Summary: We have magnitudes greater access to information and analysis than any previous generation. Yet a look at the comments section of any website quickly shows that the information highway runs in vain. A reader asks how can we do better?
“Nietzsche said the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life.”
— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1988)
“News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”
— attributed to Alfred C. Harmsworth (1865–1922), British newspaper magnate
- A serious problem of our time
- Don’t listen to amateur analysis
- Start with the views of major institutions
- About government agencies & NGOs
- There is always another side
- Check the history of the experts you rely upon
- How to follow an issue
- The big challenge
- What can you do to make a difference?
(1) Email from a reader about a serious problem of our time
I have been spending the past few days reading posts as well as comments, and cannot help but feel jaded from the divide I see between your strong opposing forces.
I am disillusioned and not sure what to believe now of the scientific community. I always thought there was a dignified but unified dialogue between educated individuals. I can see now that even the peer reviewed journals that I trusted can be interpreted any which way. My question is – how do I, as a concerned American and student, cut through the noise to the raw data?
I’m not sure what to believe anymore.
It’s a serious problem. Gallup’s annual poll of our Confidence in Institutions shows a long collapse in confidence in everything but the military and police.
For good reason. Our ruling elites have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations: we are gullible. We love lies. Slowly this knowledge spreads, and more people learn that lies work — and the truth becomes a disposable commodity. As a result Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda.
So what can we do to see through the flak to the truth?
(2) Don’t listen to amateur analysis
It might be correct, but you and I — as laypeople — cannot tell fact from fiction. Journalism differs from amateur analysis; it reports the analysis of experts (rather than the reporter doing his own).
For an example of this rule’s importance, see Should we listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?
(3) Start with the views of major institutions
You’ll often need to dig, since activists often work to mask more authoritative views. An journalists often highlight activists, with their vivid confident messages, over the grey but solid information from relevant institutions. The views of institutions is seldom definitive, and often wrong; but these are the sources to base your learning upon.
That’s true in the climate wars. For climate change, we have the work of the IPCC, UK Met Office, NOAA, etc. They’re expanded their outreach programs, becoming both relevant and easy to understand. Unfortunately, both Left and Right have abandoned them as insufficiently alarmist and politically inconvenient. They make guest appearances, like the Pope, as useful; but both tend to rely on other sources for analysis and prediction.
Examples of climate activists ignoring the IPCC:
- The IPCC gets better. Climate alarmists freak-out.
- The IPCC gives us straight talk about Extreme Weather
- The IPCC rebukes the climate doomsters. Will we listen?
- The IPCC releases its advice on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. To be attacked from both sides.
An extreme example of activists keeping us ignorant of the pause in surface atmosphere warming. Scientists and major climate agencies saw it as early as January 2013. By now mention of it is a commonplace in peer-reviewed research and reports of the major climate agencies. Scientists explore the causes of the pause and forecast its duration. Activists still deny it.
You’ll have to search to learn both sides of the debate, as one side is often buried amidst the noise in the news.
(4) Government agencies & NGO’s outside their area of expertise
Everybody loves to hop on the bandwagon of hot topics. DoD, Wall Street firms, World Bank, the IMF — they are attention whores. Fame and funding go to those who push the public’s hot buttons. They have cubicle warriors who can Google up the necessary factoids and assemble authoritative-sounding reports. Global cooling, peak oil, global warming they eventually show up at the party.
These reports are useful but by nature confirm the established wisdom. Outside of their areas of expertise they’re just reporters. That they join the parade of consensus thinking does not validate it.
(5) There is always another side to the debate
Again you’ll have to search for it. Experts are the people who can state both sides of the debate clearly. But they seldom do. Journalists should describe both sides, but they more often see their job as building a suitable narrative.
How do you know that you understand the issue, as an informed layperson? When you can describe both sides, so that advocates of both sides believe you understand what they’re saying. Now you can decide who you believe is correct.
(6) Check the history of the experts you rely upon
Journalists love experts who give clear and crisp sound bites that support the current narrative. A record of successful predictions is nice, but a record of wrong predictions is also fine. As we see in the latest Iraq crisis: we can Choose to follow those who were right about our wars, or those who were wrong. It’s a common problem.
The accuracy of economists and financial experts’ predictions are often exaggerated: Looking back at claims to have predicted the Great Recession, 8 April 2014.
Peak oil research is largely a series of false predictions, often made over decades But they’re still experts!
- Myths about Peak Oil – part I: There are not enough petro-engineers! , 15 November 2007
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off , 8 May 2008
- Poor peak oil research, more evidence of a serious problem with America’s vision, 5 May 2009
- If humanity is unprepared for Peak Oil, here are some of the guilty people, 11 May 2010
(7) How to follow an issue
It’s essential to find reliable sources on both sides of the issue. They can be experts or reporters. Avoid people who lie to you.
- A time-saving tip when reading the daily news
- Suggestions for your daily info diet. You are what you read!
- Economics can help understand events in America and the world. Here’s where to find those answers., 16 February 2010
Some examples of how I work this process:
- Sources of reliable information about the Gulf Oil Spill, 4 May 2010
- Sources of information about the situation in Egypt, 6 February 2011
(8) The big challenge
Reading experts is only the first step to gaining knowledge, not the end of that road. Unfortunately, experts as a class might be fading as useful resources in our complex rapidly changing world.
- Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?, 21 June 2013
- Do we face a future without confidence in experts?, 25 September 2013
(9) What can you do to make a difference?