Critically Handling Information
In our culture today, we are an information-heavy society. Knowledge is power. The Information Superhighway; the internet; Wikipedia; Siri and Google; pretty much everything you would ever want to know is an app click or a search bar away. However, it is a double-edged sword. As I’ve written about previously, there is always a mixture of information and misinformation, and I want to continue on that theme… the theme of sorting out what to believe and what not to.
Most people who are paying attention to the outside world are going to be very hard to fool with a bad forgery (in my previous post on this topic I used a rather absurd example of creating a handshake between Yassar Arafat and Barack Obama in a Camp David meeting that never happened). The problem is that most forms of bad information are harder to catch. For example, this article on Real Farmacy has been floating around Facebook for the last two weeks and it is declaring that sunscreen is causing cancer – in which it cites: A newspaper article summing up a clinical study, a dermatopathologist (?) who wrote a book no one ever read, a pair of non-profit organizations, and a news site with a reputation for dodgy information. The problem is that twenty seconds on google will lead you directly to the original newspaper article (with a complete summary of the conclusions and limitations of the study), the Wikipedia entry on the dermatopathologist that gives background to the out-of-context quotations, and a litany of websites that debunk both non-profits and the external news site. Seeing that this is the case, I wanted to take a moment to talk about something that simply doesn’t get discussed enough – sources.
… and the stranger the stranger, the bigger the danger. First things first: not all information is created equal. Data is all equal, “information” is not. Data is a observed fact that is usually the result of an experiment. If someone eats digitalis extract, they suffer blurred vision, nausea and vomiting within 15 minutes and are dead in less than 30. That is data. How strong every earthquake from the last thirty years have been. That is data. Information is a conclusion drawn from data (we hope). “Digitalis extract is poisonous!” That is information. “Killer Bees are approaching from Argentina!” That is information.
Secondly: with information not being all equal, it becomes very important “where” you draw your information from. Information, as a whole, is very flexible – it can be manipulated, hidden, edited, added to, taken away from, synthesized like a jigsaw puzzle, discarded like a used handkerchief or venerated as gospel truth – a trait that data simply does not have. Because of this fact, you should always be wary of not just “what” information a source is giving you… but “why”. In more usual nomenclature, this is referred to as the “editorial bias”. Information is being elevated as relevant before it makes its way to your computer, tablet or smartphone, so it would be helpful to have at least an idea of why your source is elevating this specific piece of information. When you understand what is important to your source, you have a better idea of whether or not the information they are presenting should have the weight they are giving it or should be ignored entirely.
With all information, there is one golden question that you should always ask: “Cui bono?” (“who benefits?” for those who never took Latin). That said, just about every source will fall into one of four categories, which I will chronicle here:
This is by far the most obvious. These are the people about whom all the articles and stories are written – the movers and shakers who go the farthest in shaping our world. While you have to be careful about falling into the logical fallacy of appealing to authority (the government says “X”, so therefore “X” because government), the people who are newsworthy do generally (and rightly) command more attention than most sources. Obviously that statement has its limits, because the easiest way to tell that a politician is lying to you is that they are talking. Just by way of example: the moon landing. Yes, all the conspiracies… but did you notice that the people who would know it wasn’t legit (ie, the Russians) and would have had every reason to discredit the moment chose not to do so? Or, how about this, a CEO of a giant tech firm that makes security software starts talking up about Net Neutrality? These are examples of people with authoritative knowledge giving out information… pay attention to that stuff.
The News Services
The various news services are how most people acquire a basic knowledge of what has happened in the world. Unfortunately, most are either oblivious or willingly negligent when it comes to sorting out editorial biases in the News Services. Ideally, the people writing the articles have, as their primary occupation, some sense of keeping the “Newsworthy” types honest and accountable. Unfortunately, News Services are made up of human beings – which means they have a very human agenda and, at least, a subconscious bias in the way information is handled and what is important. Because ABC, NBC and CBS have limited amounts of time to talk about what is happening in the world, they have to prioritize their information… which means they have to make a value judgment on what is important and what isn’t. Notice how, ever since the Sandy Hook shooting, we are hearing about every incident involving a gun that was within sight of an education building? Because the news media has decided that school shootings are important – at least partly because most of the mainstream news services are run by liberals who think Americans need their gun rights curbed anyway, but also because it is highlighting a trendy topic of school security. Newspapers have been doing this for centuries – what is the front page headline, and what can we push to the back page of the society section? The limits of space and time force at least “some” kind of bias in reporting – and right now people refuse to stop until they get enough. Information from News Services – while usually accurate – is well worth a fact check to make sure you are getting the whole story… or, at least, the important stories.
Among the four categories, the Activists are the most deceptive. While on the one hand they are more up front about their evangelical mission than the News Services would ever be, the Activists try very hard to put forth the perception that they are every bit as reliable as your favorite News Services. However, the blatant lens of activism means that data is far more likely to be misconstrued, over-extrapolated and even, in cases like the Real Farmacy article above, completely misrepresented in an attempt to provide evidence to build a case that serves the purpose of the particular Activist in question. For example, the Family Council is very right that 50% of all marriages in a given year in the United States end in divorce – however, they fail to mention that 60% – 70% (depending on the source) of all married people are still married to their first spouse. Activists can usually be spotted because they ask for your mental assent to their cause… and then immediately ask for your financial contribution as well. The anti-GMO lobby, most holistic medical sites, AGW adherents, Every Town for Gun Safety and Moms Demand, the NRA, the Tea Party, Labor Unions – all of those in this non-comprehensive list fall under the broad category of “The Activist”. As such, all information they put out should be viewed with extreme circumspection. They aren’t just trying to give you information… they are trying desperately to convince you of something – and that means that every argument has to be viewed in that “You will say anything to convince me” light.
Last but not least, we come to the average Joe on the street. I think we’ve all had that kind conversation with a friend where, “Hey… did you see that article I shared? It was… what was it about…? Oh yeah! Sunscreen is gonna kill you before you’re forty!” Not even the Activist said that. Information from Consumers is probably the single hardest to sort through, because the authority of the source is only derived relationally. If you don’t believe me, go read user product reviews on a random item in the Amazon store or of your favorite movie on Rotten Tomatoes… I’ll wait. Whenever it comes to information from a Consumer, there must always be that question of “Is this legit, or are they just dumb?” I’ll never forget being at MicroCenter and hearing a customer complaining about how terrible this one brand of computer is because it just wouldn’t turn on and they had only had it for a week…
“Well, did you plug it in when you got the battery warning?”
“Yeah, man… I plugged it into the little black box that’s supposed to charge the battery and it didn’t do ****!”
“What black box?”
“The black box it came with when I opened the package!”
“Sir… did you plug the charger into the wall?”
“How do you mean?”
Yeah… really. There are some people that if you asked them what the time of day was, you would still look at your phone and double check… those people.
What information you choose to believe and disseminate should be based primarily on what combination of sources it is derived from. If you are on Facebook and you see a link to a source that falls into the “Activist” column, you will do your own credibility a favor if you double-check the story before hitting “share”. Why? Because then you don’t have to put up with a jerk like me posting a link to Snopes that claims the entire thing is little more than Urban Myth.
If we want a really specific example, we could look at the unemployment rate. The government quotes that the unemployment rate is currently at 6.1% (data) and is therefore a sign that the economy is improving with increased hiring (information). Did you know that Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are completely wrong when they say that the unemployment rate is inaccurate? Because it is observable data based on the specific collection parameters that the Government has set in calculating the unemployment rate. In other words, attacking the number means you are criticizing data, which is demonstrably true, and “not the information”. We can accurately (and rightly) talk all day about how misleading the data is because of the research parameters, how narrow-yield the results are, or a deceptive sounding name; but the data itself can’t be questioned – unless you are accusing one of the collectors of simply fabricating it. The Government has decided that the “unemployment rate” is a not a simple measure of “folks out of work”, but rather is limited to a group of people who don’t fall into the “Long Term Unemployed” category – in other words, the Unemployment rate is specifically targeting people who are still looking for work and have been out of a job less than a year. The supposed “real unemployment rate” that sits at 12.1% is actually measuring all people who are out of work. To put it bluntly, the Unemployment Rate on the monthly jobs report and the U-6 (aka, the “Real Unemployment Rate) are radically different because they are measuring different things. Is the U-6 report an example of data that tells us more before drawing a conclusion? Potentially, but it isn’t proof that the current Unemployment rate is wrong… only that the data collection parameters for one are more narrow than the other. Remember, data is observable fact while information is a synthesized conclusion drawn from data.
Obviously the big problem is when data is misused to produce faulty information. In the modern era, throwing a number on to a claim is enough to make something “sound” authoritative enough that most people won’t question it. As that great American Abraham Lincoln once said,
“90% of all statistics on the internet are either made up or cited incorrectly.” — Abraham Lincoln
Going back to the Unemployment argument, the Unemployment Rate only shows an improvement to the economy if there is both a high labor-participation rate (measuring the ratio of long-term unemployment) and a collection of high-quality jobs created (measuring full-time, non-minimum wage employment). The number going down (data) isn’t enough to support the conclusion (improvement in the economy) because of the narrow nature of the data collection, but people will believe it is because the number is going down. Thus, at times, you have to sift through the “information” to find the data so that you can evaluate the claim you have been presented with. Here’s an example of a normal News Service type: “Turning today to the economy, it seems that investors have been given reason for optimism today with the releasing of the monthly jobs report. Last month, hiring exceeded expectations of most economists in adding an estimated 178,000 new jobs to the economy. Contrary to the dire projections in the wake of the recession and credit crisis, employers showed a renewed confidence in their expectation that business is about to pick up very shortly; causing the Unemployment rate to fall to 6.1% — its lowest mark in the last 5 years.” In those four sentences, there are a grand total of two pieces of data. 178,000 new jobs, and an Unemployment rate of 6.1%. All the talk of optimism, weak projections, and confidence in the market is not data… but rather, it is “information” that borders pretty closely with “opinion”. So the question is what’s missing from the above report? The other side of the coin. Yes, 178,000 new jobs were added to the economy and the unemployment rate fell… but what’s the labor participation rate? How many jobs were lost due to seasonal/temp hiring? Of the 178,000 jobs, how many were minimum-wage, entry-level positions? This is a perfect example of information being synthesized from too-little data.
All of this are things that should be taken into consideration when you are deciding what information you believe, what you reject, and (perhaps more importantly) what you share. Always consider your source, always run the bias filter, and check to make sure that the data supports the conclusion – especially so if the source isn’t rock solid.
((sorry for the huge post))