How Do You Know What You Know You Know
(And various other musings which no one is making you read, so why are you?)
I was recently contacted by one of those survey companies. You know the ones. They speak with a false accent and call just before dinner. This particular survey was about the oil spill down in the gulf, and my feelings towards several different oil companies. The survey had basically three categories:
2) What are your political beliefs?
3) Where do you get your information?
They offered that trite, very old, loathsome dichotomy of: “Are you Conservative or Liberal?” I replied I was a Conservative Liberal with Liberal Conservative leanings; which isn’t particularly the case, but given the choice between being shot or hanged, I chose both, and just hoped my answers would reflect badly on them all. I told them I got my information from the internet and talk radio (What is T.V. anyway?) Though I do read the newspaper just so I can believe the opposite. I didn’t tell him that.
When asked about the oil companies, I was surprisingly diplomatic. I had no opinion whatsoever, except on BP, for whom I entertain a slight approval. Why, of all things, do I slightly approve of BP? Because all the information I have from the newspapers is negative. I would never, upon waking ask myself, “Do You approve or disapprove of these oil companies?” the thought never entered my head. But when I was asked directly, I said I slightly approved: and the reason for my approval was based on the disapproval of the paper. (I had heard nothing in regards to the other oil companies, so I hadn’t any opinion at all.)
After I got off the phone, I reflected on my answers. Is BP really a bad company? Or is it slightly virtuous as I had prescribed? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. And that is what disturbs me: I was basing my opinion on information which I assumed was false; therefore I believed the opposite. In doing so I have created another false dichotomy: If the paper says it’s true, it isn’t, and vice versa. Now, this may be a good strategy when playing cards, but there aren’t only two options when reading the paper, and there are many ways to lie.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe (in most cases) in the general truth of the reported story: There is fighting in Rwanda. Five people were killed in a shooting in such and such a town. A boat in Singapore was sunk. So far, so good. But when it comes to the particulars, therein lies the trouble.
Sometimes Media outlets (for whatever reason) are just plain wrong. You are dealing with fallible reporters. Regarding my local paper, any time I have had first hand knowledge of the story, there is almost always something wrong. Either the name of the person is incorrect, or the familial relationship has gotten completely wrong (so that the cousins are the children, or something similar), or the remarks are misquoted. Granted, I can only make this distinction when I have specific knowledge of the particulars of the story; but it does make one question the rest of the paper. Remember the mining accident in West Virginia, when it was reported that 12 of the 13 miners survived when in fact only one survived? A thing does not become true just because someone printed it. That is why it is important to check the source. (For reporters as well as readers)
If a story does not cite any sources, you are left with taking someone’s word for it, and that can prove interesting. One highly amusing instance of this very problem was underlined by Snopes.com’s lost legends page. The page contains made-up stories about topics ranging from Mr. Ed the horse being a zebra to Mississippi state legislature removing fractions and decimal points from public secondary school’s math curriculum. One of the stories tells of the children’s poem ‘sing a song of sixpence,’ and how it was really a code for pirates. At the bottom of the page is a link to find out more. This link takes you to a page informing you that what you have just read is entirely a fabrication. This particular story of nursery rhyming pirates was picked up by the T.V. show Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed as a true tidbit. What makes it worse is that the intent of the Lost Legends piece was to get people to check their sources, and not just take a perceived authority’s word for it.
But aside from that is the intentional coloring of the news, or implication. Words are powerful things; they have meaning. (if you deny that I should like to see you try and disprove it without using words) I can think of no better way to illustrate this than by relating and old joke I once heard.
‘You can’t put that in the Log! It only happened once. People will think I am a hopeless drunk!”
The captain would not relent. A few weeks later the captain was absent ashore for several days, so it fell to the Mate to write the log.
He wrote: “The Captain was sober today.”
Think about it. When the FLDS group in Texas had their children taken away by CPS in 2008, how was their housing referred to in the press? It was called a compound, which conjures up images of some sort of fortifications.
1. A building or buildings especially a residence or group of residences, set off and enclosed by a barrier.
2. An enclosed area used for confining prisoners of war.
Now, they may live in an enclosed area. And in the strictest sense of the word it could be considered a “compound.” But that word tends to be used in a rather severe manner, such as the second meaning “An enclosed area used for confining prisoners of war.” ( I have never heard of a gated community being called a compound, although strictly speaking one could refer to it as such.) In the strictest of the strict definitions, that was true. But does it really matter? When it is reported that there are beds in the temple of the FLDS group in Texas, what is the first thing that happens? People begin speculating what kind of religious sex rituals took place. I would note that the court mandamus says:
So what was all this about beds in the temple? I have no idea. Evidentially, the court didn’t either.
This ties in with my last reason for distrusting news media.. Someone has to determine what to print. How do they decide? Peter Hammond (Biblical Worldview Summit, The Battle for the Mind in the News Media) relates this story:
That pretty much sums it up. If the person on the other end of the news feed does not have a firm commitment to what is true regardless of what they think about it, can you honestly expect anything differing from their deeply held convictions to come out the other end? As Mr. Hammond also noted, even the most objective journalist collects more facts than they publish. Someone has to make a judgment call on what to print.
But why does all this matter? Does it matter if the paper is not quite reliable? Does it matter that media outlets report there is tribal warfare in Rwanda, ignoring completely the holocaust is mainly a slaughter by Marxist ideologues? Essentially, what I am asking is: “Does truth matter?” How will the truth or error of a story affect you? Because how you think informs how you act. If you are convinced of the truth of the report that the Germans are cutting off hands of little babies, and impaling them on bayonets, you may be more inclined to join in the fight, perhaps send money to further the cause. If you are convinced that a particular prescription drug is safe/unsafe, your actions will be informed by that belief. You can type in just about any public figure, minister, or politician in a search engine and come up with varied stories extolling their virtues, to stories speculating their alcoholism, infidelity, or maybe their support for segregation or some other controversial issue. This is especially damning if the individual has something to say. “Oh yes, I know all about that guy. He is a crack pot who thinks segregation is good.” And then I ignore the rest of what he is saying based on my incorrect view of who the man is. (I would point out that is the old ad hominem fallacy, but that is another story.)
So how do I tell if BP is a good oil company, following safety procedures properly, doing all they can to stop the spill? The ideal situation would be to talk to someone with first hand knowledge of oil spills, oil wells, B.P., and the like, but I don’t have that opportunity. I am left with second, third, or forth hand information, or maybe even a reporter’s fancy. All I can do is decide whether or not I believe the source. What will I do? I suppose I could very well just think ill of oil companies, newspapers, government officials and everybody in particular. But if my goal is to believe and be informed by that which is true, that is a poor substitute. For now, I shall gather my information from sources trusted and not so trusted, (keeping in mind that everyone, including myself, has their bias) and try to discern what is fact and what is fiction based on a very limited knowledge of the world, and a huge dose of cynicism. My being correct might not change the world. But it might shake it up a bit.