology, but if a causal link could be demonstrated (by scientific standards) between the location of stars and events on Earth, then I’d change my mind. Of course, if what you name is demonstrated then you change the criteria, then you belong to the group who will never change their minds, and you can stop reading now.
  5. They are concerned with the data. We live in an environment of limitless data, some of it collected in reasonable ways, some of it collected in unreasonable ways, much of it just made up. A good decision maker does not accept data without questioning its source.
  6. They differentiate expertise from authority. Experts are folks who understand the theory, practice, and prejudices of a field; we should respect them and give their answers greater weight than we give those without expertise. Authorities are folks who decide they are correct, act accordingly, and expect you to follow. Both experts and authorities should be questioned, and both must defer to observation and logic that demonstrates they are wrong. Those with expertise agree with both statements made in the previous sentence, those with authority agree with neither.
  7. They are logical. Logic means both following to rules of formal logic and being consistent in your reasoning. If you apply one rule in one circumstance, but a different rule in another, then you are not making good decisions and you are demonstrating an unwillingness to evaluate your own.  

The best decision makers understand they should base their decisions on what is true. Unfortunately, truth has been dragged through the mud recently. We have come to conclude that each person is constructs their own truth. That does a disservice to many.

Now, I am not denying lived experience. I know my experience as a middle-aged, white, cis-gendered male, who has successfully completed higher education in Western cultures affected my experience—and what I perceive to be good decision making. Your lived experience determines how one interprets observation.

When we say “everyone has their own truth” we ignore the fact that what happens and how one interprets it are different. We can observe the save set of circumstances, interpret it differently, and both be correct.

When we normalize interpretations, we become empathetic, we build understanding, we make better decisions. When we claim our own truth, we reject the opportunity to develop empathy, understand, and make beneficial decisions.