Tag Archives: #false

The Liar Paradox Is A Self-Referential Conundrum (Philosophy)

A paradox is an absurd or self-contradictory statement, so by definition, it’s liable to make your head spin. We’ve got one of the most ancient paradoxes there is, and it’s certainly no different. It’s called the liar paradox.

The liar paradox, also known as the liar sentence, states “this sentence is false.” If that statement makes you go a little crazy, you’re not the first. The liar paradox first came about in ancient Greece, and philosophers have been puzzling over it ever since. It’s even said that the gravestone of scholar Philetas of Cos, from the third century B.C.E., is engraved with the words “‘Twas the Liar who made me die, And the bad nights caused thereby.”

There are many other versions of this ancient puzzle. The French philosopher Jean Buridan used its contradictory logic in his proof of God’s existence: “God exists. None of the sentences in this pair are true.” There’s also the self-referential chain, “The following sentence is true. The following sentence is true. The first sentence in this list is false.”

Here’s why the liar paradox causes philosophers so much grief: if the sentence is true, then it must be false. But if the sentence is false, then it must be true. That’s what makes it a paradox. It’s an argument that leads to a self-contradictory conclusion. There are probably as many schools of thought on how to solve this paradox as there are philosophers in the world, but one thing is true (not false!): it highlights the limitations of classical logic.

How to Resolve the Liar’s Paradox

The Moses Illusion Shows How Bad You Are At Fact-Checking? (Psychology)

Can you come up with the answers to these questions?

1. How many of each animal did Moses take on the Ark?
2. What’s the nationality of Thomas Edison, inventor of the telephone?
3. What were the first words uttered by Louis Armstrong when he set foot on the moon?

If you answered “two,” “American,” and “One small step for man …” congratulations: You got every question wrong. As we’re sure you’re aware, it was Noah, not Moses, who built the Ark; Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone; and Neil Armstrong, not Louis Armstrong, who went to the moon. You knew that, of course. So why did the questions fool you? It’s all in how your brain processes information.

This bit of trickery is called the Moses Illusion. It shows how bad you are at picking up on errors in your everyday life. Researchers have fooled countless volunteers in countless labs while trying to figure out what circumstances make this happen and what they can do to help people spot more falsehoods. In the original 1981 study demonstrating this illusion, more than 80 percent of people missed the fact that Moses wasn’t involved in the Ark even though they had previously proven that they knew that. That’s despite the fact that identifying erroneous questions like this was literally one of their tasks; they either had to answer the question, say “don’t know,” or say “wrong” if there was something wrong with the question.

The Moses question tripped people up the most — only around 40 percent of people were fooled by questions like “What was the nationality of Thomas Edison, inventor of the telephone?” A study published in 2000 in the journal Psychological Science explains why. UCLA researchers figured out that there are two ways people are easily fooled by this illusion: if the swapped names are “semantically similar” (on the same topic, the way Moses and Noah are both from the Bible) or “phonologically similar” (sound the same, the way Moses and Noah are both two syllables with an emphasis on the first syllable, which has an “o” sound). With that discovery, the researchers came up with questions that had both qualities in order to test what they called the “Mega-Moses illusion.” Sure enough, a question that swapped out the name “Andrew Johnson” for “Lyndon Johnson” — also a former U.S. vice president with a two-syllable first name and the same last name — fooled more people than questions with just one of those elements at play.

Sure, it’s easy to fool people. But is this actually important beyond letting a few scientists have a laugh? Unfortunately, yes. Vanderbilt psychology professor Lisa Fazio, who wrote about this phenomenon in The Conversation, has shown in her own studies that illusions like this can lead people to pick up false information about the world. When she and her team had people read fictional stories that referred to things like “paddling around the largest ocean, the Atlantic,” people were more likely to say the Atlantic was the world’s largest ocean, even though they had correctly answered “Pacific” on a test they took two weeks before reading the stories.

Even worse, many attempts to help people avoid this tendency have backfired. Researchers have tried giving people more time to read the questions and printing the important information in red ink, and it just made people more likely to answer incorrectly.

Luckily, the thing that’s been proven to work is a practice we can all do, especially as we wade through social-media feeds full of sensational headlines and “fake news.” When people are asked to play fact-checker, correcting errors as they read, they’re much less likely to pick up false information than people who just read what they’re given. The takeaway is clear: assume anything you hear or read could be wrong, and you’re more likely to notice when it is. If you do that, you’ll be just like Einstein, the inventor of electricity.