Making Sense of a Second-hand World
We are engulfed by an incessant flow of alleged information – newspapers, radio, TV, Facebook, and more that I don’t deign to notice.
So how to distinguish fact from fiction? News from opinion? Reality from propaganda?
We may have views about Russia, climate change, the NHS, but how were these views informed? How do we decide which reports to trust and which to discard?
The honest answer is that we assess incoming reports according to our prejudice – our pre-judgements (you may prefer a less loaded term such as “existing belief”, but I will use “prejudice” in this technical sense in this article).
In truth we have little choice – the time required to validate all incoming “information” precludes the task; and yet – this leaves us vulnerable to changing circumstance that may invalidate our prejudice, or our prejudice may be just plain wrong.
So we should look out for the report that challenges our prejudice, and be prepared to re-evaluate – otherwise we are on the slippery slope to becoming a politician . . .
Certainty is Elusive – Embrace Probability
As scientists we accept that we live in a world of probability – we know almost nothing for certain. Every “fact” that we think we know exists on a spectrum between (but excluding) zero probability and absolute certainty. We can normally be pretty confident who our Mum is, but we all know that some children are adopted. Things are not always as we assume.
As normal human beings (assuming infallible memory) we can believe in events that we witness directly. In truth, how little of our daily input is that?
We can assign lower credence to live transmissions (being aware that this might be slanted by selection from all possible footage, chosen camera angles, etc).
Recordings can be edited and should be accorded only as much veracity as we ascribe to the source that brings it (helpfully the BBC feels the need to instruct us why we can trust them – does their article accord with your prejudice?).
Everything that reaches us is open to a degree of suspicion.
Matching Prejudice against Reports
There is clearly a risk that a report may turn out to be wrong.
For example “the earth is not spherical but oblate” or the latest Treasury pronouncement on the expected devastation to be wrought by Brexit. Both reports may be considered trustworthy if they match our prejudice and if we trust the source.
On the other hand, a report that the moon had been discovered to be made of cheese after all would challenge our prejudice. Nonetheless the moon would still orbit and affect the earth as before and this challenge would be unlikely to impact our lives, so why worry about it?
The cheese notion might also challenge our prejudice on NASA’s (and America’s) credibility, which would be very significant since they claim to have collected moon rock not made of parmesan. On this basis further investigation would be in order (is it dated 1st April?).
But who would go down this line of reasoning for such an improbable report? Most would assume that the report suffers from extreme improbability regardless and should be summarily dismissed (caveat assumptor).
a) Identify the prejudice/s by which we have judged a report.
b) Does the report challenge our prejudice on the matter reported?
c) If a challenged prejudice might be wrong, would it affect how we act in future?
d) Might the report challenge our existing level of trust in the source?
If (c) or (d) are “yes”, then we need to investigate further to either qualify the report, revise our prejudice, or update our trust in the source.
Human frailty may kick in to affect our judgement; is an overturned prejudice acceptable to us?
For example, we have heard that a family member has done something deplorable. Would we dismiss that report out of hand? Would we be prepared to risk reassessing our prejudice (and much else besides)? Are the implications likely to be more than we are prepared to face up to?
Or what if you have identified a report that clearly cannot be accepted at face value, from a trusted source – do you need, are you prepared, are you even able to challenge all your long-held prejudices that were based on previous reports from that source?
In similar vein, do we allow mainstream opinion to cause us to self-censor? Might we be afraid of being dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist” (or other variant of “nutter”) if we conclude that some widely-accepted belief merits a challenge? What price social standing
Honing our Prejudice
Our prejudice is as suspect as that of anyone else, so we should review it and understand why we hold it.
Is our prejudice letting us down or is the challenging article at fault? Doing some work to check it out is a good way to reinforce the issue in our mind so that we will remember the result; cross-checking the doubtful article as best we can is good. We can search out other reports on the same subject, check an alt media outlet for a different perspective, and Google both the topic and the author (it’s amazing what pops up).
Most of us will have neither time nor inclination to do a theoretically rigorous job, but improvement is acceptable even if certainty is (as always) out of reach.
Sometimes we just have to put things away in the “unresolved” file and maintain an open mind, whilst hoping that something else will come along to shed more light on it. This too is a valid revision of our prejudice.
To keep our prejudice challenged we should read reports from as wide a range of sources as possible – restricting our diet to one or two is unlikely to generate enough inconsistency to keep us awake.
In Part Two we check out other signs which may influence how trustworthy we assess an article to be.