If you are engaging in a genuine inquiry – that is, trying to find out the truth, whether it agrees with your current opinion or not – then you need sources of information beyond your own limited experience. But on any given question, there are likely to be more sources available than you can possibly use – especially if you are searching the Internet (rather than, say, your local public library). Therefore you have to select the sources worth investing your attention in, and filter out the rest. Your personal prejudices – which we all have – don’t work very well as filters because they will reinforce whatever self-deception you might be indulging in.But there are some common-sense principles by which you can select reliable sources, and these will weed out most delusions and deceptions (although some may still get through the filters simply because we are all fallible). I’ll give a short list of these below, but first we need to clarify the difference between genuine and bogus information.
Genuine information is not necessarily useful for ‘practical’ purposes, because practical purposes are limited and partial. Sometimes ‘useless’ information is just what we need for the deeper purpose of forming or reforming our habits and partial purposes, moving them toward a deeper connection with the wholeness of reality. The arts, although they may seem to offer nothing but diversion from ‘the real world’, can afford us genuine information by refreshing our perception. A play or work of art can show us real possibilities we hadn’t imagined, or present our own habits to us in a new context (holding the mirror up to nature, as Hamlet says). On the other hand, ‘information’ that distracts our attention from the real world without refreshing our perception is useless for learning anything. This is what i call tabloid information, after the kind of media which are devoted to distraction.
Distraction (or “entertainment”) is a lucrative industry these days, but there’s an even more lucrative industry devoted to disinformation. This is even worse than useless because it misrepresents reality in order to serve some partial purpose, such as increasing corporate profits or advancing some partisan agenda. Standards of ‘truth in advertising’ and ethics in ‘public relations’ are supposed to protect us from disinformation, but the public agencies charged with enforcing those standards are sometimes overruled or manipulated by those in power – especially those who owe their positions of power to the success of their own disinformation campaigns!
Some people call disinformation “propaganda”, but that’s not what the word means. By definition, propaganda is anything that propagates a particular point of view. An activist who discovers a particular truth through honest investigation might devote herself to propagating it (informing others of it) simply because it’s important. Marie-Monique Robin’s documentary film The World According to Monsanto is an example. On the other hand, a corporation might want to sell more of its product, and therefore propagate a positive image of it rather than the whole truth about it. Monsanto’s own advertising (or indeed just about any advertising) is an example. An activist promoting a cause in which he sincerely believes (such as anti-nuclear or anti-wind power) might produce a third kind of propaganda, which differs from the first kind because it aims to propagate a belief without first engaging in honest inquiry to find out whether the belief is true.
In its lack of respect for the whole truth, this third kind of propaganda resembles advertising more than investigative journalism. The main difference is that the activist is usually quite sincere in his belief, while the advertiser doesn’t need to be sincere – he is paid for effective persuasion, not for what he believes. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth, as the sincere believer may be just as willing as the advertiser to filter out facts, testimony or reasoning that don’t suit his purpose. The honest inquirer, on the other hand, will not allow her belief to interfere with the quest for truth, not even in her propaganda. She will instead present all sides of the issue that are even partially valid, and explain (if necessary) why one side is more valid than another. This kind of propaganda often comes closer to the truth than so-called “objective” journalism, where the journalist follows the rule of giving equal time to both sides of a debate, even when he knows that one side is misinformed or lying. In order to avoid “editorializing”, this journalist is following a conventional business rule rather than the principles of genuinely investigative journalism. Those principles, because they respect both the whole truth and the common good, require a journalist to make some impartial common-sense judgements about the quality of information.
Propaganda is not necessarily disinformation, but even when it is truthful, it adds to the problem of inflation in the information economy, increasing the challenge of sorting out the genuine from the bogus. Previous posts in this series have tried to show that the first step in regaining control of our attention is to see how our own habits can lend themselves to self-deception. The next step is to show how self-critical thinking can help us meet the challenge of recognizing genuine information sources. If we can’t find reliable sources in the flood of bogus information, we can’t invest our attention wisely, and then we turn into ‘an entire culture suffering from attention deficit disorder’ (David Orr 2002, 72).
We can of course screen out bogus messages by disconnecting from the media which carry them (turning off the TV, or ignoring the tabloids at the supermarket checkout) – but if we get too selective, blocking out whatever we don’t want to hear, we cut ourselves off from genuine information and dialogue too. Indeed that is what Anders Breivik did, according to an acquaintance of his who was recently interviewed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. (Breivik is the man who killed at least 87 fellow Norwegians in the Islamophobic rampage of July 2011.) Insulating ourselves from information in this way doesn’t turn us all into mass murderers, but it could mean wrapping ourselves in such a comfortable cocoon that we never emerge into the real world.
We can invest our attention wisely in sources of genuine information if we can learn to distinguish them from the bogus. And we can recognize them by following a few common-sense guidelines, which i would formulate as follows:
• Anyone whom you know to be honest, impartial and well informed in a specific field is a reliable source of information in that field. If you want to know how to grow cucumbers, go to your neighbor who has been doing it successfully for years. Implicit here is the more general principle that learning builds on your belief system rather than replacing it: new information has to be integrated into your belief system in order to make a difference to your habits. This generally entails checking it against what you know from other sources. This takes time, which you don’t want to waste by checking claims that are highly implausible, or would not make much practical difference to our habits even if they were true. That’s the kind of claim we find in ‘tabloid information’.
• A reliable source is independent of other sources. In other words, the information provided by that source is based on her own experience or inquiry – it’s not just copied from somewhere else because it suits her purpose or prejudice. Sources who violate this principle include many climate change denial blogs and websites, which frequently repeat each other’s rumors, false claims and fabrications without checking the accuracy of the information for themselves. But in order to apply this principle, the inquirer would have to see that the information has been copied from elsewhere – and the perpetrator is unlikely to tell you that. Hence the next principle:
• Reliable sources use reliable sources themselves, and document those sources so that readers can check the origin and quality of their information. They also reveal their own identity and that of any organization they represent. “Front” groups for corporate interests (which many climate change denial sources are) usually try to conceal their affiliation with those interests, but this information is often easily found on the Internet, if you know how to look for it. Once you find that a source relies on unreliable sources, you can cross it off your own list of reliable sources.
• When reliable sources state their opinions or beliefs, they also present the factual evidence and reasoning on which those opinions are based. Bogus sources often appear to do this too; the difference is that bogus sources ‘cherry-pick’ the evidence to suit their pet belief rather than basing their belief on the facts or checking their opinion against all relevant facts, as an honest inquiry would do. Common sense recognizes that if you want to ‘prove’ something badly enough, you can usually find all sorts of ‘evidence’ and ‘reasons’ to back up that belief. But you wouldn’t do this if you respected the independence of truth from our beliefs. This kind of argument does pose a problem for the investigator because ‘cherry-picking’ is hard to detect if you aren’t somewhat familiar with the facts of the matter already. However, once you develop some skill as a researcher, you can readily spot this kind of thing, and sloppy or specious reasoning becomes pretty obvious. And once you’ve seen that a source is bogus, you don’t need to waste any more time on it in your quest for truth.
• When it comes to factual information, reliable sources are generally consistent with each other. (We are of course talking about independent sources here – consistency between sources counts for nothing if they are simply copying from each other.) Facts are public, available to all observers, and the reality of facts is independent of anyone’s belief in them. This is perhaps the most basic principle of common sense. If we really believed the contrary, that each person lives in a world of his own with its own set of facts, we could not even begin to communicate, let alone investigate. It follows that when factual statements conflict, we are entitled to assume that at least one of them is mistaken (or else that we have misunderstood the statements). On the other hand, when multiple independently reliable sources tell us the same thing, we are justified in believing it (until some new fact calls it into question).
The network of independent, consistent, reliable sources constitutes an information web that resembles in many ways the web of life. Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle, wrote that ‘Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ The same goes for everyone who contributes to the information web – as we all do, in one way or another. We can’t be sure whether a specific message or symbol (book, webpage, article, movie, broadcast, rumour or whatever) will turn out to be truly informative until we invest our attention in it. But by following the common-sense principles above, we can guess well enough to learn from the genuine information without being distracted too much by the bogus. This will lead to improvements in our habitation of the web of life, both individually and communally, because we will have a better understanding of the real situation we inhabit.