Apotheosis episode 48: The Buddha's antidote for misinformation. Hand-drawn illustration of three glass jars, labeled "fake news," "click bait," and "the kool aid."

Episode 48: The Buddha’s antidote for misinformation

Ryan D Thompson Buddhism, Decision-making, Perspectives, Skills

Key ideas

We have greater access to information than ever, but not all is reliable. Who should we trust? The Buddha’s ten criteria for countering misinformation can help.

  • We live in an age in which actual misinformation farms exist. However, the problem of untrustworthy information is not new. The difficulty of sorting out signal from noise goes back at least 2,500 years to the Buddha’s time.
  • Frustrated and confused by the conflicting messages they received from wandering spiritual teachers, a group of residents approached the Buddha for advice.
  • He gave a sermon known today as the Kalama Sutta, in which he offered ten criteria to assess the quality of information. He encouraged people not to accept a message simply because of repeated hearing, tradition, or even because they respected the monk, among other reasons.
  • His advice stands the test of time. In essence, we should maintain a healthy skepticism. We should pause, doubt, and investigate everything we hear with an open mind.


Here we go again — another person trying to sell you their ideas. To convince you their view is the best view. Everywhere you look, there is an “expert” claiming to have the secrets to success or happiness. Or some talking head explaining how the “other guys” are leading the world down a path of ruin. 

Each of these gurus and pundits speak with absolute conviction in their claims and, often, with intense vitriol for the opposing claims of others. Which of them are telling the truth? Who is offering something with legitimate value — and who is a total scammer?

We are inundated with information designed to compel us to believe or act in a way that advances someone’s agenda. 

Is it fake news? Is it worthy of rage, or is it just sensationalist clickbait?

We live in an age of information overload. Everyone is trying to tell you or sell you something around every corner. Actual misinformation farms exist around the world, producing algorithmic clickbait designed to cast doubt and sow confusion. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about who to trust and what to believe.

This problem seems particularly intensified in the modern age, with technology’s capacity for accelerated dissemination of misinformation. But the problem isn’t new. The difficulty of sorting out signal from noise goes back, at least, to the time of the Buddha, circa 2500 BCE. 

This episode is part of a series on decision-making. Recognizing that trustworthy information is critical for making good decisions, we need a reliable system to assess the quality of the information coming at us. We’ll explore a teaching from the Buddha called the Kalama Sutta, which he gave to help people counter rampant confusion, discrepancies, and misinformation around spiritual practices. While the information challenges faced by people of the Buddha’s time are vastly different, this ancient approach still has merit today.

The Kalama Sutta, which roughly translates as “sermon to the people of Kalama,” arose from a request from the residents of a town in Kalama, a province in ancient India. During that era, spiritual teachers by the dozen traveled the land, all clamoring for attention and followers. Supposed spiritual masters would travel from village to village, claiming to have all the answers. “My way will set you free from your woes,” they would assert. “The other guys are frauds. They’ll lead you only to suffering.”

Frustrated and confused by the many mixed messages they were receiving, a group of residents asked the Buddha for advice.

According to a translation by a Sri Lankan monk named Soma Thera, the Buddha responded:

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ 

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”

And then, later in the sermon, after repeating the sequence of criteria, as was common in teachings of the time, the Buddha continued:

“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

From this sermon, we can pull out ten criteria for assessing the value of information.

First, “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing.” Just because we have heard something many times or for many years, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Along these lines, I’ve come to distrust pithy quotes from famous people we see on bumper stickers, blog posts, and the like. For example, a quote often attributed to the Buddha is, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.” While this makes a nice social media graphic, the Buddha never said it. We can find many such examples of right-sounding but factually wrong information passed around the internet.

Second, don’t rely upon tradition. Even though a belief or practice has been around for a long time, it doesn’t mean it’s right. Plenty of traditions have dubious roots, and thus, we should maintain our skepticism. This is not to say that we should reject all traditions — not at all. However, we shouldn’t believe something simply because of its traditional origins.

Third, don’t go upon rumor. This point is especially relevant in the social media age, where garbage information can spread across the globe in hours. It’s all too easy to click “share” the moment a post lights up our emotional reactivity. We shouldn’t believe rumors or other statements without some investigation. It brings to mind a principle of research called triangulation, in which you seek out multiple sources of reputable information to confirm a claim’s veracity.

Fourth, don’t rely on what is in a scripture. For religious people, this one might be harder to follow. But like the point on tradition, just because somebody wrote a teaching down hundreds or thousands of years ago doesn’t mean it still carries weight in the modern world. For non-religious people, this point might seem less relevant. However, we could reasonably expand our conception of “scripture” to include things like our political contracts, such as the U.S. Constitution, or business documents, such as mission statements. The same logic applies in these cases: just because it once was valid and valuable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t revisit and reconsider the values of even our most sacred beliefs.

Fifth, don’t rely upon surmise — in other words, by logical reasoning alone. This point is the only one that causes my reactivity sensors to light up. What better way to assess the value of information than by using our powers of reason? However, after reading several translations of the Kalama Sutta, I think the Buddha suggests that logical reasoning can go wrong when not informed by reliable information. It brings to mind the sophists of ancient Greece, who could weave together compelling rhetoric but which fell apart under deeper scrutiny by someone like Socrates. It also makes me think of the endless wars waged by trolls in comment sections, who may sometimes write passionately and eloquently but whose views are often informed by garbage information.

Sixth, don’t rely on axioms. This point is the least clear to me. I’ve read three translations of the Kalama Sutta, each offering a slightly different translation of this point. The quote above uses “axioms,” another describes this as “philosophy,” and a third describes it as “inference.” The first two translations seem to suggest that we shouldn’t always believe in the truth of existing philosophical beliefs or positions. The third translation seems to indicate that our methods for inferring or deducing truth can be flawed. But don’t quote me on that.

Seventh, don’t rely upon specious reasoning or, as another translation describes, on “common sense.” Far too often, what we consider common sense is more often a reflection of our biases and personal preferences. This point also suggests that we can easily fall prey to superficial thinking. The hyperabundance of information in the modern world is a blessing and a curse in this regard. We often read an article — or even just a headline — and believe ourselves to be experts on the subject now. Alas, expertise tends to require years, not minutes.

Eighth, don’t rely upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over. In other words, we should be aware of our preconceived notions, which might very well be wrong. We all hold a range of beliefs about everything under the sun, consciously or unconsciously. We hold some of these beliefs quite forcefully. Despite the intensity of our beliefs, sometimes we’re misguided. We would be wise to maintain a lighter grip on our views.

Ninth, don’t rely upon another’s seeming ability. While we should certainly respect the views of experts and the attainment of expertise, experts are nonetheless fallible. We shouldn’t simply accept the claims of experts without careful consideration. Perhaps they have an agenda. Or we might be cherry-picking for experts that match our preconceived views, ignoring a larger group of experts. We’re all only human and subject to the same mistakes.

And the tenth and final point: don’t rely upon the consideration that ‘The monk is our teacher.’ This point reflects a fundamental strength in the Buddhist teachings — that we shouldn’t believe something just because a supposedly wise and revered person told us. The Buddha encouraged his followers to question his teachings and not mindlessly follow him or any other religious figure. We should test the teachings for ourselves to see if we can find the truth.

Which, in essence, is the crucial insight of the Kalama Sutta. To assess the quality of information, we must maintain a healthy skepticism. We should pause, doubt, and investigate the claims with an open mind

One thing I find remarkable in this teaching is the degree to which it connects with findings from modern psychology. The Buddha describes the kinds of biases that researchers like the late great Daniel Kahneman would uncover in tremendous detail more than 2,000 years later. Recognizing the potential for these mental shortcomings to lead us astray, the Buddha encourages us to slow down and question the information we receive.

Which even includes this teaching itself! As the Buddha taught, “Just as a goldsmith tests gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words.”

Well, that’s all for this episode. I hope you are thoroughly skeptical and found plenty to doubt — and can take that healthy skepticism into the world. Test the words of all the talking heads out there. Join me again soon for another episode. Until the next time, be well!

Further reading:

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License