elements of truth | Number 142


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The tree of knowledge

Michel Baumann lists eight essential questions for judging the reliability of information.

We live in a time when the lie is halfway around the world before the truth half gets out of bed. Half-educated fools claiming to be experts in everything, to sharpening and leveling political information, defamation of opponents, latest rumors of crisis, creation of alternative facts, targeted disinformation campaigns, how do you know what you are being told is true?

You don’t.

Birmingham Museums Trust via Unsplash

Almost nothing that you know or believe in the world is based on your own experience. Almost everything you know or believe about the world you know with confidence. This applies to both information concerning questions of fact and information concerning questions of causation. There is a good reason for the motto of the British Royal Society (of Science): Null in verba: ‘Take no one’s word for it’. Rather, you should assess for yourself the reliability of the information presented to you.

Here is a list of eight questions you should ask: four relating to the source of the information and four relating to the information itself.

1. What is the quality of the information channel?

Did the information reach you through a peer-reviewed publication, professor’s monograph, textbook, edited secondary publication, encyclopedia, conference , presentation, face-to-face conversation, newspaper article, TV show, blog, YouTube video or social media post? You have to assess the quality of the information based on the quality of the information channel.

2. Who is the main source of information?

Is the main source a specialist scientist, a general expert, a civil servant, a professional in the relevant field (an accountant, a doctor, a banker or a lawyer), a journalist, a teacher – in a university, a high school or a elementary school – a friend, a colleague, a “knowledgeable” person, a politician, a salesperson? Is the author of the information competent? What are his references? What is his track record?

3. Is the main source of information independent?

Who pays the bills from the primary source? Taxpayers, a newspaper, a television station, a business, a political party or an interest group (for example, the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, the oil industry)? Follow the money.

4. What is the intention of the communication?

Encourage, enlighten, inform, educate, test, self-glorify, calm, convince, confuse, deceive, deceive, enrage, panic? Who benefits from the communication?

5. How was the knowledge acquired?

By original research (for example, from a theory, or by laboratory experiments, or field studies), by file searches (a review of the literature, an exploratory review, a comparison of texts, or a meta-analysis), based on anecdotes, listening-to-tell, guessing, like popular wisdom?

6. Does the information appear to be complete?

Is the information up to date? Has someone preselected the information for you? Have the inconsistencies been corrected? Have alternative interpretations been explored?

7. Can the information be independently validated?

Has the communication been peer reviewed? Are references cited and available? Are the research hypothesis, experimental design, data collection and analysis described in sufficient detail that you can replicate the results, at least in principle?

8. Does the information appear to be unbiased?

Are the results statistically significant? Is the size of the effect statistically relevant? Are the logic of the argument and the conclusions valid?

Judging the reliability of information forces you to think, and thinking in general makes a lot of people uncomfortable – but hopefully not you! In any case, it is your duty as a citizen to be well informed.

Eight questions, four relating to the source of the information and four relating to the information itself, is a fairly easy checklist to keep in mind.

© Dr Michael Baumann 2021

Michael Baumann lives and teaches in Vancouver. This article is an excerpt from his public service project Elements of truth, which can be found at ElementsofTruth.ca. It is a toolbox for the informed citizen.


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