New Civilization News: False Authorities    
 False Authorities16 comments
picture11 Oct 2002 @ 14:06, by Flemming Funch

Some more thoughts and hints about recognizing false or misleading information.

So much information is passing through our lives that we most of the time have to rely on the word of somebody else in deciding what is true or false. Often it is relative strangers talking to us about events and people far away. Journalists, scientists, public officials telling us about what goes on in Iraq, on the moon, in laboratories, or many other places where we can't easily go and verify the story. And we usually wouldn't know how to verify it.

So, what we do is:
  • We examine the story itself, to figure out if it is internally consistent. I.e. does it agree with itself?
  • We look at the presented credentials of the people who present the story to us. I.e. does their position or qualifications seem to match the story they're telling us?
  • We look for any claims of endorsenment or verification from people we might know or trust. I.e. who else says this is true?
  • We assess the presentation of the material. Body language, writing style, tone of voice. Is it consistent with somebody telling the truth?

    None of that is really any evidence of whether we're being told the truth or not. But they act as initial, superficial steps of due dilligence in trying to verify whether something is real or not. In many cases we don't have time to do anything more than that.

    To me personally, the fourth method is the most reliable. But I'm trained in watching body language and noticing the nuances in people's voices. Most people seem to have little idea that somebody is lying to them, unless the signs are rather gross.

    So, besides learning to read people better, it would be worthwhile for most people to become very clear on the different kinds of traps presented in attempting to trust some potentially phoney Authority figure.

    All good stories are internally consistent. It is one of the qualities of good fiction that everything fits together. Even if is a very fantastic story, if it agrees with itself, and it makes sense why things are the way they are, we're willing to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the story. If the hero can fly, we'll accept it if there's a suitable explanation for why. But if there's no explanation, and he then suddenly can't fly on the next page, we're not so likely to buy it.

    That people have a certain job title, or a degree in some subject, doesn't mean they won't lie to you. On the contrary, it makes it all the more likely that they're the people who's job it is to lie to you. The director of the CIA might well be qualified to know what is going on in the CIA, but he's also very likely to have reason to lie about most of it.

    Endorsements from other parties is often what convinces the casual observer that something is true. Even if the endorsements are worthless or false. A great many well-meaning, but naive, e-mail users are forwarding millions of e-mail messages containing all sorts of phoney scams, based on the included reference to some impressive authority. "We got this from IBM this morning". Or, it appears like somebody verified the claims and found them to be true. "I didn't believe this, but I called and spoke with __ and it is all true". That would sell a lot of people, even if the claim was completely false.

    Notice that there are people who try to tell you that things are in a certain way, and there are people who try to tell you that things are NOT in a certain way. And those are very different people, doing it for very different reasons.

    In an open, freely networked environment, like the Internet, people are most likely to fall prey to false stories about what something IS, or about what exists, or what happened. There are hundreds of urban legends that are impossible to kill, no matter how much they've been researched and found to be false. Because there will always be somebody else who hears about it, finds it to be plausible, and forwards it to all their friends. Doesn't matter if there's a webpage somewhere that explains why it is a scam, unless people actively go and search for that information. So, the free network is encouraging the acceptance of a huge variety of data, of very mixed quality.

    An authoritarian environment would work differently. If we're talking about primetime news, statements from public officials, or scientific authorities, the denials are what is most powerful. It doesn't matter if there's plenty of evidence available that something happened, if a suitable Authority is able to say with a straight face on national TV that it is all nonsense - that is what stands. What is happening or what happened might be the evidence of global warming, thoroughly researched by hundreds of scientists, or it might be some extraterrestrial spaceship crashing in some little town, with dead bodies all over and hundreds of witnesses. Still, somebody in power can dispel it quite quickly and rapily, and relegate it to the fringes.

    So, again, on the Internet, in a freely networked environment, if you think you've been abducted by aliens and you have a good story about it, your story will live forever. In the hierarchical authoritarian world of government and traditional media, even if thousands of people happened to be abducted by aliens in broad daylight, with plenty of witnesses, it would just be an episode on the Twilight Zone, unless the people in power really want you to know it is true.

    So, in the free peer-to-peer world, be suspicious of people who present or gather wild stories, who might not have verified them sufficiently, but who nevertheless act very certain about them.

    In the authoritarian government, scientific community, or mass media world, be suspicious of people who insist quite forcefully that something doesn't exist, couldn't happen, isn't important, isn't known, or couldn't be known. They will often say that it is "unproven". Global warming is unproven. Or if they're really trying to hide something, they'll say it is "nonsense". Faster-than-light travel and extra-terrestrials and secret space programs is all nonsense.

    Powerful people who run governments and media conglomerates can easily get access to good information. They can afford to send somebody to go check things out. If they pretend that the information is unavailable or unclear or unproven or inconclusive, it is usually a coverup for something they'd rather not tell you.

    The little people often can't afford to verify most things they're interested in. And if they are kind of sloppy about verifying it, it is a lot easier for the Authorities to call it nonsense. There is a growing breed of researchers who research things mainly by searching on the Internet and meticulously piecing scenarios together. They try to fit the pieces together into a story that is consistent with itself. That is often possible, even if some of the piece are untrue. Be wary of excessive certainty from people who probably aren't able to go and check things out.

    Not everybody who has a great story has a correct one. True stories are marked by being true, not just by being great stories that make sense and that explain some things.

    So, verify things. Check several sources. Talk with people. Check references.

    And if you listen to powerful people, assume they've already done these things. So, don't believe it if they try to feed you uncertainty.

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    12 Oct 2002 @ 00:13 by shawa : Good entry, Ming.
    I´ve read that carefully. :-)
    As a therapist, I´m trained to "read" body language; what flummoxed me several times in my Internet time - is the absence of that. Learned to "translate" ways of communicating in writing - though that, too, can be faked. So, in the end, it´s what you feel, taking some degree of risk, and being clear about yourself, what you want, what you don´t want, and who you are.  

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