Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Primary Sources

I'll show my hand – I'm a scientist. That doesn't really mean anything special except that I play with chemicals and cells on a daily basis, pretending that I'm doing something worthwhile. It also means that I was trained to keep digging through exorbitant amounts of information out there, past the anecdotal evidence, and past the citations of citations, until the primary source is uncovered. Let me put it this way: although Wikipedia is a great initial source of information, if I was ever to cite that website as my primary reference in a scientific report I would be hung for heresy.

This training and my religion explain much of my aversion to rumors and hearsay, and likely underpins my suspicion of the media. Apparently, Mike Wise of the Washington Post shares these qualms enough that he tried to illustrate the lowered standards of the social media in checking the accuracy of information. After intentionally pumping false information into cyberspace, several reputable media outlets picked up, and published the "scoop". The irony in Mike's experiment is that he was criticizing people for not using reliable sources when he WAS their source. When it comes to news and current events, I admit that I am guilty of trusting my trusted (i.e. favorite) sources. However, I try to exercise due dilegence and check multiple outlets. There is so much peril in turning to a single source for the details of a story because the media is not objective. Jacob S. has posted several times on the monstrosity that is the Daily Herald, and demonstrated how creative biased journalists can be. Obviously the opposite end of the spectrum is just as guilty.

Beyond op-ed opinions sneaking into all aspects of reporting is the, arguably much more dangerous, selection of what is reported. Media is big business, and in our overtly capitalistic society, they are legally obligated to make the largest profit possible. As such, current events can be sifted and sorted until the most lucrative can be selected. Take Pastor Terry Jones of Gainsville Florida as a prime example. Here you have a backwater nobody, with a congregation of 50 nobodies that gains international recognition for wanting to burn a book he has ostensibly never read. Why do we care? Religious fanatics say and do crazy things all the time, so why was this one different? The only reason I can find is that the media picked up on the story and fed the flames. We care because all our sources told us to care. For the record, I think the right to burn books should be defended, but what's the impetus for all the commotion? How does some starved-for-attention small town pastor rise to the level of importance that requires correspondance from the nation's Seceratery of Defense Robert Gates?! Again, the only reason I can think of is that the media wanted to cash in (pun intended) on the hype around the two-blocks-away-from-ground-zero—ground-zero community-center/mosque.

The recent mobilization of the masses is interesting, noteworthy, and even exciting. My concern lies in their primary source for information and guidance. I overtly support public demonstrations, especially when enlisting the masses to question traditions of the parties, interests of the powerful, and failure to deal with discontent of the populace. We must be more diligent in verifying the information we are fed from primary sources. Too many lips talk-the-talk, but few feet walk-the-walk.


Scott Pug said...

While I'm not a scientist (well, I'm a computer scientist but not that other kind) I do fancy myself a "scientific" thinker.

I was actually talking to someone else about this sort of topic recently and they were talking about how effective the "misinformation campaign" led (mostly) by the Republicans during the health insurance reform debates really was. My contention was that it was only an effective tactic because of the lack of information available to the general public. We were being asked to blindly trust that the lobbyists and politicians would write legislation that had our best interests at heart without actually seeing any information on our own. The whole "We have to pass this bill to find out what's in it" summarized the whole debachle for me.

I've since reconsidered that stance, and I'm not sure that having the information out there would really help.

Since having that conversation I ran across this article talking about more or less the same thing.

The most interesting quote I got from the article was the following:
And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

It left me uncertain as to which group I belong. Am I the person that digs in the trenches when I'm feeling threatened, am I one of the "sophisticated" thinkers that is unwilling to cede because of my own confidence?

I really don't know, and I'm honestly not sure how to figure that out.

Jacob S. said...

I think if you are the type of person willing to go to multiple sources in an attempt to look at issues from multiple view points you are less likely to be the type that just digs in and views refuting arguments and facts as attacks. Of course even that person is blinded by ideology from time to time, but it's a good start.

I know the numbers in your quote weren't meant as precise or anything, Scott, but if I was right 90% of the time and only pig-headed 10% of the time I'd consider that a huge victory. And if educating the American public meant raising the level of factual correctness to 90% I'd also say that would be a goal well worth pursuing and not something to lament.

In the end, I think we are left with a basic struggle between too much and too little information. On the one hand, in the era of the internet and 24-hour news we all have access to more information than ever before. The available information is almost limitless, and that seems like a really good thing. But on the other hand, that means that there is plenty of room for misinformation, complete bias disguised as straight news, and ratings wars as Shawn described. I honestly don't know if there is a way to reconcile the two.

Scott Pug said...

I know the numbers in your quote weren't meant as precise or anything, Scott, but if I was right 90% of the time and only pig-headed 10% of the time I'd consider that a huge victory.

That would be awesome, but especially in all things politics it's basically impossible to be "right" 90% of the time. The Republicans are right, half the time. The Democrats are right, half the time.

Technically, not being affiliated with either group I have the potential to be right half the time, but in reality I disagree with both parties often enough I'm probably closer to wrong 90% of the time......

I think the author is correct that "it's a start, but not a solution".

The start would simply be getting people to start to think they _might_ have made the wrong decision and go from there. I agree with the author though, for _most_ people the very thought of admitting they might be wrong is a threatening thing.

I recently saw a Pew Poll (that I can't find the link to anymore, but I think I got it from a source on the Freakenomics blog) that was talking about confirmation bias.

Nearly 90% of Keith Olbermann's audience approve of President Obama's body of work, whereas just under 10% of Sean Hannity's audience approves of the same.

How do we get people to start seeking information but in such a way that will begin to erode confirmation bias?

I'm not sure it's possible.

Shawn O. said...

"How do we get people to start seeking information but in such a way that will begin to erode confirmation bias?"

That's the million dollar question. I think that we are all guilty of subscribing to programs and information sources that we already basically agree with.

As for education, I think there is no question that more (correct) information is invaluable. I also feel that the more educated a person is (NOT FORMAL EDUCATION), the more likely they are to rethink their opinions and make informed decisions. That's a whole other post thought.

I would also add that my reference to the "scientist" was only to point out the importance of being analytical. Formal training RE-taught me how to be analytical - everyone of us as children spout an endless stream of "why" and other questions. Somewhere in the maturation process we lose that innate curiosity. So, once again, the "intellectual" needs not be a college grad, but only a student of society. Likewise, the "scientist" doesn't have to play with chemicals and cells, but only take a look at a situation and ask a few searching questions in hope of discovering the truth.