The Information Economy, part 3

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.

fractal network

fractal network

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.

The Information Economy, part 2

My earlier posts about the energy economy referred to the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and the technological options involved. Like all the transitions now under way, this one involves a change of habits at every scale. Our technology is an extension of our habits, a framework that constrains them while also affording them opportunities for development.

fractal information

fractal information

Any change that actually improves our way of living – makes it more sustainable and less destructive, or enhances its connectivity with the rest of the biosphere – involves learning. And just as our civilization requires inputs of energy from natural sources, learning requires information from reliable sources.

The word ‘information’ has many and varied uses for various purposes. Here it refers to whatever informs our habits, shapes them, makes a difference to their form. (This is explained much more fully in my peer-reviewed paper on Peircean semiotics, Rehabilitating Information.) Humanity needs to be better informed in order to inhabit the Earth in a healthier way than we do now. But the information economy is currently suffering from inflation: there are far more messages available to us than we have time to pay attention to. Even as the supply of cheap energy dwindles, we are flooded with more cheap messages than ever. Many are generated by advertising and propaganda for corporate or partisan interests, some of them pushing an agenda quite contrary to the common good. There’s also a flood of what i call tabloid information, which may also affect our habits, but not in a way that enhances our connectivity with the real world. Propaganda and entertainment (including ‘infotainment’) are multi-billion-dollar industries today, so the messages they produce are not ‘cheap’ in terms of the financial investment that went into them – i call them ‘cheap’ because they’re not worth paying much attention to.

Information is useful to the extent that it serves some purpose; propaganda, for instance, is useful to whoever benefits from the belief it aims to propagate. But information is genuine to the extent that it connects form, experience and reality. Our purposes guide our habitual practices, but they can only work within the limits of our imagination and our experience – and we habitually forget how limited these are. Reality is much broader than anyone’s experience and much deeper than we imagine. But our only direct contact with reality is through experience, and our only way of comprehending experience is by recognizing the forms embodied in it. This means that our only way of learning anything is through signs connecting form, experience and reality to create genuine, habit-changing information. But when learning opportunities occur, our attentional habits – the habits which determine what we pay attention to and what we ignore – often make the difference in how we read the signs, and thus whether we learn anything from them or not.

One of our deepest instinctive habits is to maintain the integrity of our belief system. If a new message or other sign conflicts with strong beliefs, you are unlikely to accept it unless your own experience (or something even stronger) forces you to. But since most human belief systems are fairly complex (even though they simplify the real world for us), it’s not unusual for new information to conflict with some part of the system while confirming other parts. If it turns out to be a genuine discovery, then your whole belief system will reorganize itself, incorporating some new beliefs and eliminating some old ones. In other words, you will learn something that changes your habits. This is how common sense evolves. But habit systems would rather not change if they can avoid it: they are naturally conservative, because their survival depends on stability and consistency.

Belief systems tend to conserve their own simplicity in the face of life’s complexities. One way of doing this is to adopt certain beliefs as fundamental, which means clinging tenaciously to them and rejecting or ignoring whatever would challenge them. But faith in a fundamental belief is at best a substitute for genuine faith in the integrity of the belief system as a living whole capable of growth. If we have genuine faith in our ability to recognize the truth about some subject – which does not depend on what any person or group thinks about it – then we have to accept that any one belief is fallible, open to question and improvement. That doesn’t mean we can question everything at once – questioning itself relies on the integrity of the belief system, which means that in practice we have to take some things for granted in order to question others. Some beliefs may be taken for granted so consistently and productively that nothing ever happens to call them into question. But if and when the question does arise, the healthy belief system is open to it, whereas the fundamentalist will fight to keep itself closed.

When the process of inquiry goes public, new complications arise because we are dealing with a collective belief system that can only learn by testing new ideas against many observations. In science (meaning an organized system of public inquiry), a hypothesis that would modify the established belief system is not accepted unless it is supported by the experiments or observations of many independent investigators, and even then its acceptance is provisional. In order to count as part of this testing process, an investigation must be open to the scrutiny of other investigators qualified to assess its methods: the individual can only contribute to the inquiry as part of a network. The author of a new idea may arrive at it through intuition or inspired guesswork, but she can’t rely on her authority to get it accepted into the scientific belief system. In science, as C.S. Peirce pointed out, ‘experience is our only teacher’ and authority counts for nothing. But since this kind of inquiry requires a large investment of time and attention (not to mention money), often for inconclusive results, only a minority of people can fully engage in the kind of specialized inquiry we call scientific. In the broader community, since we can’t afford that kind of investment, we have only indirect access to that kind of experience. So we have to rely on simpler ways of deciding what information to accept or reject.

One short cut we commonly use is to rely on the authority of specific trusted sources. But how do we know what sources to trust? The simplest way is to trust those who tell us what we already believe – but this amounts to indulging in self-deception. Another way is to trust those sources which are most persuasive. But as we all know, persuasion has become a highly sophisticated, powerful and lucrative industry, often used – by those who can afford it – to manipulate public opinion. So this leaves us open to another kind of deception, unless we apply some critical thinking to the means of persuasion. Hence the importance of ‘sales resistance’ for the information economy.

Accordingly, many of us are in the habit of ‘questioning authority’ and resisting whatever we hear from the mainstream media, the scientific or professional establishment, or the government. Indeed this is just common sense, given the level of corporate ownership and influence over all of the above. But we sometimes overcompensate for our distrust of the establishment by placing uncritical trust in ‘alternative’ sources of information. We seem to think that since the ‘authorities’ are constantly lying to us, anyone who makes a point of opposing them must be telling the whole truth. This tends to make us partial to unconventional beliefs, ‘revolutionary’ (but untested) theories, ‘alternative’ medical treatments and so on.

When we are partial to a belief, we tend to overlook the lack of evidence for it. This makes us partial to conspiracy theories, which give us a convenient excuse for ignoring the lack of evidence: it’s not there because “They” have conspired to cover it up! Only a believer in conspiracy theories would think that the lack of supporting evidence for a theory is a good reason to believe it. Conspiracy theories are tempting, though, because we all know that conspiracies do happen; besides, the corporate media do suppress information, when they can get away with it, without even having to conspire. But the only way to stop them getting away with it is to find and document the facts and make them public. Endless debates about who killed JFK or who was responsible for 911 or what’s hidden at Roswell are the stuff of tabloid information, not genuine public inquiry.

If we believe anything simply because it’s contrary to what established science or authority says, or accept anything as fact without looking at the evidence for and against it, we’re indulging in self-deception. That’s a step backward in the evolution of common sense, which calls for critical thinking to be applied impartially to every idea that claims a place in our belief system – and it’s the beliefs we are partial to that really need our critical attention. We can’t honestly claim to know something unless we can tell how we know it.

But this brings us back to the clash between the flood of information and the limitations of our attention. Genuine critical thinking is not easy, and we don’t have time to apply it to everything. So the third and last part of this series will set forth a few guidelines for judging whether an information source is worth paying attention to or not. There’s nothing terribly original in these guidelines – they’re just common sense, really. But like any other set of tools, they’re more likely to be used wisely if we can see why they work.

Gathering on the hill: Ways of Connecting

On Sunday, November 15, the Resilient Manitoulin group will gather at the ski hill near Honora Bay (also known as the Café in the Woods) at 2 p.m. As in previous gatherings, we will report on progress made, lessons learned and projects under way. Everyone is welcome to take part.

The potluck this time will be at the end of the gathering, around 5 p.m. (and it’s optional). We hope to maintain the traditions of local food and zero waste, or as close to those ideals as we can get.


We take turns convening these gatherings, and that includes choosing a theme. My choice for this one is Ways of Connecting. The idea is that all our specific projects and practices are inspired by a deep sense that Everything is connected, as it was expressed in the film Fierce Light (as i’ve mentioned on this blog before). Or looking at it from the other side, most of the bad habits we see in the global consumer culture are symptoms of disconnection from the larger systems around us – either people from human communities, or humanity from the ecosystems within which we live (or both). So building resilience has a lot to do with reconnecting.

When we invest our efforts in on-the-ground ‘practical’ projects, the results don’t always turn out as wanted or expected, and this can put a strain on the very sense of connection which inspired the effort in the first place. This is natural, because working toward any specific goal requires us to focus on a partial purpose – which means losing our sense of connection with the greater whole, and forgetting how much lies beyond that limited focus. So we need some kind of ‘spiritual’ practice – i put that in quotation marks because some folks don’t like the word, but i don’t have a better one – to renew or maintain our deeper sense of connection.

I call these ways of connecting, in the plural, because there’s no one practice that works for everyone. And although it’s often hard to express these practices in words, i think we can bear witness to them, and hear the testimony of others, in ways that benefit all of us. This in turn could make a difference to the practical projects we take on, and give us a different perspective on various things going on around us as well.

That’s my basic idea, anyway, and i’ll bring some resources that might clarify it. We’ll see what happens.

Gary Fuhrman