Information Sources: Are They Accurate?

As critical thinkers, one of our jobs is to evaluate the quality of the information our sources are giving us. We also need to evaluate the quality of the sources themselves. Throughout most of our education, we are taught by means of authority (our teachers) and given reasons to accept that authority. In the adult world of work and business, however, the extent to which we trust a source is likely to be of much more concern.

Failing to evaluate our sources means that we simply accept on blind faith that the info the source provides is good info. When our money or our well-being is at stake, we usually don’t move forward on blind faith. We want some assurances. There are a few key assurances or qualities we want to see before we rely on someone else’s claim to knowledge: origination, reliability, impartiality, timeliness and accessibility.

source

‘Origination’ prompts us to ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” Good information doesn’t appear out of nowhere. We want a person, an oranization, a club, a special interest group, an institution that is clearly identifiable, is qualified, and has no hidden agenda or hidden point of view. Certainly a point of view may be presented, but it must be presented openly and without disguise. The purpose for presenting the information should be unambiguous. You should be able to locate contact information. The absence of this info is a red flag.

‘Reliability’ calls on us to evaluate to the best of our ability the credibility of the information being presented. Do we recognize the publishing entity (individual author or an institution) as having a reputation for accuracy? Is there a list of the names and qualifications of the people making the claims? Is the publisher known for reputable work? Is the internet domain one that is appropriate? These domains are likely to contain different kinds and qualities of info: .com, .edu, .org, .gov, .net*

.com –for commercial use, you’ll find someone who sells something–but they may still be presenting good information

.edu –one would think this would be the most trustworthy in terms of presenting factual info, just make sure you aren’t looking at Mrs. McGillicuddy’s fifth grade class report

.org –generally reserved for non-profit organizations, but don’t assume a non-profit is impartial–many push a particular point of view

.gov –some may want to argue but this domain is the most trustworthy for checking factual information

.net –originally intended for the computers that keep the internet up and running, today it houses lots of domain name providers

*original intent and today’s usage can be different things–the category boundaries for these domains have shifted and softened, but they can still serve as a general guide

When we want to know the subject matter is being presented fairly, we are checking for ‘impartiality.’ Is the info presented in the form of a come-on for a sales pitch? Do you have to pay fees, download special software, click on special buttons, or provide personal info to access the material? Does the information match other things you may know about the subject? What’s the quality of the supporting detail–is it clear, is there enough, too little? Can you determine a purpose for the presentation of the material? Are any opinions or assumptions presented?

3d small people - Coach showing the right way to follow

To check ‘timeliness,’ look for dates. Date of composition, date of publication, date of posting to the net. Can you tell if anything is out-dated?

And, finally, ‘accessibility.’ The information ideally should be free and unrestricted, although there are some legitimate sites that charge a fee for access.

These are the ‘red flag items’ we check before putting away our initial skepticism about new information or sources. Keeping these questions in mind will help to identify relevant sources of information.

Traitors and their Accomplices

 

A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims… but accomplices.

-George Orwell, author

A nation can survive its fools, even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within….for the traitor appears not to be a traitor…he rots the soul of a nation…he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.

Taylor Caldwell, A Pillar of Iron (often misattributed to Cicero)

Public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal priority. The threat – which involves the corruption of local, state, and federally elected, appointed, or contracted officials – strikes at the heart of government, eroding public confidence and undermining the strength of our democracy. 

James Comey, former director of the FBI

When I look at the Republicans, I am tempted to dismiss them as the Treason Party. Seriously, were a band of traitors to concoct a series of positions deliberately designed to weaken America, they would be hard pressed to beat the current GOP dogma – hobble education, starve the government by slashing taxes to the rich, kneecap attempts to jumpstart the economy by fixating on debt, invite corporations to dominate political discourse, balkanize the population by demonizing minorities and immigrants and let favored religions dictate social policy.

Neil Steinberg (Steinberg has written for a wide variety of publications, including Esquire, The Washington Post, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Details, Men’s Journal, National Lampoon and Spy. He has also written for web sites, including Salon and forbes.com)

Abe Lincoln Would Love My Blog

If you’ve been following the hair-curling cataclysm known as the Trump administration, you have been presented with ample opportunity to practice spotting fallacious reasoning. And the particular fallacies favored by the Orange Overlord and his minions are pretty common (like Trump himself). I have written about a number of logic fallacies in other posts (try scrolling down), and I told you these lapses in logic are caused by one of two things: sloppy thinking or a malicious attempt to manipulate others. With Trump, we’ve been treated to both causes.

Kellyanne Conway is one of President Trump’s advisors, and we should be grateful because Mr. Trump knows so little about the ideals on which the nation was founded. But Kellyanne is a first-rate expert; and in recent days, Kellyanne has unleashed one of the most ignoble of logical fallacies: unsupported pronouncements about what the dead think, or what they would support, or whose side they’d favor and so on. Fortunately for the dead, they no longer need concern themselves with the political issues of the day. Because they are dead. They don’t think, believe or say anything. Because they are dead. It’s remarkable how little the dead actually do.

The Washington Post reports that Kellyanne knows Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed Trump’s impeachment. Ah, Ms. Conway is able to read the minds of the dead. And oddly enough, the dead seem to think precisely what she wants them to think. This is a magical quality possessed by only a chosen few, and those chosen few are self-selected. They know what the Founding Fathers, the Framers, or anyone else who is not around to object were thinking and apparently continue to think.

Soon, the reigning crooks will discover another use for the dead. Think how many there are. Researchers have estimated about 100 billion human beings were here before us. This is a vast untapped market waiting for some entrepreneurial churl to tap it. Alert Ivanka. She has another branding job to do.

Heading into Battle

We will be seeing some poor arguments and wobbly persuasion techniques if the US Senate finally decides to hear the case for Trump’s impeachment. I imagine that most arguments will be flimsy and farcical as the two sides jockey for advantage. These comments are based on the idea that everyone wants to ‘get it right,’ to find the truth of the matter. But I’m skeptical in the matter of impeachment. If the earlier hearings are an indicator, then we will be tortured with self-serving rhetoric that fails to address the issue at hand. What follows is an earlier post with some tips on keeping it real…

An argument is not a fist fight. If you are thinking in terms of winners and losers, you already lost. Beating people into submission to our point of view is not effective for very long. Shouting, sarcasm, ridicule, mockery—these things can shut down a rational discussion quickly. Our goal is to open the discussion up to a variety of points of view and remain calm about them. Our interest is not winning but instead working together to solve a problem or arrive at an understanding.

We need to assume that people preparing to discuss an issue are relatively rational at the outset and hope they are assuming the same thing about us. We also need to take a look at our own mental state and try to predispose ourselves to rational thinking. Are there any unhelpful emotional reactions we’re having that will interfere with clear thinking? Emotional reactions are fine—after all, we’re human and have emotions—but resist falling into the grip of a strong emotion. We want to keep things rational and pragmatic.

Obviously we are deeply connected to our emotions, but our emotions are not us, they’re only a part of us; and we need to keep them in perspective. A lot of people mistakenly believe they are thinking when in fact they are having an emotional reaction. Polarization occurs when someone thinks their interests are in jeopardy, and that is a situation likely to cause an emotional reaction in most of us. The best time to shut down a polarizing situation is to start while everyone is still reasonable.

Perspective-6 or 9

Just because someone disagrees with you does not make them stupid. It is possible for intelligent people to look at the same set of facts and come to differing conclusions. One of the most effective ways to defuse polarization is to determine what everyone agrees on. When things start to get a little heated, make a list of the areas of agreement. Identify the areas where there is no dispute. This can help people feel less threatened.

Do we have the facts? Have we clearly identified them and separated them from other sorts of statements, like statements of belief or opinion? Are there any cognitive biases that are twisting or distorting the information? The great thing about a statement of fact is that it is independently verifiable. What that means is that you can find out facts for yourself without resorting to hasty assumptions or relying on someone else for information. If I say it’s raining right now, you don’t need an interpreter or an expert to determine if I’m being factual, you can look for yourself. If you’re having trouble agreeing on a statement or claim, then there’s a fair chance the statement is not a statement of fact.

The next step in keeping things rational is to determine which particular statements are causing problems. What makes those statements problematic? Is there appropriate support or evidence for the claims? What is it that feels suspicious and why does it seem questionable? Put things into categories to make it easier to see what you are dealing with.

Another helpful tactic is to specifically identify the issue and then list the kinds of support offered. Underscore the statement that seems to both sum the up issue and present a point of view about it. Locate and examine the support for the claim. Support can be such things as facts, expert testimonials, statistics, examples, concrete details. Is the support sufficient and convincing, or is more support needed?

Identifying the facts. Assessing the support. Rooting out cognitive bias. Establishing the the topic. These steps are essential in any rational discussion, but the one thing we have a tendency to overlook is ourselves and our own limitations. Once we fully understand that there are limits to our own thinking abilities, we’re more likely to be tolerant of the limitations of others.

A Right to Know?

page-Primer-The-New-England

A page from the New England Primer, an old text book used to teach reading

 

“There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent–-or less―of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

“I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.”

Newsweek: “A Cult of Ignorance,” by Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980, p. 19. PDF.

Asimov’s assertion is not that Americans are illiterate–can’t read or write–but that Americans are just barely functionally literate. Functional literacy is that state in which you can read enough to survive but don’t read for pleasure or understanding or enlightenment. You read only the material necessary to perform a societal function, only that material necessary to do your job. True literacy is the ability to read for pleasure rather than necessity, the ability to exercise some curiosity and find out what others have said about the world and human experience.

Know Your Place

yellow-lightning-bolt-1537946

 

I am drinking my morning cup of covfefe and reading/watching the fake news. A memory popped into my head, and I’m going to share it with you. Pretty sure it’s a real memory.

When I was in my early twenties, I had occasion to be on a beach at night on one of the keys sprinkled along the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa/St. Pete. As a Philadelphia kid, I had never seen bioluminescence.  The beaches near Philadelphia don’t interact much with swimmers. Here on the Gulf, I was captivated. And I hadn’t seen Jaws.  

Swimming at night was a thing way back then. It wasn’t unusual for a group of us on the beach at night to coeducationally disrobe and wade into the water, but the water where we were did not start shining in streaks of electric green and blue.

I was alone on this Gulf beach this particular night and waded in. I knew better than to swim alone in open water at night, but here the water was about knee-deep for hundreds of yards. I was mesmerized by the trails of bio-luminescence swirling behind me as I waded farther out, and I started making long streaks through the water with my hands and fingers. 

I stopped splashing to look up at the stars for a moment, and then I heard it. Someone else was in the water with me, but I wasn’t hearing a splashing sound. It was more like the sound of a sailboat cutting through the water. Shhh-shhhh-shhh. Zigzags of glowing water looked like a lateral lightning bolt in the water. And then I saw the fin. 

Remarkably, I had the presence of mind to wonder could that be a shark. And I realized it was getting closer quickly. I backed up a few steps, then turned and ran out of the water. I sat on the beach and watched the fin cruise back and forth for a few minutes before veering back out into the dark unfathomable expanse of the Gulf of Mexico.

I tell you this story to demonstrate that even relatively intelligent people can be so blinkered as to not recognize danger signals when they see them. 

During this moment in American political life, many US citizens seem unaware or indifferent to the danger facing the nation. They believe nothing they do will change anything. They have fallen into the poison of cynicism.

When a president acts like the country works for him instead of the other way around, we’ve got trouble. It’s an indication that the officeholder no longer has the intellectual humility to perform his duties. The president is an employee of the American people, hired by the voters. Don’t let your representatives forget they work for you. It helps keep them out of trouble. 

Traitors Under the Bed

cheated-clipart-traitor

President Trump continues to trash any effort to have a rational discussion about US foreign policy toward Iran, among a number of other issues that cry out for rational discussion. Critics of Trump’s policy have been personally attacked by him in the most scurrilous manner: by calling into question the patriotism of the Democratic Party leadership and accusing it of fraud.

Paul Graham, a computer scientist, in his essay “How to Disagree” analyzes persuasion techniques from the least to the most effective. This hierarchy isn’t really new or original to Graham (he borrows heavily from earlier thinkers on the subject) but his essay has gained a bit of popularity for his attempt to rate different kinds of persuasive approaches.

Working with the opposing viewpoint to improve it is among the most effective persuasion techniques one could use. Unlike forensic debate techniques, the cooperative approach emphasizes that the search for truth is a collaborative enterprise and not a competitive one. Forensics turn an argument into an “I gotcha” contest. But the truth is not a contest. It is a journey we take together.

Accusing your political opponents of aiding and abetting the enemy (as President Trump did following criticism of his decision to assassinate a foreign leader) is counterproductive and unethical. This technique used to be called ad hominem or “to the man” because it amounts to a personal attack rather than a discussion of the central point at hand.

We argue ideas, not personal characteristics. We present rigorous support for our claims and do not tolerate sloppy, misleading claims designed to impugn the character of those who disagree. Don’t try to corner or trap anyone who presents questionable claims; the idea is to try to help those who disagree with you to come to a smarter, improved point of view. In a disagreement, don’t tear down. Build up. “You got this part right, but maybe we could improve things over in this section” is a statement we all could utter more frequently.

When does an accusation cross the line? When it lacks support and is not on topic. The ad hominem attack is a clever trick that can catch those who aren’t paying attention and sway their thinking for the wrong reasons. It’s bad enough these tactics are being used by the President, but what’s even worse is that we all seem to be getting accustomed to these tactics and simply shrug when they come up in argument. But be warned: this is not politics as usual.