The acronym FEAR, as used to represent False Evidence Appearing Real, is widely used and apparently of unknown origin. Quite a few articles and blog posts utilize this acronym to discuss various sources of fear (both real and irrational), how to prevent, overcome or constructively deal with it, and how to move ahead in life or work with better tools for analyzing its sources and mitigating its effects.
The sources of fear include misunderstanding of the past, misinterpretation of current events, and the unpredictability of the future. On page 50 of his book, The Black Swan (see Bibliography page), Nassem Nicholas Taleb, notes five errors of thinking that he believes emanate from our inability to understand the rare reality and impact of highly improbable events:
“a) We focus on preselected segments of the seen and generalize from it to the unseen: the error of confirmation.
(b) We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns: the narrative fallacy.
(c) We behave as if the Black Swan does not exist; human nature is not programmed for Black Swans.
(d) What we see is not necessarily all that is there. History hides Black Swans from us [if they didn’t happen] and gives a mistaken idea about the odds of these events: this is the distortion of silent evidence.
(e) We “tunnel”: that is, we focus on a few well-defined sources of uncertainty, on too specific a list of Black Swans (at the expense of others that do not come so readily to mind)”.
There are many ways in which we misinterpret, or accept others’ intentional or unintentional representations of “evidence” that is falsely declared “reality”, leading to fear.
“Skeptical Empiricism”, as defined by Taleb, can be a useful tool for the examination of “evidence” purported to be true by almost anyone (including yourself!). It is a blending of skepticism “A methodology based on an assumption of doubt with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty” and empiricism, “The view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge” (definitions: The American Heritage Dictionary). The intent of the composite approach to events and evidence is intended to help one avoid the excesses and blindness of each approach.
He also believes that people are subject to three kinds of “opacity”, inability to see clearly, by which they ponder past events, just as current events are incomprehensible. The triplet of opacity, distilled from The Black Swan, page 8, consists of:
- an illusion of understanding of current events…
- a retrospective distortion of historical events…
- an overvalue of facts, combined with an overvalue of the intellectual elite…
Of course, take care so that others, or you, do not trap you in the other extreme, either:
REAF: Real Evidence Appearing False
Many would like you to run aground on that “reaf” – ignoring, obscuring or mutating at least an image of reality in favor of their reinterpretation that favors their agenda at your expense! Then, the occurence of a Black Swan event, which may also be something thought to be highly likely not to happen – a mirage – entices you into yet another level of fear!
Don’t fall for false evidence appearing real
(or real evidence appearing false)!